Lyrids by Moonlight

It sounds like the title of a cheesy 1940s romantic film, but the Lyrid meteors are active between 16 and 25 April. And this year, moonlight will interfere quite badly with observations – though if you are persistent, and given the current settled weather, you could strike lucky and see a few of these shooting stars.

Lyrid photo
Lyrid meteor photographed by Paul Sutherland in 2018

While it is nothing like as prolific as better-known showers such as the Perseids, the Lyrid meteor shower should provide a few meteors an hour even as seen from suburban areas. This meteor shower is active each year and produces meteor whose paths when traced backwards appear to be coming from a small area of sky (the “radiant”) near the constellation of Lyra. The Lyrids increase meteor rates over the general background level for around a week. The highest rates are likely to be seen around midnight on the night of April 21-22 (Sun-Mon). So with Monday being a Bank Holiday, you can at least stay up late and get a lie in the next morning.

Lyrid meteors can be seen at any time of the night, but the best observed rates normally occur when the radiant (marked on the accompanying chart) is highest in the sky late in the night. But this year, with the Moon at 92% phase and starting to make its presence felt before midnight, observing earlier in the night might be more productive.

Lyrid radiant
The position of the Lyrid radiant moves from night to night, as shown by the red dots. This is the view of the sky looking east around 2.30 am BST

The peak Zenithal Hourly Rate for the Lyrids is usually in the 15-20 range. However, this applies only under ideal conditions, which certainly won’t apply this year, and  you won’t actually see that many Lyrids each hour. During the pre-midnight hours, from a reasonably dark observing location with a clear view of the sky, you may see 1 or 2 Lyrids per hour. Actual rates will be higher after midnight, but the Moon will become increasingly dominant, so reducing the chance of seeing meteors.

As always, don’t look directly at the Lyrid radiant as any Lyrids that appear in that area of sky will be have short paths against the star background and so will be tricky to spot. To observe the best rates, look at an area of sky around 30 degrees from the radiant and at an elevation of around 50 degrees above the horizon. Keep your back to the Moon in the southern part of the sky, so the ideal area to observe will be around Polaris.

And do remember to wrap up well. Despite the current warm weather, April nights can be quite chilly.