The annual Lyrid meteor shower returns to the night skies this month, marking one of the first major meteor showers of 2021. Provided you know where and when to look, if you gaze up at the night sky it should be possible to see a Lyrid meteor tonight.
But what is the Lyrid meteor shower, and when is the best time to see it?
The Lyrid meteor shower occurs every year around 14 – 30 April, and in 2021 the peak is going to occur at 2pm BST (1pm UTC) on 22 April. The Lyrid meteor shower 2021 will be best observed on the nights of 21/22 and 22/23 April.
This year the Moon will be bright in the night sky, which will negatively affect our chances of spotting a meteor, so the best time to see a Lyrid meteor is probably between moonset and dawn.
You don’t need a telescope or binoculars or any fancy equipment to see a meteor shower: in fact these would narrow your field of view and lessen your chances of seeing one.
Ideally all you need to spot a meteor shower is good eyesight, a dark sky away from light pollution, some patience and, if possible, good company.
For more info, read our meteor shower guide.
What is a meteor shower?
We see a meteor in the sky when a small particle – on average about the same size as a grain of sand – vaporises in Earth’s atmosphere. The path of light across the sky is known as a meteor trail.
Most meteor showers are associated with comets, but some are linked with asteroids, such as the geminid meteor shower, which is associated with 3200 Phaethon. As a comet repeatedly orbits the Sun, it spreads dust around the orbit.
Earth passes through these dust streams as it orbits the Sun, causing particles to vaporise in the atmosphere. When this happens, the number of trails we can see increases.
We experience peak activity of meteor showers when Earth is passing through the most dense section of the stream.
Meteor trails appear to come from a specific area of the sky, which is known as the ‘radiant’. This slowly moves over the duration of the shower.
The constellation in which peak activity appears to occur is what gives each meteor shower its name. You might have heard of the Perseid meteor shower, for example, which shows peak activity when the radiant is in the constellation Perseus.
For more on this, read our guide What causes a meteor shower?
How to see the Lyrid meteor shower
Lyrid meteors appear to emanate from a point in the sky within the Lyra constellation, which is known as the radiant (more info above).
- Find a dark location, free from stray light, but be sure to observe lockdown rules
- Use a garden chair, recliner or sunbed to avoid neck strain caused by looking upwards for long periods
- Wrap up warm, even if temperatures are fairly mild at the session’s start
- Give your eyes at least 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness before you start a watch
- Locate the radiant – the constellation of Lyra – and look away from it rather than directly at it.
- To find Lyra, use a stargazing app or locate its bright star Vega, which will be high in the eastern sky around peak activity.
- If you see a ‘shooting star’ streaking away from this point, you’ve seen a Lyrid meteor
If you do have to observe from your back garden, you could politely ask neighbours to turn off any lights etc. to help make conditions as dark as possible.
You could even tell them what you are doing and get them to join in from their garden. See how many you can spot and compare notes the following day.
How many Lyrid meteors will you be able to see?
Peak activity of the Lyrid meteor shower normally results 18 meteors per hour, and elevated rates have been observed in the past, but this figure is what’s known as the Zenithal Hourly Rate.
Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) is a way of comparing meteor showers and isn’t intended to represent expected visual rates.
It refers to the amount of meteors you might expect to see over the course of an hour during the peak, assuming the radiant is directly overhead and you are observing under a perfectly clear, dark sky and no visual obstructions.
In 1982’s Lyrid meteor shower a peak ZHR of 90 was recorded. Bursts do happen, but it’s worth remembering the caveats surrounding these figures.
Iain Todd is BBC Sky at Night Magazine’s Staff Writer.