The spring is not usually the best time for meteors – shooting stars – but a welcome exception is the Lyrid meteor shower. These appear around the third week of April, with their peak on 22 April, and this will be a good year to view them, given clear skies, and as long as you’re prepared to wait until the early hours of the morning!
The Lyrids aren’t as prolific as some other showers, but given good conditions you could see one every few minutes. They have a theoretical hourly rate of 15–20, and that’s the number you’ll probably see quoted in the media, but in practice numbers will always be lower. That figure assumes perfect skies so that you can see even the faintest of meteors, and with the source of meteors – known as the radiant – overhead.
The best time to see the Lyrids will be after midnight. Don’t just peek out of the kitchen door for a few minutes after the News at Ten and give up because you haven’t seen any!
When to look
There is a broad peak in numbers, which this year will probably be around 6 pm BST, which of course is in daylight as seen from the UK. And the radiant is also low in the evening, and much higher in the early morning, so the early morning of Saturday–Sunday April 21–22 will probably be best. But the early morning of Sunday–Monday April 22–23 could also be good.
This year the Moon is at first quarter, so it will brighten the sky somewhat and drown out the fainter meteors. But it gets quite low down in the early morning, just as the radiant gets higher in the sky, and sets around around 3 am.
So the best time to see the Lyrids will be after midnight. Don’t just peek out of the kitchen door for a few minutes after the News at Ten and give up because you haven’t seen any! The best plan is to settle down in a garden lounger that allows you to see as much of the sky as possible – and wrap up warm, as it can get quite chilly at 3 am!
Where to look
Now, this radiant business. It is actually very close to the very bright star Vega, which is low down in the north-east in the evening and high in the east in the early morning. Don’t mix up Vega and Jupiter, even brighter but down in the south-east to south. Vega twinkles but Jupiter doesn’t. And there’s another equally bright star, Arcturus, well above Jupiter but with a yellowish tinge to it, whereas Vega is pure white.
Vega is in the constellation of Lyra, the Lyre, which is why these meteors are called Lyrids – they will appear to radiate away from this area. If you trace back the path of a shooting star and it seems to have come from close to Vega, it’s probably a Lyrid. There will be random meteors appearing as well, as happens all the time.
But the advice is that if you want to watch for Lyrids, don’t gaze directly at Vega, but look about 45º to its left or right – that’s two or three widths of your outstretched hand at arm’s length – and in mid sky, about 50º above the horizon. This is where the paths of the meteors are likely to be most noticeable.
And while observing, you can use the illustration at top to identify some of the other sights of the sky, including Saturn, Mars (which rises to the left of Saturn at about 3 am) and, if your site is dark enough, the glorious summer Milky Way.
Meteors are over so quickly that there’s no hope of snapping one as it appears. The only way to do it is to keep the camera shutter open for a long time in the hopes that one will cross the field of view. This is only really possible if you can control your camera manually for exposure time, aperture and focus, which usually means using a more advanced camera than a compact or phone camera.
In brief, fix the camera on a tripod pointing at a likely part of the sky and keep the shutter open for as long as possible for each exposure – 20 or 30 seconds if possible. The camera should be focused on infinity and the aperture fully open, on a wide-angle lens setting. Set the ISO rating as high as you can before the photos become too bright from light pollution or moonlight – ideally around ISO 800 or more. If the results are too bright at ISO 800 you’ll have to give shorter exposures. There’s plenty more information in our guide to photographing meteors.
Good luck – photos of Lyrid meteors are quite rare!