Look up tonight and you’ll see a waning crescent Moon, and, every few minutes, shooting stars falling from the sky. The Lyrids meteor shower peaks on April 21, and if light pollution is low in your area, you can expect to see around 10 meteors per hour—maybe more if you escape to the countryside.
WHAT IS GOING ON UP THERE?
The Lyrids—named for the constellation Lyra from which they seem to originate—are the happy result of the Earth slamming into the debris of the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher (named after its discoverer, not the former British prime minister). But don’t worry: Thatcher isn’t a danger! As it flies about its four-century-long orbit around the Sun, particles fall away. It’s perfectly normal shedding, resulting in an annual evening-time spectacular.
Thatcher is a long-period comet; such comets have orbits longer than 200 years. At aphelion—that is, its farthest point from the Sun—Thatcher is at a distance of 110 astronomical units (AU). To put this in perspective, the distance from the Sun to the Earth is 1 AU. The distance from the Sun to Pluto is about 40 AU. The very farthest-known natural, observable object in the solar system, V774104, is presently 103 AU. So Thatcher has put in a lot of work to make tonight's light show happen. I hope you appreciate it. This meteor shower is 415 years and 21,225,138,770 miles in the making. If that’s not good enough for you, nothing is.
HOW DO I SEE THE LYRIDS?
Sometimes, the Lyrids deliver a mind-blowing show. Its first reported occurrence was reportedly so bright and busy that it drowned out the stars. In 1982, it reached 90 meteors an hour. Ordinarily, however, the meteor shower produces five to 20 meteors every hour. Don’t miss this chance to see them, because when it comes to dust-sized cometary particles vaporizing in Earth’s atmosphere at 30,000 miles per hour, you just never know how good the show will be.
The best time to see the Lyrids will be after midnight until just before dawn. While you wait, check out Jupiter, bright and unblinking in the south. If you have a telescope handy, or even a reasonably powered set of binoculars, you’ll easily see four of its moons: Europa, Ganymede, Io, and Callisto. You can also see Saturn to the southeast (though this isn’t the best time for viewing it). As dawn approaches, look east and you’ll see Venus up there, as bright as ever. (It reaches greatest brilliancy on April 30.)
To enjoy the Lyrids meteor shower, you won’t need binoculars or a telescope or anything, really, but a blanket and patience. Since it’s a Friday night, bring a bottle of wine. You’re not going to live forever. Because the Moon will be but a sliver, it won’t wash out the sky with moonlight. So Thatcher and the Moon are doing the heavy lifting here. All you have to do is show up and wait.