It seems that most of the prominent annual meteor showers happen in late summer through the end of the year. Thus we’ve never previewed any events here from winter into spring. So meteor enthusiasts won’t feel deprived, this month we provide details on a well-known but seldom observed meager display worth watching.
The Lyrids have always been associated with spring, though few skywatchers have bothered to look for them. Their peak display of 20 shooting stars per hour can’t compare with the 100 or more of the Perseids and Geminids. But that’s still one every three minutes on average. This year it reaches maximum activity on the evening of April 22nd into the morning of the 23rd. (It actually remains active from the 16th to the 25th.) And there will be no bright Moon to spoil the display as so often happens with all showers since it will be near its New phase.
Setting your Scientifics Star and Planet Locator for 9 p.m. or so, you will see a bright stars just popping up over the northeastern horizon if you have an unobstructed view in that direction. Otherwise set the chart for an hour later. That bright star is Vega, the constellation Lyra’s lucida. The third brightest star in the northern sky, it looks like a radiant blue-white diamond. Lyra itself consists mainly of a distinctive little parallelogram seemingly attached to Vega. This is the
general area where the shower radiant is located. However, meteors are best seen some distance
from the actual radiant. So the best vantage point is to look overhead while reclining on a lawn
chair or a blanket on the ground (rather than trying to stare overhead while standing – which is sure to give you a sore neck after a few minutes!). This position allows you to have an “all-sky” view so you won’t miss meteors looking in just one direction.
While not a major shower, the Lyrids are famous for leaving bright dust trails lasting several seconds or more, so be prepared for them. And if you stay up late, you will notice that there are more shooting stars after midnight and they tend to be brighter than earlier in the evening. That’s because before midnight the meteors from the radiant have to “catch up” to our spinning Spaceship Earth, while after midnight we are turned into and facing in the direction they are coming from. As a result, they slam into the atmosphere at higher speeds, making them brighter as they burn up in our atmosphere.
The mild nights of April are a refreshing relief from the cold ones of winter. This is an ideal time to get back into the swing of leisurely stargazing and there is no better way to start than to watch the Little Lyrids!
— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.