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The Lyrid meteor shower is a burst of meteor activity and will occur between 14-30 April, peaking on the 22-23 April. The best time to see the shower is in the early morning of the peak day (23rd). Wait until after midnight when the radiant (R on the chart), in the constellation of Lyra, will have risen in the East. The later in the morning you wait, the higher the radiant will rise and the fewer meteors will be hidden below the horizon. But the closer you get to sunrise the brighter the sky is going to become, so plan accordingly!
Night sky chart showing the radiant for the Lyrids meteor shower in the constellation of Lyra
Meteors are small chunks of debris typically left in the wake of comets. When the Earth passes through this trail of material, some of it gets caught in Earth’s gravity and enters the atmosphere. The falling objects are moving at very high speeds (about 110,000 mph) and the air in front of them cannot get out of the way, so it compresses and heats up. Which in turn heats up the meteor to temperatures as high as 1600 ̊C, causing it to glow as it streaks across the sky. Most meteors are very small, little more than dust grains, so they burn up completely in the atmosphere.
Comet Lovejoy passed through the inner Solar System in 2015; comets tails are typically between 600,000 to 6 million miles long and leave behind a stream of debris. Image credit: Damian Peach
Orbit of Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which at is greatest distance from the Sun (10 billion miles) takes it into inter-stellar space. The inset shows the inner Solar System and Earth, once a year passing through the orbit of Comet Thatcher, where it encounters the trail of debris left behind as the comet passed through the inner Solar System in 1861.
The Lyrid meteor shower is associated with Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, a long-period comet that last passed by Earth in 1861 at a distance of 30 million miles and is expected to return to the inner Solar System around 2276. It is the oldest recorded meteor shower still visible today, and was first recorded in 687 BCE.
The Perseids meteor shower from Bordeaux, Guernsey in August 2016. Image credit: Jean Dean
To watch the meteor shower, wrap up warm and find a dark location with a comfortable perch and let your eyes adjust to the dark, which takes about 20 minutes. While the Lyrid meteors will be visible all across the sky, look towards the East for the radiant (R), which is very close to the unmissable bright star Vega.
Also look out for the Summer Triangle asterism (noticeable pattern of stars) which comprises Vega, Deneb and Altair. This large triangle straddles the Milky Way; a dense band of stars and dust lanes that snakes across the sky and is the core of our Milky Way galaxy. The reappearance of this triangle after its winter absence, rising above the horizon in the early hours, is a welcome herald of the summer to come.
You can view the live images of Guernsey’s night sky on the La Société Guernesiaise Astronomy Section website: https://www.astronomy.org.gg
Dr Jean Dean
Secretary Astronomy Section of La Société Guernesiaise.