The 2021 Lyrids Meteor Shower

Location of the Lyrids radiant on April 21st/22nd, looking northeast. (Astronomy Now)

Look up! The Lyrids Meteor Shower has begun on April 16th and will continue through April 25th. We’ll be moving through the peak of the Lyrid Meteor Shower on April 21st into the 22nd this week!

What is the Lyrid Meteor Shower?

According to NASA, the Lyrids, which peak during late April, are one of the oldest known meteor showers. Lyrids have been observed for 2,700 years. The first recorded sighting of a Lyrid meteor shower goes back to 687 BC by the Chinese.

The Lyrids are known for their fast and bright meteors, though not as fast or as plentiful as the famous Perseids in August; Lyrids can surprise watchers with as many as 100 meteors seen per hour. Sightings of these heavier showers occurred in 1803 (Virginia), 1922 (Greece), 1945 (Japan), and 1982 (U.S.). In general, 10-20 Lyrid meteors can be seen per hour during their peak.

Lyrids frequently leave glowing dust trails behind them as they streak through the Earth’s atmosphere. These trains can be observable for several seconds.

Where Do The Meteors Come From?

The Lyrid meteor shower is active each year around April 16th through 25th, with a peak around April 22nd. Meteors appear to radiate from their namesake constellation, Lrya. (Sky & Telescope)
The Lyrid meteor shower is active each year around April 16th through 25th, with a peak around April 22nd. Meteors appear to radiate from their namesake constellation, Lrya. (Sky & Telescope)

The pieces of space debris that interact with our atmosphere to create the Lyrids originate from comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher. Comet Thatcher was discovered on 5 April 1861 by A. E. Thatcher. The comet is expected to be visible from Earth again in 2276.

Their radiant—the point in the sky from which the Lyrids appear to come from—is the constellation Lyra, the harp. Lyrids appear to radiate out from the star Vega—Vega is the brightest star within this constellation. (Helpful Hint: Vega is one of the brightest stars in the night sky and is easy to spot in even light-polluted areas.) The constellation of Lyra is also where we get the name for the shower: Lyrids.

It is actually better to view the Lyrids away from their radiant: They will appear longer and more spectacular from this perspective. If you do look directly at the radiant, you will find that the meteors will be short—this is an effect of perspective called foreshortening.

Note: The constellation for which a meteor shower is named only serves to aid viewers in determining which shower they are viewing on a given night. The constellation is not the source of the meteors.

Meteors come from leftover comet particles and bits from broken asteroids. When comets come around the sun, the dust they emit gradually spreads into a dusty trail around their orbits. Every year the Earth passes through these debris trails, which allows the bits to collide with our atmosphere, where they disintegrate to create fiery and colorful streaks in the sky.

The Lyrids Peak

Meteor showers are very predictable events, so astronomers know exactly when you have the best chance of seeing them.

The shower usually peaks around April 22 and the morning of April 23. Counts typically range from 5 to 20 meteors per hour, averaging around 10. In 2021, the peak of the Lyrids is expected on the night between April 21st into April 22nd.

As a result of light pollution, observers in rural areas will see more than observers in a city. Nights without the Moon in the sky will reveal the most meteors. April Lyrid meteors are usually around magnitude +2. However, some meteors can be brighter, known as “Lyrid fireballs,” cast shadows for a split second and leave behind smoky debris trails that last minutes.

Conditions for Viewing

Where to look in the sky during the peak of the Lyrid Meteor Shower (timeanddate.com)
Where to look in the sky during the peak of the Lyrid Meteor Shower (timeanddate.com)

You can look up at the night sky nearly every night this week to see if you can catch a glimpse of a meteor, as visibility is expected to be excellent. Generally, the best times for viewing will be between 11:00 PM and sunrise, which is generally from 6:17 PM through 5:51 AM this week.

The Lyrids are best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere during the dark hours (after moonset and before dawn). Find an area well away from the city or street lights. Come prepared with a sleeping bag, blanket, or lawn chair. Lie flat on your back with your feet facing east and look up, taking in as much of the sky as possible. After about 30 minutes in the dark, your eyes will adapt, and you will begin to see meteors. Be patient—the show will last until dawn, so you have plenty of time to catch a glimpse.

But, there are impediments for viewing in Trinidad and Tobago.

Firstly, light pollution is a major issue in most populated areas across Western and Northern Trinidad and the Western half of Tobago. Unfortunately, there is little you can do about this beyond traveling into darker areas such as parts of Northern Coastal Trinidad or Eastern and Southern parts of the island.

Secondly, a full moon is approaching, with the full moon reaching its peak on April 27th, 2021. It will also be a supermoon. During the peak of the Lyrids, the moon will be illuminated between 67.5% and 77.6%, but the good news is that moonset in T&T is expected at 2:17 AM on the 22nd. This would mean that between 2:17 AM and sunrise would be your best times to catch any of the Lyrids fireballs streaking across the night sky.

Weatherwise, an occasional cloudy night is forecast, as odd low-level cloud patches that briskly move across the islands, bringing brisk isolated showers. Between these cloud patches, mostly clear skies can be expected.

Look Toward the Northeast

Lyrid meteors radiate from the constellation Lyra. (EarthSky.org)
Lyrid meteors radiate from the constellation Lyra. (EarthSky.org)

You can use an AR app like Night Sky on your smartphone to track down the constellation. The best place to look is to the north and north-northeast and near the horizon, gradually moving higher into the skies as the night into morning progresses.

It’s Meteors – Not an Asteroid to Comet

Down-to-earth Journey of a Meteor Image: Space.com
Down-to-earth Journey of a Meteor Image: Space.com

It may be self-explanatory, as it is literally in the name of the shower, but the “shooting stars” you may see in the skies over the next several nights are meteors.

The terminology of these space objects matter, as a meteorite would have impacts to land, while a meteor does not.

Have you ever wondered what’s the difference between a meteor and a meteorite or an asteroid, meteoroid or comet? Here are the answers to all your questions regarding Meteor Terminology. Image: Vincent Perlerin/AMS

Meteor and meteorite strikes are more common than you might think. Dust-grain size meteoroids strike the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly, but they often go unnoticed. Meteoroids between a millimeter and a centimeter burn up in the atmosphere and appear to us as shooting stars.

Larger strikes are less common—a one-meter meteoroid strikes the Earth once each year on average and would reach the ground as smaller debris, while a 100-meter meteoroid strikes the Earth approximately every 10,000 years, according to a Tufts University fact sheet. Meteoroids over 1 kilometer hitting Earth are catastrophic events that occur every 1 million years on average.

Meteoroids do not discriminate where they land, nor where they enter the earth’s atmosphere. Hence, it is well within the possibility that events such as this could happen across Trinidad, Tobago, or any other Caribbean islands.

But medium-size strikes can be dramatic spectacles—and in some cases, dangerous. The Chelyabinsk meteor that struck southern Russia in February 2013 blew out windows and caused indirect injuries to almost 1,500 people.

Tips for Viewing

via EarthSky.org

1. Realize that this shower rises gradually to its peak. Few meteor showers are a one-night event. You could start tonight!

2. Be aware of the time of moonset each night. As much as possible, in the weeks between now and the peak, you’ll want to be out looking after moonset. 

3. Watch in the hours before dawn Most meteor showers are best after midnight, and the Ursids are no exception. After midnight, the part of Earth you’re standing on has turned into the meteor stream, which means the radiant point for the shower will be above your horizon.

4. Avoid city lights. This should go without saying, but just a reminder. A wide-open area – a field or a lonely country road – is best if you’re serious about watching meteors.

5. Camp! Nothing beats a set-up before the night begins. Of course, you’ll never see as many meteors in the evening as you will after midnight, but – if you are watching during the evening hours – you might catch an earthgrazer, which is a slow-moving and long-lasting meteor, traveling horizontally across your sky. Earthgrazers might be seen even in bright moonlight. They tend to be seen in the late evening or around midnight.

6. Make yourself comfortable. Sprawl out upon a reclining lawn chair, with an open sky view. Bring along a blanket or sleeping bag. Your eyes can take as long as 20 minutes to adapt to the dark, so give yourself at least an hour of observation time.

7. Watch with friend or friends, and try facing in different directions so that if someone sees a meteor, that person can call out – “meteor!” – to the rest.

8. Notice the meteors’ speeds and colors, and watch for meteor trains.  A meteor train is a persistent glow in the air, left by some meteors after they have faded from view. Trains are caused by luminous ionized matter left in the wake of this incoming space debris. They linger for a moment or two after the meteor has gone.

9. Embrace the night. We hear people bubble with excitement about seeing meteors in all sorts of conditions – moon or no moon – city lights or no city lights. So, camp out and make a night of it! Read more.

Check out other stories on celestial events.

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