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Lyrid meteor shower: Leftovers of Comet Thatcher

The Lyrid meteor shower peaks in April and has been observed for more than 2,700 years. Here the Lyrid meteor shower is photographed on top of Hatu Peak, Shimla, India.
The Lyrid meteor shower peaks in April and has been observed for more than 2,700 years. Here the Lyrid meteor shower is photographed on top of Hatu Peak, Shimla, India. (Image credit: Nitish Waila via Getty Images)

The Lyrid meteor shower peaks in late April. While the shower is not as flashy as others during the year, the Lyrids have been known to have unusual peaks of activity. A typical shower displays between five and 20 meteors an hour at the peak, but some of the more spectacular shows have 100 or more meteors an hour.

In 2022, the shower will pass by Earth around April 14-30, and the peak is expected to be on the night of April 22.  

Chinese astronomers recorded the shower as far back as 687 B.C., according to NASA. The source for the meteors is Comet Thatcher, which was discovered by amateur astronomer A.E. Thatcher on its last closest approach to the solar system in 1861. The comet is expected to return in 2276. 

Related: Lyrid meteor shower 2022: When and how to see it 

Historical Lyrid meteor shower sightings

The Lyrids have been chronicled in many cultures over the past 2,700 years. Chinese astronomers noted prominent displays in 687 B.C. and 15 B.C. Also, in 1136, a report from Korea chronicled the shower with the words "many stars flew from the northeast," according to Space.com's skywatching columnist Joe Rao.

In 1803, residents of Richmond, Virginia, went outside late at night after a fire alarm. A report from that time noted that the meteors resembled rockets in the sky.

"Shooting stars. This electrical [sic] phenomenon was observed on Wednesday morning last at Richmond and its vicinity, in a manner that alarmed many, and astonished every person that beheld it. From 1 until 3 in the morning, those starry meteors seemed to fall from every point in the heavens, in such numbers as to resemble a shower of sky rockets," wrote a journalist at the time, in an account republished on Space Weather (opens in new tab).

NASA stated that similarly, impressive shower sightings took place in 1922 in Greece, 1945 in Japan, and 1982 in the United States.

The radiant of the Lyrid meteor shower is located near the Hercules-Lyra border. (Image credit: Future)
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Where are the Lyrids found?

The Lyrids look like they're coming from Vega, a bright start in the constellation Lyra, which the meteor shower is named after. The "radiant" point is easy to spot in the summer sky because Vega is one of the brightest stars, making it visible even in spots with light pollution. The meteors, however, are best viewed under dark skies.  

Lyra's location:

– Right ascension: 19 hours

– Declination: 40 degrees

– Latitudes: Between 90 and -40 degrees

NASA recommends that skywatchers go outside after Lyra rises (after 9 p.m. local time), and after moonset, to watch the show, which runs until dawn. Allow 30 minutes for eyes to adjust, and look away from the radiant, where longer and more spectacular meteors will be visible. Gazing at Lyra directly will show short meteors due to a phenomenon known as foreshortening.

While the Lyrids are not the brightest ones out there, NASA said the meteors "are known for their luminous dust trains, which can be observable for several seconds." A typical meteor from that shower moves about 30 miles (49 kilometers) per second.

Although the shower appears to come out of Lyra, the meteors are chunks that have sloughed off of Comet Thatcher.

Related: How to photograph meteors and meteor showers

Comets disintegrate as the sun's heat causes ice and other debris to break off from the core. This leaves a trail of rubble in space. In the case of Thatcher's path of debris, the Earth runs into it once a year and produces the sky show known as the Lyrid meteor shower.

It's hard for astronomers to predict which years will produce more spectacular showers, the North American Meteor Network noted in a report from 1999 (opens in new tab).

"The orbit determination relies heavily on photographic and radar results, which are seldom obtainable every year — hence gaps in the data and our knowledge of the shower," the network wrote. "Studies of the years with higher Lyrid activity have found, however, that outbursts of fainter meteors occurred prior to the normal meteor maximum."

Additional resources

Explore the Lyrids in more detail with NASA Science (opens in new tab). Read more about the Lyra constellation with this article from In-The-Sky.org (opens in new tab). Learn about Comet Thatcher – the source of the Lyrids – with this NASA Science article (opens in new tab).  

Bibliography

Fisher, Willard J. "Records of the Lyrid meteor shower of 1803. (opens in new tab)" Popular Astronomy 39 (1931): 256.

Branham, Richard L. "Do comets C/1861 G1 (Thatcher) and C/1861 J1 (Great Comet) have a common origin? (opens in new tab)." Revista mexicana de astronomía y astrofísica 51.2 (2015): 245-251.

Hajduková, M., and L. Neslušan. "Modeling the meteoroid streams of comet C/1861 G1 (Thatcher), Lyrids. (opens in new tab)" Planetary and Space Science 203 (2021): 105246.

Zhilyaev, B. E., et al. "High-frequency photometric changes in meteor's wake of Lyrid shower. (opens in new tab)" 22 International scientific conference Astronomical School of Young Scientists. 2020.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.

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