This April the sky has treated us to many gorgeous sights; sights we really need right now, even if it's just to get us to step outside and look up. But it's not done yet. The Lyrids meteor shower is among the upcoming celestial spectacles still to dazzle. From today until April 25, the annual meteor shower will streak across the sky, peaking on April 21-22.
The Lyrids is not the most prolific of showers, but it is consistent, with about 20 meteors per hour visible across the sky. However, every sixty years or so the shower gets a boost. The last time it happened in 1982, observers counted around 90 shooting stars per hour at its peak.
The reason for this occasional surge is to do with the origin of the Lyrids. These meteors are the trail of debris left by Comet Thatcher in its path around the Sun. The comet spirals inwards every 415 years (next time it will be in 2276, so alas I think we'll miss it) but the gravitational influence of the planets pushes the wake of debris square into Earth’s orbit every 60 years, boosting the event for one season.
The Lyrids is one of the oldest known meteor showers. Among the most incredible showers in history, the most impressive is the peak of 1803, when up to 700 meteors an hour were witnessed raining down by a journalist in Richmond, Virginia. A spectacular event was reported in the Zuo Zhuan, an ancient Chinese narrative history, that described a Lyrids meteor shower as the "stars fell like rain" in 687 BCE. This meteor shower is even mentioned in Australian Indigenous Astronomy.
So, where to see it and when? The northern hemisphere is the best place to see the event, but people in the southern hemisphere will still get a chance to spot shooting stars, ideally after midnight but more likely before dawn on April 22, looking north.
If you aren't able to catch this free sky show, worry not, there’s still another great event happening this month. The planet Venus will be showing off for us at the end of this month. On April 28, the Evening & Morning star (the ancient Greeks thought it was two separate stars, which of course it is neither) will be at its brightest, so after sunset look towards the west or look to the east just before sunrise. You absolutely won’t miss it.
Quarantine or not, if you've got access to a window, garden, or front porch, you should be able to catch sight of these beauties putting on a show. When you do, think of all the other people looking up at the same objects. Self-isolation doesn't mean we are alone.