April may not have been the best month on record, but the upcoming Lyrid meteor shower promises to be a bright spot — literally. The 2020 edition of the annual astronomical event is set to be especially majestic, as the relatively dim light of the new moon will allow those of us looking up at the night sky to see 10 to 20 shooting stars per hour without drowning out the show.
When and Where
The shower takes place between the 16th and 25th of April each year, and the Lyrid's radiant (read: where it appears to emanate from) is the Lyra constellation — also known as the harp constellation. This year’s shower will peak in the early hours of Wednesday the 22nd. The Lyrids have been observed since at least 687 BCE, making them one of the oldest-known meteor showers; they’re fast, too, traveling up to 30 miles per second.
The best way to take part in this spectacle is simple: go outside in the predawn hours of April 22, preferably as far from light pollution as possible (while still being mindful of social distancing, of course), and find a comfortable spot to lie flat on your back. Don’t use a telescope, as the Lyrids are best observed via the naked eye. Bring a blanket for comfort, point your feet eastward, and allow some time for your eyes to adjust to the darkness — that's when you'll really start seeing the meteors, which last until dawn.
How and Why
The Lyrids, which like all meteors are composed of matter from asteroids and comets, have their origin in a comet named C/1861 G1 (Thatcher) that was first discovered in 1861. The particular star within Lyra from which they appear to originate is Vega, the constellation's brightest star and one of the brightest in the night sky, period.
Don’t fret if you can’t catch a glimpse of this shower, however, as another one is quite literally on the horizon: the Eta Aquarids, which begins on April 19 and is set to peak on May 5-6, before ending on the 28th. More prominent moonlight will make it less spectacular, especially for those in the northern hemisphere, but its origins in Halley’s Comet give it a special place in the heart of many a stargazer.