The annual Lyrids meteor shower is underway with peak activity on the evening of April 21st. With no Moon to spoil the party conditions will be ideal for observing them this year assuming those pesky clouds stay away. The best times to view the shower are as late as possible, close to midnight or in pre-dawn skies when the Lyra radiant is at its greatest elevation. However, you don’t need to look at the radiant to see shooting stars as they’ll appear to come from all directions.
What Causes a Meteor Shower
Meteors are the fine dust and particulates left over from comets and large asteroids which stray into our solar system. Some of these are on predictable orbits and as they whizz around the Sun they melt and shed some of their material into space. The Earth then travels through these large dust trails as it orbits the Sun, producing predictable meteor showers. The Lyrids are generated by Comet Thatcher, which has a 415 year orbit.
Observing the Lyrids
You don’t need any special equipment to view a meteor shower, in fact binoculars or telescopes will just narrow your field of view. Grab a deck chair or camping mat and (if it’s cold) a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone, with family and friends, or if you have children they’ll love an excuse to get outside for some after dark play.
Put away any lights or bright mobile phone screens and simply look up and wait. Remember it takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to fully dark adapt and any exposure to bright lights will start the process all over again. If you need a light, red LEDs or touches are best for preserving you night vision.
For optimal viewing, head out late at night or in the darkness of the pre dawn sky., when the radiant is highest in the sky.
Don’t Expect Too Much
You need to be patient with meteor showers. Sometimes you’ll see many and other times very few or none at all. Think of it as a great excuse to get out under the stars and breath in some fresh air. Even if you don’t see much you probably won’t regret heading out and looking up. Very rarely meteor showers can erupt into storms, like the Leonids in 1833 when over 100,000 shooting stars criss crossed the night sky.
Photographing the Lyrids
If your have a DSLR camera and tripod, or a suitable phone app like NightCap, you could try capturing some meteors with this rough guide.
- Firmly attach your camera or phone to the tripod.
- Disable autofocus and manually focus on some bright stars (make them as small and pin point as possible in your viewing screen)
- Set an ISO range somewhere between 1000-3000 depending on the capabilities of the sensor. Mid 1000s is a good middle road.
- Turn off noise reduction or you’ll get big delays between each shot.
- Point your camera at a high and clear part of the sky.
- Shoot long exposures ranging from 10s to 30s, or simply use a remote shutter to take long manual exposures. Note: don’t go crazy with very long exposures or you’ll get amp glow from the sensor.
- Take lots and lots of shots and be patient!
If your camera has a time-lapse feature you can automate the shooting process and tell the camera to continually shoot 30 second exposures over a long interval. Just watch out for dew forming on the lens if conditions are cold. Some hand warmers stuffed into a sock wrapped around the lens will solve this particular issue.
Good luck and clear skies!