This year's Lyrid meteor shower is expected to peak between midnight and dawn on Tuesday, April 22 (and possibly Wednesday, April 23d). Here's what you need to know to spot as many meteors as possible.
Above: The 2012 Lyrid meteor shower, as seen from aboard the International Space Station. The flashes of white light are emanating from meteors burning up over Earth in the planet's atmosphere. Credit: Don Pettit/NASA
Avoid Light Like the Plague
We're talking all kinds of light. City lights, street lights, house lights, flashlights, any lights. This year, the Lyrids are competing with the light of the waning Moon – it's still more than half full, and will already be giving off plenty of light as it is, so don't blow your night vision by checking your indiglo watch out of habit, and DON'T LOOK AT YOUR PHONE. It is a well-known fact that backlit cellphone screens were put on this Earth to ruin meteor showers.
If you're in the country, go find a big open field. If you're in the city, get out if you can. If you can't get out, try to find a high point. Try to block the Moon behind a hill, a building, or some trees.
These measures can make a HUGE difference. The pictures featured here compare the night sky as seen from two points in Utah located just 75 miles apart. The difference? The bottom photo was taken in a major metropolitan area, the top photo a rural town. (See more info here.) The Clear Sky Chart website has a great list of optimal viewing locations organized by state, so go check it out.
Once you're all settled in, give yourself at least 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adapt to the dark. How do you know if your eyes have adapted? A good rule of thumb says if you can see all seven of the Little Dipper's main stars you'll see plenty of meteors. If you can't spot all 7 it's not a big deal, you'll probably only spot that many under optimal conditions.
Know When and Where to Look
The Lyrids are a notoriously unpredictable bunch. Sometimes this shower peaks at just 20 meteors per hour, but they're also known for really bringing the awesome when you least expect it. On a good year, during what's known as an "outburst," stargazers have been fortunate enough to spot upwards of 100 Lyrid meteors per hour during peak stargazing hours. Again: The Lyrids are competing with the light of the Moon this year, so you're probably not going to spot that many – but you're still liable to spy a decent number of shooting stars so long as you're prepared.
As for when to watch: The activity for this year's Lyrids spans April 16th through the 25th, the jury's still out on when, exactly, they'll peak. Though most agree your best bet will be early morning Tuesday, April 22, some say early morning Wednesday, April 23rd, will be when the shower is at its most prolific. Either way, you're going to want to watch in the hours between local midnight and sunrise.
As for where to look, that depends on who you ask. Some people will tell you to look towards the radiant, from which the shooting stars will appear to emanate. The Lyrids will appear to emanate from the constellation Lyra, near the bright star Vega. Here's what you should be looking for, looking to the northeast in the pre-dawn hours of April 22:
Image Credit: Universe Today/David Dickinson, Created Using Stellarium
It's important to bear in mind, however, that meteors' trails tend to be shorter the closer they are to the radiant. Your best bet is to probably just look straight up, or to face away from the moon, keeping in mind that meteors can appear anywhere in the sky.
If you'd like to join local experts in tonight's viewing, try searching for your neighborhood astronomy club. Find out whether they'll be setting up a telescope you can peek through with friends.
Clouds ruining your skygazing? Watch it live online right here, with Slooh, starting at 5:00 PT on April 22:
Bring the Right Stuff
Bring a reclining lawn chair, a blanket and some pillows. It's spring, but it's still cold in the early morning and you probably won't be moving around a whole lot, which means you need to dress warm: a beanie, gloves, thermals and a coat should do the trick — whatever you need to get comfortable and still keep your eyes on the sky.
Bringing hot chocolate and/or coffee is strongly encouraged. Don't try to stand. Standing and looking up may seem like a decent enough idea, but eventually your neck will get tired, and the second you take your eyes off the sky is invariably when the brightest meteors of the night will go blazing by — it's like a code that all meteors live by. If you absolutely HAVE to look away, make sure it's for something awesome like taking a sip of hot chocolate.
You shouldn't really need a telescope or binoculars, because you'll want to keep your eyes on as much of the night sky as possible. Bring something to snack on, but nothing you have to look at to eat. And finally, bring some good company, so you have somebody to "ooh" and "ahh" with while stargazing on this beautiful spring night.