There will be shooting stars and a chance of fireballs early on April 23 when Earth busts into space dust left by an ancient comet.
Will you see a shooting star streak across the night sky this month? The oldest meteor shower of all, the Lyrid meteor shower, begins in mid-April and continues for nearly the rest of the month. If there are no clouds where you are, and you're under a reasonably dark sky, expect this annual celestial event to bring visible shooting stars on average every three to six minutes.
When is the Lyrid meteor shower?
This April meteor shower happens every year. The 2018 Lyrid meteor shower will take place between April 16 and April 25, but it's due to reach peak activity on the night of Sunday, April 22 and into the early hours of Monday, April 23. The rate is expected to be around 10 to 20 shooting stars per hour, which makes it a medium-brightness shower. However, just occasionally the Lyrids can unexpectedly surge to 100 shooting stars per hour. Will that be this year?
What time is the meteor shower?
Although the 2018 Lyrid meteor shower peaks on April 22-23, there's a rule of thumb for stargazers that applies to all meteor showers: look after midnight. Since that's when your location will be firmly on the night side of Earth, the sky will be at its darkest and the shooting stars will be appear at their brightest. However, since April 22 will see a first quarter moon in the sky until 1:46 a.m. EST, the chances of seeing Lyrid meteors will be highest between around 1.30 a.m. EST and dawn.
Where can I see the Lyrid meteor shower?
For the Lyrid meteor shower, where to look in the night sky is not hugely important. As the name suggests, the meteors appear to come from the small constellation of Lyra, the harp, which is rising in the eastern sky at dusk. That's called the radiant by astronomers. By moon-set, Lyra is halfway up the eastern sky, so ideally placed to gaze at without straining your neck. However, it's not so important to fixate on Lyra because shooting stars can appear anywhere in the night sky.
Can't find Lyra? It's easy to find because its brightest star, Vega, is the second brightest in the entire northern hemisphere night sky. Look east and you can't miss it.
What locations are best for the Lyrids 2018?
Anywhere with a clear, dark sky. Both can be hard to find at this time of year depending on where you live. However, light pollution — including moonlight — can considerably dim all meteor showers. Picking a dark sky site is doubly important for Lyrid meteors because they tend to be rather faint, but anywhere out of town with low horizons will work well. As usual, the western U.S. will have a clearer view of the Lyrids meteor shower, with a higher chance of a clear sky in April.
What causes the Lyrid shooting stars?
Shooting stars occur when our Earth travels through a cloud of debris and dust particles in the solar system. When that dust collides with the Earth's atmosphere, it heats up and glows momentarily as shooting stars. Occasionally one will glow extra bright, and that's called a fireball. They occur rarely and last just a few seconds, so patient shooting-stargazers will have the best chance.
In the case of the Lyrid meteor shower, the dust and debris was left by comet Thatcher, which orbits the sun every 415.5 years and was last in the solar system in 1861. It will return in 2276.
When is the next meteor shower?
After the meteor shower in April 2018 is over, the next will be the Eta Aquarids meteor shower. That begins on April 19 and last until May 28, peaking on the night of May 5 and into May 6. Again, just after midnight until dawn will be the best time to observe shooting stars.
Wherever you go for a glimpse of the Lyrid meteor shower, wait until the moon is down, grab a lawn chair, resist the temptation to look at your smartphone (its white light will completely ruin your night vision), and sit back and wish upon a shooting star.