Meteors, or, as they’re sometimes known, shooting stars, are one of the most magical sights in the night sky. People all over the world make wishes when they see one! Catching a glimpse of that elusive streak across the sky can seem a difficult task, but they are actually more common than you might think. It just takes the most important tool in an astronomer’s toolkit: patience! This month, learn how you can observe the Lyrids meteor shower.
The average background meteor rate on any given night is about 4 per hour, but sometimes we can see more. This is when it’s possible to observe a meteor shower! And the best thing about it – you don’t need any fancy equipment. The Lyrids will have a maximum of 15 meteors per hour, so while you still might need to wait, you can see more than usual.
What is a meteor?
Objects from space travelling through the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed create meteors. The immense heat created from friction with the molecules in our atmosphere begins to burn up the object – this is the bright streak that you see. It’s also the same reason spacecraft returning to Earth must have heat shields. Most meteors are very small, so take only a second or two to burn up completely.
Meteors range in size from dust particles to hunks of rocks tens of metres large. Anything bigger than this is classed as an asteroid, but the size is really the only difference between the two. Don’t worry about being hit by one though – most meteors are very brittle so burn up easily.
If a piece of a meteor or asteroid does manage to survive our atmosphere, it may land on Earth, becoming a meteorite. Mostly these are very small and pose no threat to our planet, but very occasionally, they can cause noticeable effects, like Meteor Crater in Arizona or the Tunguska Event. An asteroid 10-15 km across caused the extinction of the dinosaurs – that’s roughly the size of Manhattan!
What is a meteor shower?
Don’t be scared to go outside – the Lyrids can’t hurt you! Like many meteor showers, we can see them at the same time every year, so we know what to expect. Why is this?
This is where it’s useful to note the difference between meteors and comets. A comet is an object that orbits the Sun periodically, leaving a trail of debris in it’s wake. We can predict the path of a comet, as it will follow an oval-shaped orbit around the Sun. But meteors and asteroids often float aimlessly through space, sometimes getting captured by a planet or moon and orbiting that. We can track them if they are close enough, and predict what they will do, but they aren’t regular like comets.
So how can we see meteor showers at the same time each year? It’s because these meteors come from the trail of debris left by a comet. The Lyrids parent comet is called C/1861 G1, or more commonly, Thatcher’s Comet. The Earth moves through this trail at the same time each year, and some of the debris is burnt up in our atmosphere, creating meteors. So while it seems the meteors are the ones moving, really it’s you!
Observing the Lyrids
The Lyrids are the oldest meteor shower recorded by humans. The ancient Chinese were fantastic record keepers, and some of their astronomers saw the Lyrids over 2,500 years ago. Since then, little has changed in cosmic terms, and we can see the same sight in today’s sky.
Meteors from the Lyrids will appear to originate from the constellation of Lyra, the point known as its radiant. They will appear to travel away from it, so this is the best place to look. Having said that, you can still see meteors all over the sky, so pay attention – you might see some out of the corner of your eye!
Meteor showers always have a certain time when they are best visible. Although the Lyrids can be seen from the 16th to the 25th April, they are most easily seen at their peak – in this case the night of the 21st/22nd April. Lyra is highest in the sky in the early morning, so for the best viewing you want to get up just before dawn!
Here’s a few things to remember when observing meteors:
- Find a spot away from light pollution, or turn off as many lights in the immediate vincinity as you can.
- Keep yourself warm – observing meteors can take a while, and British nights are cold!
- Lie down on the ground or use a reclining garden chair so you don’t hurt your neck.
- Be patient! You may have to wait quite some time to see a meteor.
So, now you know all about meteor showers, get out there and see it for yourself! Be sure to let us know how your Lyrids meteor shower goes. And if you’re looking for more observing opportunities, check out our Sky Notes page. Happy stargazing!