Lyrid Meteor Shower

From January until April each year the night sky lacks any significant meteor activity. A strong meteor shower can be a spectacular sight in which numerous shooting stars appear to fall to Earth. The Lyrid meteor shower is an erratic shower that takes place each year between April16 and April 26. In recent years the shower has been disappointing, but in some years it has been spectacular. The Lyrid meteor shower was spectacular in 1982, 1922, 1803 and in 687 BC. In 687 BC Chinese astronomers said that the “stars fell like rain”. On April 20, 1803 the residents of Richmond, Virginia woke to a great fireball. In 1982 over 90 meteors were observed in the peak hour, and for a few minutes nearly 300 meteors were visible.

Scientists remain unable to predict whether a meteor shower will be spectacular. The 2012 Lyrid shower could be insignificant, but could equally be one of the most spectacular. During the year, viewing conditions are good, The peak time for viewing should be late on the night of April 21 or early in the morning of the 22 April 22, This is the time when the Earth passes through the tail of the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher which is though to be the source of the meteor shower. Viewing for several nights before and after April 21/22 should also be worthwhile. The best viewing conditions are in a night sky free from optical pollution. A rural observer can expect to see more shooting stars than an urban observer. The good news is that the peak viewing date in 2012 coincides with a new moon which will minimise the background moonlight.  

As with all meteor showers the Lyrids are named after the constellation from which they appear to descend, This of course is a pure observational phenomena, the stars in a constellation have no scientific association with one another whatsoever. The Lyrids are made even more striking because they appear to come from close to Vega, a very bright star in the constellation of Lyra.

The fireball seen in Richmond in 1803 is a peculiar quirk of the Lyrid shower, Sometimes the shower gives rise to very bright meteors which can cast brief shadows upon the Earth and leave a smoky trail that lingers for several minutes.

C/1861 G1 Thatcher is a long period comet that was discovered simultaneously in 1861 by A.E.Thatcher who was a professor in New York and Carl Wilhelm Baeker, a watchmaker and amateur astronomer.