This year’s Lyrid meteor shower is expected to peak between midnight and dawn on Wednesday, April 22 and Thursday, April 23rd. Here’s what you need to know to spot as many meteors as possible.
Above: The 2012 Lyrid meteor shower, as seen from aboard the International Space Station. The flashes of white light are emanating from meteors burning up over Earth in the planet’s atmosphere. Credit: Don Pettit/NASA
We’re talking all kinds of light. City lights, street lights, house lights, flashlights, any lights. The moon, which is currently a waxing crescent, will set in the early evening, which will leave the night sky nice and dark. That means conditions are pretty ideal for spotting meteors, so don’t blow your night vision by checking your indiglo watch out of habit, and DON’T LOOK AT YOUR PHONE. It is a well-known fact that backlit cellphone screens were put on this Earth to ruin meteor showers.
If you’re in the country, go find a big open field. If you’re in the city, get out if you can. If you can’t get out, try to find a high point. Avoid street lamps when possible (or, take a page from astronaut Don Pettit’s book and hack them – RESPONSIBLY – with a laser pointer), and try to position yourself such that the moon is hidden from view behind a hill, a building, or some trees.
These measures can make an enormous difference. The pictures featured here compare the night sky as seen from two points in Utah located just 75 miles apart. The difference? The bottom photo was taken in a major metropolitan area, the top photo a rural town. (See more info here.) The Clear Sky Chart website has a great list of optimal viewing locations organized by state, so go check it out.
Once you’re all settled in, give yourself at least 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adapt to the dark. How do you know if your eyes have adapted? A good rule of thumb says if you can see all seven of the Little Dipper’s main stars you’ll see plenty of meteors. If you can’t spot all seven it’s not a big deal, you’ll probably only spot that many under optimal conditions.
The Lyrids are a notoriously unpredictable bunch. Sometimes this shower peaks at just 20 meteors per hour, but they’re also known for really bringing the awesome when you least expect it. On a good year, during what’s known as an “outburst,” stargazers have been fortunate enough to spot upwards of 100 Lyrid meteors per hour during peak stargazing hours.
As for when to watch: The activity for this year’s Lyrids spans April 16th through the 25th, but most agree your best bet will be the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, April 22 and Thursday, April 23rd. If you can only wake up early (or stay up late) for one, go with Thursday morning; astronomers can’t say exactly, but many expect this is when the shower will be at its most prolific. No matter when you watch, though, you’re going to want to keep your eyes peeled in the hours between local midnight and sunrise.
As for where to look, that depends on who you ask. Some people will tell you to look towards the radiant, from which the shooting stars will appear to emanate. The Lyrids will appear to emanate from the constellation Lyra, near the bright star Vega. Here’s what you should be looking for, looking to the northeast in the pre-dawn hours of April 22:
Image Credit: Universe Today/David Dickinson, Created Using Stellarium
It’s important to bear in mind, however, that meteors’ trails tend to be shorter the closer they are to the radiant. Your best bet is to probably just look straight up, or to face away from any stray sources of light, keeping in mind that meteors can appear anywhere in the sky.
If you’d like to join local experts in tonight’s viewing, try searching for your neighborhood astronomy club. Find out whether they’ll be setting up a telescope you can peek through with friends.
Clouds ruining your skygazing? Slooh, an online observatory, will be broadcasting live footage of the shower beginning at 5:00 PM on Wednesday April, 22.
Bring a reclining lawn chair, a blanket and some pillows. It’s spring, but it’s still cold in the early morning and you probably won’t be moving around a whole lot, which means you need to dress warm: a beanie, gloves, thermals and a coat should do the trick — whatever you need to get comfortable and still keep your eyes on the sky.
Bringing hot chocolate and/or coffee is strongly encouraged. Don’t try to stand. Standing and looking up may seem like a decent enough idea, but eventually your neck will get tired, and the second you take your eyes off the sky is invariably when the brightest meteors of the night will go blazing by — it’s like a code that all meteors live by. If you absolutely HAVE to look away, make sure it’s for something awesome like taking a sip of hot chocolate.
You shouldn’t really need a telescope or binoculars, because you’ll want to keep your eyes on as much of the night sky as possible. Bring something to snack on, but nothing you have to look at to eat. And finally, bring some good company, so you have somebody to “ooh” and “ahh” with while stargazing on this beautiful spring night.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.