It takes 415.5 years for a comet called C/1861 G1 Thatcher to do a loop around the sun. But every year in late April, our planet plows into the trail of dust the comet has left behind in its long journey. These bits of debris burn up in our atmosphere and stream across the night sky in bright streaks. It’s the Lyrid meteor shower, and it’s peaking tonight.
The Lyrids are so named because they appear to radiate out from the constellation Lyra. Humans have been watching them since 687 BC in China, according to Space.com’s Joe Rao.
On Monday night, Lyra will rise in the Northeast in the early evening hour, and then move overhead through the evening. It is pretty easy to spot, as it includes the star Vega, which is among the brightest in the night sky. You don’t need to be looking directly at the constellation to see the show, though, because the meteors will shoot out in all directions.
The best time to spot the Lyrids in the hours before dawn: That’s when Lyra will the highest in the sky. “Around 4 a.m. local daylight time is also about the time that the Lyrid radiant will be almost directly overhead from the southern United States,” Rao writes. Though a bright, nearly full moon might obscure some of the view. (Check out moonrise and moonset times for your area here.)
At the meteors’ peak, NASA estimates you may be able to see up to 20 per hour. But for the best meteor hunting, be sure to find a dark patch of sky, away from bright city lights. Just lie on the ground with your feet facing east, NASA recommends, and let your eyes adjust to the darkness (it may take about a half hour or so.)
When you spot a meteor, you’re seeing a speck of space debris reach about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it burns up in our atmosphere. Some meteors also leave bright trails behind them. That’s ionized gas (not unlike the light you see from neon lamps) glowing in the meteors’ wake.
The comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher won’t return to our neighborhood in the solar system until the year 2276. But take this as your annual chance to see some small part of it.