Astronomers, assemble! While having graced our skies throughout mid-April, the first major meteor shower of 2021 is about to hit its peak.
Known as the Lyrid meteor shower, up to 18 fast and bright meteors are expected to light up the night sky during the evenings of 21 and 22 April 2021.
However, there’s a catch: the glare from a near-full Moon (known as a gibbous Moon) will make the celestial spectacle harder to spot than usual.
So, what is the best way of making sure you see the Lyrid meteor shower? What causes it in the first place? And when exactly should you look for it? All of this (and more) is answered below.
When can you see the Lyrid meteor shower 2021 in the UK?
The Lyrid meteor shower will take place between 13-29 April this year.
However, it will be most visible during its peak: between 21 April and 22 April 2021.
What actually is a meteor shower?
A meteor shower is a collection of space debris known as meteors that become visible in the night sky as they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
This debris – normally dust from a comet or asteroid – is often only the size of a grain of sand. But despite being tiny, it can travel at tremendous speeds (up to 66km/s), ensuring it shines brightly in the atmosphere.
The Lyrid meteor shower is caused when Earth’s orbit crosses path with the debris trail left by the comet Thatcher. The shower has been observed by humans for over 2,500 years, but the comet itself hasn’t been seen since 1861 – Thatcher’s orbit around the Sun is so big it only crosses into the inner Solar System roughly every 415 years.
(In case you’re wondering: no, comet Thatcher is nothing to do with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Instead, it’s named after astronomer A.E. Thatcher, who first spotted the comet).
How can I see the Lyrid meteor shower 2021?
Don’t worry too much about searching for one particular point in space – Lyrid meteors will be visible all across the night sky. To give yourself a wide a field of vision, it’s best to ditch the telescope and rely on your eyes alone.
After spotting a few streaks of light across the sky, you’ll notice the meteors all originate from the same area: the constellation of Lyra, which contains the star Vega. To find the star, we recommend using a stargazing app such as SkyView Lite (free on Android and Apple devices).
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However, don’t spend your time looking directly at this exact area (known as the radiant) – meteors may originate from here, but they’re unlikely to be visible at this exact spot.
The later you stay up on the night of 21 April, the more meteors you’ll probably see. That’s because the radiant will appear higher in the sky and fewer meteors will be hidden behind the horizon.
Before trying to spot the shower, it’s best to let your eyes adjust to the darkness for at least 20 minutes (looking at your phone during this time could scupper your night vision). Keeping away from city lights will also help your visibility.
How many meteors will be in the sky?
The Lyrid meteor shower has a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 18. This means – you guessed it – you should be able to spot 18 meteors streak across the sky during the shower’s peak in good conditions. Unfortunately, due to the near-full Moon, fewer may be visible this year.
However, the ZHR is only an estimate. If you’re lucky you can spot a flurry of meteors. For instance, in both 1982 and 1922, astronomers were surprised to witness over 90 in a single hour. In other words: keep your fingers crossed.