Lyrid meteor shower: What it is and how to see it in the UK | Tech News

The 2023 Lyrid meteor shower is peaking (Picture: Getty Images/EyeEm)

This spring has been an absolute blockbuster for stargazers – and it’s about to get even better with the Lyrid meteor shower about to peak.

From the Venus-Jupiter conjunction that saw the two planets ‘kiss’ to comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) whizzing by visible to the naked eye and multiple dazzling displays of the Northern Lights across the UK, our skies have been replete with celestial treats.

And it doesn’t stop there, because the annual Lyrid meteor shower is upon is.

Every year, Earth passes through a trail of celestial objects left in the wake of Comet Thatcher, lighting up the skies as meteors crash into the atmosphere.

That gorgeous glow is the result of the meteors travelling so fast – at about 30miles per second – that the air particles in front can’t get out of the way in time. Instead, they’re rapidly compressed and start to heat up, raising the temperature around the meteor to as high as 1,600C – causing it to shine brightly as it streaks across the sky.

Occasionally a meteor will survive this fiery entry and fall to the ground – thus becoming a meteorite.

The Lyrid meteor shower is the oldest recorded meteor shower still visible today, first noted in 687BCE. Its name comes from the Lyra constellation, where they appear to originate from in the sky – but in reality have nothing to do with the distant stars.

Long exposures capture dazzling images of the shower (Picture: Getty)

When is the best time to see the Lyrid meteor shower?

This year, the night-time spectacle began on April 14, and will continue until April 30. The shower will be at its maximum this weekend, April 22 and 23.

Jake Foster, astronomer at Royal Observatory Greenwich, recommends staying up as late as you can up until the early hours if you want to catch it.

‘The Lyrid meteor shower will emanate from the constellation of Lyra, which in the UK will rise from the northeastern horizon at approximately 9pm,’ he says. ‘The later you wait, the higher the radiant point will be in the sky, increasing the number of shooting stars you can expect to see. 

Comet Thatcher

No, it wasn’t named after Margaret. 

As is traditional, the comet – officially known as Comet C/1861 G1 (Thatcher) – was named after the person who discovered it, in this case A E Thatcher.

In comet naming convention, the C means Thatcher is a long period comment, and is not expected to return to the inner solar system in less than 200 years. The comet was discovered in 1861, while G indicates the first half of April (so A and B in January, C and D in February and so on), and the 1 means Thatcher was the first comet discovered in that period.

Source: Nasa

‘The best way to see the meteor shower is to wrap up warm and head outside on the night of April 22 after midnight, find a dark site with an unobstructed view of the sky and face towards the east.

‘The meteors will spread across the sky, so fill your view with as much of the sky as possible. Lying on a blanket or reclining on a deckchair can make the experience much more comfortable.’

The 2022 Lyrid meteor shower captured over London (Picture: Simon Robling/Getty)

The maximum comes just after the New Moon, so the skies will be darker, helping the shower stand out.

For Londoners, spotting the meteor shower is slightly more tricky given the light pollution, but Jake recommends heading to one of the capital’s parks – but to take note of closing times, as many are locked at night.

When is the next meteor shower?

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The Eta Aquariids meteor shower overlaps with the Lyrid shower by almost two weeks, starting on April 19 but peaking on May 6. This shower is associated with Comet Halley, which last passed Earth in 1986. It will return in 2061.

After that, stargazers will have to wait almost a month until the Alpha Capricornids shower, which starts on July 3 and reaches its maximum on July 30.

There’s more up there than meteors

The Milky Way above The Sound on the Isle of Man (Picture: Brook Wassall)

International Dark Sky Week is also underway, raising awareness of the harms of light pollution and helping people to discover the night sky.

Howard Parkin, co-founder, and vice-chair of the Isle of Man Astronomical Society, shares his top tips for viewing two of our neighbouring planets.

‘The very bright Venus dominates our evening skies above the western horizon, while Mars, although not as bright as Venus, will also be visible in the southwestern sky and is distinctively red in colour,’ says Howard. 

‘Mars forms a distinct triangle of red objects, with the star Aldebaran in Taurus (representing the Bull’s bloodshot eye) down to the right. Below left is Betelgeuse, at the upper left of the constellation Orion, the hunters. All three will be easy to identify thanks to their distinctive red colour.’

On getting the best view of our galaxy, the Milky Way, he says: ‘Stargazing enthusiasts in the British Isles may set their sights on the Milky Way above the horizon from southwest to northeast. It is at its most prominent in the north-western sky. To spot the spectacular view of the Milky Way you’ll need to find a dark location. The Milky Way can only be seen when there is little or no moonlight, making International Dark Sky Week the perfect chance to see the Milky Way stretching around the horizon.’

Howard adds: ‘The Isle of Man is the only entire nation in the world to be designated a Unesco Biosphere, and this, combined with the Island’s low levels of invasive light pollution, makes the Island one of the best locations in the British Isles to stargaze.’

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