meteor in the night sky at dawn - Photo by averie woodard on Unsplash

The Lyrid Meteor Shower Lights Up the Dark Sky in April

The annual Lyrid Meteor Shower lights up the night sky in April, following the International Dark Sky Week, seemingly to prove its importance. Visible between April 16 and 25 in 2021 in the Northern Hemisphere, the Lyrids put up a brilliant show in the darkest skies, though as a lesser extent it might be visible even in cities.

If you look for meteors in a light polluted environment of a large city and you get frustrated seeing very few, you might want to go to a dark sky place and see the difference. Those of us living in Arizona are lucky to have quite a few dark sky places in the state, but hopefully you can find some relatively close to your home. Either way though, look up into the sky at least one night during this meteor shower.

The Lyrid Meteor Shower is not necessarily on of the larger ones of the year; it is a medium-sized one when it comes to the number of meteors. But it is known as the one that produces the most fireballs, brighter than ordinary meteors leaving a lasting streak across the sky.

What Is the Lyrid Meteor Shower?

First let’s start with meteor showers in general. What are they, and how often do they happen? Meteors are space rocks that enter Earth’s atmosphere, and as they burn up, they leave bright streaks of light behind. They are what we might also call shooting stars. Meteor showers happens when Earth passes through space debris, a number of these space rocks – left behind by comets.

To go even farther back with the explanation, comets are large space rocks, frozen leftovers from the formation of planets and the Solar System. Just like planets, they also orbit the Sun. However, since they are mostly frozen particles, as they get close to the sun, they partially fall apart and leave a long tail behind, made of dust, gases, and ice particles. These tails are filled with meteors.

Earth’s orbit sometimes intersects the orbit of these comets and meteors. When this happens, we see meteor showers. You’ll find a better and more in-depth explanation on the NASA website, if you’d like to read about comets and meteors.

The Parent Comet of the Lyrids

This parent comet of the Lyrids is called Thatcher after the person who discovered it. He recorded it in 1861 (thus it is also called C/1861G1), the first time ever as seen from Earth. Since its orbit is 415 earth years long, we don’t see this comet often – the next time it will be visible from Earth is estimated to be in 2276. But even though we don’t see the comet, we intersect its orbit every year.

And, while the meteors in this orbit burn up in Earth’s atmosphere about 60 miles up, we see them as if emanating from the constellation Lyra, farther than 25 light-years away (trillion times farther). But even though one has nothing to do with the other, Lyra offers a road map to look for these meteors.

The Lyrid Meteor Shower Seems to Emanate from the Constellation Lyra

Just as we looked for the Leonids in the constellation Leo in November and in Gemini for the Geminid meteor shower in December, you’ll have to look at the Lyra constellation for the Lyrid Meteor Shower.

The Greek Legend the Lyra Constellation is Named For

The Lyra constellation is named after the lyre, and ancient instrument associated in this case with Orpheus, representing the legendary instrument of Orpheus, the very first lyra ever made. According to the Greek legend, Hermes made this lyre from a tortoise shell and eventually gave it to Apollo as a gift exchange. Apollo in turn, gave it as a gift to Orpheus.

Orpheus and his harp are characters in many of the ancient Greek myths; among others helping Jason and the Argonauts escape the sirens, and attempting (and almost succeeding to bringing his wife back from the Underworld. After being killed by the Bacchantes for not honoring Bacchus, Orpheus’s lyre fell into a river. Zeus sent an eagle to retrieve it and placed them both (the eagle and the lyre) in the sky. This is why the representation of the lyre includes an eagle carrying the lyre in his beak.

How to Find the Lyra Constellation

To find Lyra, first look for its brightest star Vega – a blue-white star, one of the brightest in the northern sky. To find Vega, look to the northeast, low at the horizon around 9 or 10 pm (the time is the same, no matter where you are in the Northern Hemisphere), when it rises. Of course, like any star (and constellation), Vega makes its way across the sky, being overhead some time past midnight.

How to See the Lyrids

Though it’s good to know its radiant constellation, you can see a meteor shower without understanding it. However, you have better chances to see them if you know where to look. It’s helpful to know where the radiant is for the place to look for most meteors. The time the radiant constellation rises (in this case around 10pm) is generally earliest when you can see meteors, and you’ll see the most when the radiant is highest in the sky (after midnight in this case). Though rare, you might see one earlier very low on the horizon, called an “earthgrazer”, a long-lasting and slow-moving meteor that seems to graze the earth.

No matter where you are, the best time to see the Lyrid meteor shower is between midnight and dawn, when Lyra is highest in the sky, and after the moon sets. Obviously, the best place would be a dark sky place. You’ll have to be patient and look for a long time before you might see one. The Lyrid meteor shower is not a usually a dense one, with only about 10-15 per hour at its peak.

But it might have some outbursts, meaning close to 100 meteors per hour. One of the known latest outbursts happened in 1982, when observers in America saw close to 100 meteors per hour. Another spectacular thing about them is that many of them consistently leave trails, visible a few seconds after they pass.

It might not be the most spectacular overall, but the Lyrid meteor shower is one of the oldest recorded on the planet, seen and written about by the ancient Chinese in 687 BC. It is something to think about watching the same celestial event as people on this planet have watched over 2,000 years ago. Somehow it helps put things in perspective…

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