Amateur skywatchers will want to be looking to the sky in the coming days, with the Lyrid meteor shower peaking on the morning of Thursday, April 22. Interestingly, that’s also Earth Day. The meteor shower ends the four months of no meteors that range from January until April.
The Lyrid shower graces the heavens each year from about April 16 to the 25th and results from particle shed from Comet 1861 G1 Thatcher. Something interesting about that particular comet is that no photos of it exist because it last passed through the inner solar system in 1861. It takes 415 years for the comet to complete its orbit, and its next pass by the Earth will be in 2276.
While the comet hasn’t been close to earth since 1861, records of the Lyrid meteor shower date back approximately 2700 years. That means that the Lyrid shower is one of the oldest known meteor showers, having been first recorded in China in 687 BC.
The meteor shower gets its name because the meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Lyra the Harp near the bright star Vega. Some years, the Lyrids are very active, with the shower being known to produce as much as 100 meteors per hour. The meteor shower is not expected to be particularly active during 2021, but no one knows for sure.
The meteor shower occurs as Earth passes through the comet’s orbit and vaporizes debris in the atmosphere. The debris enters the atmosphere traveling at about 110,000 miles per hour. While that is an incredibly high speed, meteors in the shower are considered medium-fast. About 25 percent of Lyrid meteors will have a persistent train, an ionized gas trail that glows for a few seconds after the meteor has passed.
Meteors from this shower are known for their speed and brightness, and typically it produces at least 10 to 20 meteors per hour in the northern hemisphere. The best viewing time peaks in the predawn hours on Thursday, April 22, through the morning of April 23.