The Lyrid Meteor Shower is at its most visible this week — the peak was early Thursday morning but we will still have a chance to see meteors if we get up (very) early on Friday morning. It might seem unusual for astronomers to 'complain' about the moon but at the moment it is very bright which can make it more difficult to see meteors.
We got in touch with the team at Blackrock Castle Observatory to find out when and how to view this. Frances McCarthy, BCO education and outreach officer also has some great tips on how you might get a Lyrid photo.
These ones are the remains of Comet Thatcher, a comet that orbits the Sun every 415 years. It was discovered in 1861 (so is not due back in the middle of the solar system for another 225 years!). As comets approach the Sun they develop a tail and leave a trail of dusty debris in their orbit. The Earth crosses this debris trail every April — and that is what causes this meteor shower. The meteors are the flashes of light as the tiny grains of space dust burn up in our atmosphere. In space the grains are called meteoroids — the flash of light is the meteor and if the material survives passage through the atmosphere to land on the ground we call it a meteorite.
"Sizes range from tiny (grain of sand) to small (size of a pea). Most burn up in the atmosphere. The Lyrids are called for the part of the sky that the meteors radiate from. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but if you trace the path back, the paths appear to come from one part of the sky — near the constellation Lyra (with the bright star Vega in it). You don’t need to look for Lyra or know the constellations since the meteors may appear anywhere in the sky."
Frances says our best Lyrid viewing opportunities are "before dawn and after the moon has set (it sets at 5am, and the sun rises at 6.20am)".
She also said you don't have to have high-tech astronomy equipment to catch a look at this phenomenon.
"Look anywhere in the sky — eyes are better than telescopes or binoculars."
Frances recommends sleeping beforehand rather than staying up all night for these ones.
"Set your alarm for 4am or so. If it is cloudy, go back to bed.
"If it is clear, head out to the darkest area near you — if there are streetlights on one side of your house, go to the other side! Sit back (a reclining deck chair is good) so that you can see as much of the sky as possible. Relax and enjoy, once your eyes are dark adapted (15 to 20 min), and keep scanning around the sky for a chance for a shooting star."
"If you travel to your viewing area, make sure to park some distance away and walk in — there may be other people viewing the sky from there and you don’t want to ruin their dark adapted eyes with your car headlights. If you need a torch to see what you are doing/where you are going, put a red filter over it, this will affect your dark adaptation a bit less than a bright white torch."
Tania de Sales Marques, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, explained that the Moon will be in a waxing gibbous phase, meaning that it will be quite bright in the sky.
"The Lyrids have been observed as far back as 687 BC, the oldest known record of any meteor showers still visible today. It is a moderate shower with the occasional fireballs, nicknamed the Lyrid Fireballs."
There can be an element of luck here — Frances says you'll have to (metaphorically) keep your fingers crossed!
"Use a wide-angle lens. Use a tripod to avoid your camera shaking, work out your exposure time to avoid star trails but long enough to get a chance of a meteor. This depends on the focal length of your camera lens."
"Sometimes owning a telescope for solar viewing in Ireland feels a bit like owning a saddle for a unicorn but when we do get lucky with the weather it's an absolute joy!"
Lyrids duration is April 16 to 25, with best predicted for early morning April 22 and possibly April 23 so you can also try early on Friday.
"There are always some meteors — not associated with a particular shower, so even if you don’t see a Lyrid, you might see one of the random ones."
- There will be a partial solar eclipse on June 10. The moon will pass between Earth and the Sun, partly obscuring our image of the Sun. "This is one you have to be careful not to look directly at," warns Frances.
- There will be a Perseid Meteor Shower in August.
- Blackrock Castle Observatory is not open to visits at the moment but is running remote workshops via Zoom where students and visitors can use the planetarium software to explore and learn. bco.ie/events/
- The monthly column here on the Irish Examiner is a great briefing on upcoming astronomy events