Photo by 123levit/Fotolia
The most popular meteor shower is probably the Perseids meteor shower because it is one of the most active meteor showers and takes place in balmy summer weather. However, you can catch the oldest meteor shower on record as noted by the Chinese in 687 B.C.: the Lyrids, which peaks April 21 and 22, just in time for Earth Day.
Meteor showers are named for the constellation they radiate around, so the Lyrids shower is named after Lyra, the harp. If you know the tragic myth of Orpheus and his quest to save his beloved Eurydice from the underworld, this is his harp. If you don’t know the story, well…Only read it if you want a bit of a downer.
You don’t necessarily need to find Lyra to watch the meteor shower. Locating the harp makes it a lot easier, though.
“I want to make sure that I have a clear view of the bright star Vega,” says Robert Palmer, the secretary of the Minnesota Astronomical Society (MAS) and a PhD student in STEM education at the University of Minnesota. “It will be easy to spot after 2200 [10 p.m.] about 50º (five fists held at arm’s length) above the east-northeastern horizon on Sunday April 22.” If all else fails, orient yourself east.
Like all meteor showers, Lyrids occurs on a cyclical basis whenever the earth passes though a mass of particles during its orbit, in this case, the trail of the Thatcher comet. Stargazers can expect about 10-25 meteors per hour, and while this isn’t as high of a frequency as other showers, the timing is less important and because of Lyra’s position in the sky, viewing favors the northern hemisphere. (The most active Lyrids showers occur every 60 years: In 1982, there was almost a meteor every minute during peak, so mark your calendars for about 2042.)
Photo by tatishdesign/Fotolia
Where to Go
Meteors can show up anytime in the night, but once the half-moon sets after midnight, you’ll be able to see the sky much better. The longer you stay up, the more Lyra—and therefore the meteor shower—will be high and visible in the sky, too. We’re talking pre-dawn times for the most dedicated, so having a dark enough spot to watch can is key to making your late night worth it.
You don’t have to get far from the cities to be able to see the meteor shower as long as you have an open horizon without any bright or artificial lights. Athletic fields, parks, and places outside of the suburbs are usually good spots. Beware of private property or park hours, though. Consider car camping or getting out the tent (and the down sleeping bag) for spring camping at a campground for something out of the ordinary. Even if you don’t see a lot of meteors, you’ll have a fun night with friends and family. Resources like Dark Sky can also help people locate the darkest spots for some of the better viewing or photography opportunities.
No matter where you choose, having a group of people or observing on your own or a friend’s property helps prevent or mitigate any unusual situations that can pop up because of the late hours, Palmer says.
Another viewing option is a Saturday trip to the Eagle Lake Observatory in Baylor Regional Park, about an hour west of the Twin Cities, for MAS’ Astronomical League’s Astronomy Day. Starting at 1 p.m., the observatory will be open for viewing (yes, you can see Venus and Mercury early afternoon), and three speakers are slated throughout the day. At 9:30 p.m., there will be an outdoor laser pointer tour of the constellations and continued stargazing. Telescopes will be available to get a closer look at the sky, but don’t use it to try to see the meteor shower—a meteor will rarely go through your telescopes’ narrow view.
How to Watch
“Standing up, you’re only seeing half the sky, half the horizon,” Ron Schmit, a MAS member since the 1986, says. “What you want to do is lay back to see as much of the sky as possible. Many meteors will be coming right over your head. They come back around the star of Vega and the constellation Lyra, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only place they’re going to be.”
Schmit and Palmer recommend bringing whatever you need to recline on your back, like lounge chairs, blankets, or sleeping bags with pillows. Being in a group can make you feel more comfortable in the dark, but it can also keep you awake with midnight chats and story telling. Otherwise, as Schmit half warns, half jokes, if you’re lying down at 3 a.m., “that’s recipe for taking a nap.”
Most of the meteors won’t be brighter than the average star, so don’t continually turn on lights or phone screens—your eyes will never get adjusted to the dark enough.
The most important thing is to have patience. Watching a meteor shower isn’t an adrenaline-pumping, instant-gratification event. Its allure is in the peace of the night where, even if it’s not the biggest show, you’re outside in nature, possibly with someone you love, and slowing down life to fully appreciate all its wonders.
After Lyrids, the next meteor shower is the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, peaking May 6 and 7. Although it favors the southern hemisphere, because its rate of activity is slightly higher than the Lyrids—40 to 60 per hour for those on the equator—you still have a chance of seeing about the same amount.