Stargazers will have especially dark skies tonight to witness the thrilling spectacle of the Lyrid meteor shower as it coincides with a new Moon.
The annual event reaches its peak on 21 to 22 April with up to 15 meteors per hour – and the best time to watch is between midnight and dawn.
“We are short of good meteor showers at the start of a new year so the famous Lyrids come as a timely relief”, said Yorkshire-based astronomer Richard Darn. “It’s not the richest display, but you certainly have a decent chance of spotting a few every hour.
“The peak is overnight tonight, but they will be around for a few nights after too.
“These objects look spectacular, leaving a fiery trail as they burn up, but you might be surprised to learn they are caused by tiny grains of dust entering the earth’s atmosphere at the pacey speed of 48 kilometres per second! Hence the fabulous light show.
“Where does the cosmic debris come from? It’s left behind by a comet called C/1861 G1 Thatcher, and each spring the Earth intercepts the plume of litter it has left behind.
“The Moon will be absent tonight – which is good – so fingers’ crossed for a decent show. Areas most free from light pollution are best, and if you can stay up after midnight your chances increase.
“Look toward the east where you will spot the super bright star Vega rising. It dominates a small constellation called Lyra and, as the meteors seem to radiate from this general direction, they are called the Lyrids.
“You don’t need anything other than your naked eye to enjoy the shower, but do wrap up warm and be patient! Good luck!”
This is the first meteor shower since early January, so even though it is a relatively calm show compared to others, it is welcomed by sky watchers such as Go Stargazing’s Neill Sanders.
“Though the Lyrids aren’t the brightest shower observed by humans — the Perseids in August and Geminids in December both outshine them – it is one of the oldest, first recorded in China in 687BC”, said Neill.
“It is fascinating that even the brightest shooting stars are particles often no more than the size of a grain of rice.”
This is a fabulous activity to do while we are all staying safe at home. So look out your window, get on your doorstep or stand in your garden tonight and see how many ‘shooting stars’ you can spot.
Watch out, watch out, there’s a satellite or two about!
You may also spot what looks like a chain of lights crossing the sky – these are the 60 Starlink satellites launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX firm in March.
Their current orbital position has made them easier to see in recent days.
SpaceX’s aim is to create a network of 12,000 satellites to improve global internet coverage.
About our experts
Richard Darn is an experienced Dark Skies consultant who helped Northumberland National Park achieve its International Dark Sky Park status. Richard advises businesses and organisations on astronomy tourism.
The Go Stargazing website is created by a group of amateur astronomers all of whom are experienced in running stargazing events and keen to help promote astronomy to as wide an audience as possible. Neill Sanders is a former volunteer at Kielder Observatory.