Starwatch: Lyrids meteor shower returns to the skies


The Lyrids are a meteor shower that derive from the tail of the comet Thatcher.

Discovered by AE Thatcher in 1861, the comet is on a 422-year orbit of the sun and will not be returning to the inner solar system until 2283. Every year between 15 and 29 April, the Earth encounters the dust particles that it has left behind, with the peak of activity usually occurring on the night of 22 April, leading into the 23rd. The chart shows the view looking north-east from London at 22.00 BST on 22 April. The meteors radiate from the area labelled Lyrids and can shoot in any direction away from this point.

The shower typically offers between five and 20 meteors an hour, with most a respectable brightness – magnitude 2 – but a few rare cases becoming much brighter “fireballs”. Every 60 years or so, the Earth hits a particularly dense patch of the meteoroid stream and a Lyrid outburst takes place. In 1803, astronomers recorded up to 700 meteors an hour. The most recent outburst was in 1982, so another is not expected for a couple of decades yet.

From the southern hemisphere, the constellation will reach its highest point in the northern sky at about 2am.