The annual Lyrid meteor shower is currently underway, due to peak in the early morning hours of Sunday 22 April. This year the absence of moonlight should help with viewing, but unfortunately the forecast of cloudy skies across most of the UK may cancel that out.
The Lyrids are a reliable (if generally unspectacular) annual shower of bright fast meteors associated with the periodic Comet Thatcher. The shower gets its name from the constellation Lyra in the north-eastern sky (as seen from the UK), as this is the part of the sky from which the meteor trails appear to radiate.
Most Lyrid meteors are around magnitude +2 but some, known as ‘Lyrid fireballs’, are much brighter and cast shadows for an instant, leaving behind smoky trails of debris that can last several minutes.
The Lyrids usually only produce between 5-20 meteors per hour, but occasionally the Earth passes through a thicker part of the comet’s dust stream resulting in a more intense shower. In 1982 amateur astronomers counted 90 Lyrid meteors per hour, and in 1803 an even stronger ‘storm’ was observed.
The Lyrids were observed as far back as 687 BC, as recorded in the Chinese ‘Zuo Zhuan’ or Chronicle of Zuo, making them the earliest-known meteor shower.
The next major annual meteor shower is the Eta Aquarids, a light shower associated with Comet Halley and due to peak around 5 May.