After several slow months of meteoric activity, it’s finally here: the first major meteor shower of the year, the Lyrids! It’s the first good opportunity of the calendar year when you can see shooting stars streak across the night sky burning up as they enter earth’s atmosphere. That’s right: it’s almost time for the peak of the 2021 Lyrids meteor shower!
The Lyrids meteor shower is one of the more active meteor showers of the year, which is why it’s considered one of the 10 major meteor showers. Happening as the northern hemisphere passes through the spring season, the Lyrids meteor shower is popular despite its less frequent meteoric activity. The Lyrids meteor shower is not as bombastic as the summer Perseids and winter Geminids, but still a great astronomy event to mark on your calendar.
This year’s show will be less than ideal due to a bright moon, but if you have your heart set on seeing this year’s Lyrids meteor shower, read on for everything you need to know to see Lyrids meteors in 2021.
When to See the Lyrids
Like most meteor showers, there are two important sets of dates to keep in mind when you try to see the Lyrids:
- The Lyrids meteor shower occurs from April 16th to 25th each year; during this time, there is a varying amount of meteoric activity that you can see on any given night from the radiant point near the constellation Lyra.
- The Lyrids meteor shower will peak on the night of April 22nd in 2021. On this night, you’ll see the most meteoric activity.
When most people ask “when can you see the Lyrids,” they’re inquiring about the peak day(s) of the meteor shower – April 22nd this year.
Unfortunately, the 22nd will be in its Waxing Gibbous phase in April 2021. It will be 73% illuminated, which will interfere with meteor-spotting prospects.
The Peak of the Lyrids in 2021
Let’s break down the idea of a “peak” during a meteor shower further in case you’re not familiar with the term. Basically, when a meteor shower occurs, the earth passes through a stream of debris left by a comet or asteroid. In the case of the Lyrids, the debris which form the Lyrids meteor shower are left by the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which takes 415 years to make its orbit through the Solar System.
This trail of debris is more dispersed on the outer limits, and more densely populated with meteoroids near the middle. So when a meteor shower like the Lyrids begins (and ends), the meteor activity is less – the earth passing through a less dense part of the comet’s trail. As the earth approaches (and leaves) the more dense parts of the comet debris trail, the meteor activity gets more frequent. On those peak nights, we experience the greatest meteor activity since we’re passing through the densest part of the debris trail.
Astronomers describe the “greatest meteor activity” using a metric called Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR). This is the maximum (zenith) rate of meteors you’ll see in an hour.
All that is to say: the peak of the Lyrids will occur on April 22, 2021. On this night, the ZHR is an average of 18 meteors per hour! While this isn’t as active as the highly active Perseids and Geminids, it’s the first active “major” meteor shower of the year.
What are Lyrids Fireballs?
You may have heard that the Lyrids meteor shower sometimes produces “fireballs.” Most Lyrid meteors are usually around magnitude +2, which is roughly the brightness of the north star Polaris. However, some Lyrids burn brighter as they enter the atmosphere due to their size or composition. These are known as “Lyrid fireballs,” and can cast shadows for a split second and leave behind smokey debris trails that last minutes in the sky.
Where to See the Lyrids
When you ask “where can I see the Lyrids?,” again – there are two answers:
- The first answer is about where you can see the Lyrids in the night sky
- The second is about where you should go on earth to see the Lyrids
Let’s break each one down.
The Lyrids get their name from the constellation Lyra, which appears in the northern hemisphere near the constellations Cygnus and Hercules. If it helps, Lyra is located “to the right” of Cygnus, which is most recognizable for its cross-like bright stars. The reason the Lyrids are named after the constellation Lyra is that they appear to radiate from a point near the constellation; this is called the “radiant point.” Specifically, the Lyrids radiant point is near the bright star Vega.
So regarding the first answer to where to see the Lyrids, the answer is: near the constellation Lyra. As long as you can see Lyra above the horizon (use a star-finder app, like Night Sky), you should be able to see Lyrids meteors.
In terms of where on earth to see the Lyrids, there’s a lot of flexibility. Obviously, as mentioned, you need to be in the northern hemisphere, since Lyra is a northern constellation.
Also, it helps to be in a dark sky location, rather than near a city or town with bright lights. The darker the sky you can drive to, the better experience you’ll have! Here are more tips on seeing how to see the Lyrids this year.
Tips to See the Lyrids Meteor Shower
Here’s a quick list of tips to help make your Lyrids viewing a success:
- Find a dark sky location. If you can’t travel far, my urban stargazing guide is a good places to start. Use one of the city stargazing guides to find a place 1-2 hours from where you live, or peruse our World Space Tourism Guide to find dark sky places around the globe.
- Plan for a night during peak activity. As mentioned, the peak of the Lyrids will be around April 22nd so be sure to pick a night that weekend if you want to see the most activity.
- Look throughout the whole sky, rather than focusing on the radiant point. While the radiant point is helpful in trying to spot meteors, it’s actually better to scan the whole sky around the radiant point so you’ll see Lyrids as they streak away from that area.
- Bring layers. Though the Lyrids occur during the warming heart of Spring, it can still get chilly at night. Bring extra clothing so your night of spotting meteors isn’t affected by being cold!
Special Equipment for Viewing the Lyrids
You don’t need any special equipment to view the Lyrids meteor shower, which is great. A telescope and binoculars won’t really work because meteors move so fast as they enter the atmosphere – your eyes alone are good enough!
If you want to try and photograph meteors, here are some resources to help:
- Here is my list of the best cameras for astrophotography, based on any budget.
- I have a list of astrophotography tips that will help you get acquainted with all the mechanics of shooting photos at night.
In general, the best thing to do is find a shutter speed, aperture, and ISO setting that allow you to capture the stars and any meteors in the frame you’re shooting. You may or may not see meteors with your eyes, but if you have your camera settings right, they’ll show up in the photos! (Many astrophotographers discover meteors in their photos even on non-meteor shower nights!)
Do you have any other questions about trying to see the 2021 Lyrids meteor shower? Let me know in the comments!