The Curious History of the Lyrid Meteor Shower

The 2013 Lyrid meteors as seen from Windy Point Vista on Mt. Lemmon, Tucson Arizona. (Credit & copyright Sean Parker Photography. In the Universe Today flickr gallery).

Today we residents of planet Earth meet up with a meteor stream with a strange and bizarre past.

The Lyrid meteors occur annually right around April 21st to the 23rd. A moderate meteor shower, observers in the northern hemisphere can expect to see about 20 meteors in the early morning hours under optimal conditions. Such has been the case for recent years past, and this year’s presence of a waxing gibbous Moon has lowered prospects for this April shower considerably in 2013.

But this has not always been the case with this meteor stream. In fact, we have records of the Lyrids stretching back over the past 2,600 years, farther back than any other meteor shower documented.

The earliest account of this shower comes from a record made by Chinese astronomers in 687 BC, stating that “at midnight, stars dropped down like rain.” Keep in mind that this now famous assertion that is generally attributed to the Lyrids was made by mathematician Johann Gottfried Galle in 1867. It was Galle along with Edmond Weiss who noticed the link between the Lyrids and Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher discovered six years earlier.

Comet Thatcher was discovered on April 5th, 15 days before it reached perihelion about a third of an astronomical unit (A.U.) from the Earth. Comet Thatcher a periodic comet on a 415 year long orbital period.

But in the early to mid-19th century, the very idea that meteor showers were linked to comets or even non-atmospheric phenomena was still hotly contested.

One singular event more than any other triggered this realization. The Leonid meteor storm of 1833 in the early morning hours of November 13th was a stunning and terrifying spectacle for residents of the U.S eastern seaboard. This shower produces mighty outbursts, often topping a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of over a 1,000 once every 33 to 34 years. I witnessed a fine outburst of the Leonids from Kuwait in 1998, and we may be in for a repeat performance from this shower around 2032 or 2033.

There is substantial evidence that the Lyrids may also do the same at an undetermined interval. On April 20th 1803, one of the most famous accounts of a “Lyrid meteor storm” was observed up and down the United States east coast. For example, one letter to the Virginia Gazette states;

“From one until three, those starry meteors seemed to fall from every point in the sky heavens, in such numbers as to resemble a shower of sky rockets.”

Another account published in the Raleigh, North Carolina Register states that:

“The whole hemisphere as far as the extension of the horizon seemed illuminated; the meteors kept no particular direction but appeared to move in every way.”

study of the 1803 Lyrid outburst by W.J. Fisher cites over a dozen accounts of the event and is a fascinating read. Viewers were also primed for the event by the dramatic Leonid storm of 1799 four years earlier.

Interestingly, the Moon was only one day from New phase on the night of the 1803 Lyrids. Prime meteor watching conditions.

An unrelated meteorite fall would also occur four years later over Weston, Connecticut on December 14th, 1807 as recounted by Kathryn Prince in A Professor, A President, and a Meteor. These events would place Yankee politics at odds with the origin of meteors and rocks from the sky.

An apocryphal quote is often attributed to President Thomas Jefferson that highlights the controversy of the day, saying that “I would more easily believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven.”

While both are of cosmogenous origin, no meteorite fall has ever been linked to a meteor shower, which is spawned by dust debris from comets. For example, many in the media erroneously speculated that the Sutter’s Mill meteorite that fell to Earth on the morning of April 22nd, 2012 was in fact a Lyrid meteor.

But a Lyrid may be implicated in another unusual 19th century observation. On April 24th 1874, a professor Scharfarik of Prague, Czechoslovakia was observing the daytime First Quarter Moon with his 4” refractor. The good professor was surprised by an “Apparition on the disc of the Moon of a dazzling white star,” which was “quite sharp and without a perceptible diameter.” Possible suspects are a telescopic meteor moving towards or along the observers’ line of sight or perhaps a Lyrid impacting the dark limb of the Moon.

Moving into the 20th century, rates for the Lyrids have stayed in the ZHR=20 range, with notable peaks of 100+ per hour noted by Japanese observers in 1922 and 100 per hour noted by U.S. observers in 1982.

It should also be noted that another less understood shower radiates from the constellation Lyra in mid-June. First noted Stan Dvorak while hiking in the San Bernardino Mountains in 1966, the June Lyrids produce about 8-10 meteors per hour from June 10 to the 21st. The source of this newly discovered shower is thought to be Comet C/1915 C1 Mellish.

A June Lyrid may have even made its way into modern fiction. As recounted in a July 2004 issue of Sky & Telescope, researchers Marilynn & Donald Olson note the following line from James Joyce’s Ulysses:

“A star, precipitated with great apparent velocity across the firmament from Vega in the Lyre above the zenith.”

Joyce seems to be describing a June Lyrid decades before the shower was officially recognized. The constellation Lyra rides high in the early morning sky for mid-northern latitudes in the early summer months.

All interesting concepts to ponder as we keep an early morning vigil for the Lyrids this week. Could there be more Lyrid storms in the far off future, as Comet Thatcher reaches perihelion once again in the late 23rd century? Could more historical clues of the untold history of this and other showers be awaiting discovery?

Somewhat closer to us in time and space, Paul Wiegert of the University of Ontario has also recently speculated that Comet 2012 S1 ISON may provoke a meteor shower on January 12th, 2014. Regardless of whether ISON turns out to be the “Comet of the Century,” this could be one to watch out for!


Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: June 11-17, 2012

Messier 5 - Credit: Hillary Mathis, REU Program/NOAO/AURA/NSF


Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! You can breathe now… the Venus Transit is over and we’re back to the mundane astronomical excitement like great globular clusters, an early morning conjunction and two meteor showers – the Ophiuchids and June Lyrids. If you’re up to the ordinary, then follow along as we capture some great galaxies and a very challenging study! Dust off your optics and meet me in the back yard…

Monday, June 11 – Tonight we make the jump to Serpens Caput, which is in itself a challenge to recognize with the unaided eye. Using bright Spica as a guide, look about a handspan northeast for two of the brightest stars in the constellation – Alpha, and Lambda to its northeast. Using binoculars, locate a pairing with Delta to the north-northwest and Mu to the south. Now return to Alpha and hop a little less than a fistwidth to the southwest where you will encounter double star 5 Serpens and the mighty M5 (Right Ascension: 15 : 18.6 – Declination: +02 : 05).

While Gottfried Kirch and his wife Maria were watching a comet on May 5, 1702, they stumbled across a huge, bright object that they considered a “nebulous star.” Forty-two years later, it was found again by Messier who labeled it as M5 and described it as a round nebula which didn’t contain any stars. But, thank heaven for William Herschel! Some 27 years later he counted up to 200 resolvable stars in this globular cluster and reported “the middle is so compressed that it is impossible to distinguish the components.”

Even in today’s binoculars, M5 shows a grainy texture that begins resolution to even the smallest of telescopes and invites larger ones to an explosion of stellar population. Slightly elliptical in appearance, M5 is believed to be one of the oldest globular clusters with a calculated age of 13 billion years, and it contains 105 known variable stars – as well as a dwarf nova. At a distance of 24,500 light-years and stretching across 165 light-years of space, this magnificent object so dominates its territory that it would gather in any stars straying within 400 light-years of its tidal influence!

Mid-to-larger telescopes will begin such awesome resolution on M5?s many chains and its bright core region that it will be a cluster you will visit again and again over the years. No matter what size binoculars or telescope you use, this 5.6 magnitude class V globular cluster is one of the five brightest of all!

Tuesday, June 12 – As with all astronomical projects, there are sometimes difficult ones needed to complete certain study fields – such as challenging globular clusters. Tonight we’ll take a look at one such cluster needed to complete your list and you’ll find it by using M5 as a guide.

Palomar 5 is by no stretch of the imagination easy. For those using GoTo systems and large telescopes, aiming is easy… But for star hoppers a bit of instruction goes a long way. Starting at M5 drop south for the double 5 Serpens and again south and slightly west for another, fainter double. Don’t confuse it with 6 Serpens to the east. About half a degree west you’ll encounter an 8th magnitude star with 7th magnitude 4 Serpens a half degree south. Continue south another half degree where you will discover a triangle of 9th magnitude stars with a southern one at the apex. This is home to Palomar 5 (RA 15 16 05.30 Dec -00 06 41.0).

Discovered by Walter Baade in 1950, this 11.7 magnitude, Class XII globular is anything but easy. At first it was believed to be a dwarf elliptical and possibly a member of our own Local Group of galaxies due to some resolution. Later studies showed that Palomar 5 was indeed a globular cluster – but one that was being ripped apart by the tidal forces of the Milky Way.

75,000 light-years away from us and 60,000 light-years from the galactic center, Palomar 5?s members are escaping and leaving trails that span 13,000 light-years…a process which may have been happening for several billion years. Although it is of low surface brightness, even telescopes as small as 6? can distinguish just a few individual members northwest of the 9th magnitude marker star – but even telescopes as large as 31? fail to show much more than a faint sheen (under excellent conditions) with a handful of resolvable stars. Even though it may be one of the toughest you’ll ever tackle, be sure to take the time to make a quick sketch of the region to complete your studies. Good luck!

Wednesday, June 13 –Today in 1983, Pioneer 10 becomes the first manmade object to leave the solar system. What wonders would it see? Are there other galaxies out there like our own? Will there be life like ours? While we can’t see through Pioneer’s “eyes,” tonight let’s use our own as we quest for a look in the mirror…

Our object will be Herschel II.76 – also known as NGC 5970. Begin by identifying Beta and Delta Serpens Caput and look for finderscope Chi between them. Less than a degree southwest you will see a similar magnitude double star. Hop about 1/3 degree northwest and you will find your galaxy mark just a fraction southwest of a 7th magnitude star (RA 15 38 30.12 Dec -12 11 10.9).

NGC 5970 is not particularly easy for smaller scopes even near 11th magnitude because of low surface brightness, but it could be a distant twin of our own galaxy, so similar is it to the Milky Way in structure. At 105 million light-years away, it is no great surprise that we see it as faint – for its light left around the time the dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Stretching across 85,000 light-years of space, this grand spiral has been extensively studied in its nucleus region, obscuring dust regions, and stellar population. And – like us – it is also part of its own local group.

While smaller telescopes will make out a slight elongated mist, in mid-to-large aperture NGC 5970 will appear oval shaped with a bright core and evidence of a central bar. While the edges of the galaxy seem well defined, look closely at the narrower ends where material seems more wispy. While averted in this fashion, the nucleus will sometimes take on a stellar appearance – yet lose this property with direct vision. Be sure to mark your Herschel notes on this one!

Thursday, June 14 – As the new hours of the day begin and you wait on dawn, keep watch for the peak of the Ophiuchids meteor shower with the radiant near Scorpius. The fall rate is poor with only 3 per hour, but fast moving bolides are common. This meteor stream will last for 25 days.

Tonight, while we have plenty of dark skies to go around, let’s go south in Libra and have a look at the galaxy pairing NGC 5903 (Right Ascension: 15 : 18.6 – Declination: -24 : 04) and NGC 5898 (Right Ascension: 15 : 18.2 – Declination: -24 : 06). You’ll find them about three degrees northeast of Sigma, and just north of a pair of 7th magnitude stars.

While northernmost NGC 5903 seems to be nothing more than a faint elliptical with a brighter concentration towards the center and an almost identical elliptical – NGC 5898 – to the southwest, you’re probably asking yourself… Why the big deal over two small ellipticals? First off, NGC 5903 is Herschel III.139 and NGC 5898 is Herschel III.138… two more to add to your studies. And second? The Very Large Array has studied this galaxy pair in the spectral lines of neutral hydrogen. The brighter of the pair, NGC 5898, shows evidence of ionized gas which has been collected from outside its galactic realm – while NGC 5903 seems to be running streamers of material towards it. A double-galaxy, double-accretion event!

But there’s more…

Look to the southeast and you’ll double your pleasure and double your fun as you discover two double stars instead of just one! Sometimes we overlook field stars for reasons of study – but don’t do it tonight. Even mid-sized telescopes can easily reveal this twin pair of galaxies sharing “their stuff,” as well as a pair of double stars in the same low power field of view. (Psst… slim and dim MCG 043607 and quasar 1514-241 are also here!) Ain’t it grand?

Friday, June 15 – Tonight, before you hunt down the faint fuzzies and spend the rest of the night drooling on the Milky Way, let’s go globular and hunt up two very nice studies worthy of your time. Starting at Alpha Librae, head five degrees southeast for Tau and yet another degree southeast for the splendid field of NGC 5897 (RA 15 17 24.40 Dec -21 00 36.4).

This class XI globular might appear very faint to binoculars, but it definitely makes up for it in size and beauty of field. It was first viewed by William Herschel on April 25, 1784 and logged as H VI.8 – but with a less than perfect notation of position. When he reviewed it again on March 10, 1785 he logged it correctly and relabeled it as H VI.19. At a distance of a little more than 40,000 light-years away, this 8.5 magnitude globular will show some details to the larger telescope, but remain unresolved to smaller ones. As a halo globular cluster, NGC 5897 certainly shows signs of being disrupted and has a number of blue stragglers as well as four newly discovered variables of the RR Lyrae type.

Now let’s return to Alpha Librae and head about a fistwidth south across the border into Hydra and two degrees east of star 57 for NGC 5694 – also in an attractive field (RA 14 39 36.52 Dec -26 32 18.0).

Also discovered by Herschel, and cataloged as H II.196, this class VII cluster is far too faint for binoculars at magnitude 10, and barely within reach of smaller scopes. As one of the most remote globular clusters in our galaxy, few telescopes can hope to resolve this more than 113,000 light-year distant ball of stars whose brightest is magnitude 16.5 – and it also possesses no variables. Traveling at 190 kilometers per second, metal-poor NGC 5694 will not have the same fate as NGC 5897… For this is a globular cluster that is not being pulled apart by our galaxy – but escaping it!

Saturday, June 16 – No matter if you stayed up late chasing deep sky, or got up early, right now is the time to catch the peak of the June Lyrids meteor shower. Although it’s not the most outstanding of displays, no Moon will make it one of the best prospects of the year for those wishing to log their meteor observations. Look for the radiant near bright Vega – you may see up to 15 faint blue meteors per hour from this branch of the May Lyrid meteor stream.

Today in 1963, Valentina Tereshkova, aboard the Soviet Vostok 6, became the first woman ever to go into space. Her solo flight is still unique. Twenty years later, on the 18th, Sally Ride became the first American woman in orbit, aboard the Space Shuttle.

For observers of all skill levels and equipment, it’s simply time to stop and have a look at a seasonal favorite which is now nearly overhead – M13 (Right Ascension: 16 : 41.7 – Declination: +36 : 28). You’ll find this massive globular cluster quite easy to locate on the western side of the Hercules “keystone” about 1/3 the way between the northern and southern stars – Eta and Zeta.

At a little brighter than magnitude 6, this 25,100 light-year distant globular cluster can be seen unaided from a dark sky location. First noted by Edmond Halley in 1714, the “Great Hercules Cluster” was cataloged by Messier on June 1, 1764. Filled with hundreds of thousands of stars, yet only one young blue star, M13 could be as much as 14 billion years old.

Thirty-three years ago, the Great Hercules Cluster was chosen by the Arecibo Observatory as the target for the first radio message delivered into space, yet it will be a message that won’t be received for over 25 centuries. Look at it with wonder tonight… For the light that left as you are viewing it tonight did so at a time when the Earth was coming out of the Ice Age. Our early ancestors were living in caves and learning to use rudimentary tools. How evolved would our civilization be if we ever received an answer to our call?!

Sunday, June 17 – Celestial scenery alert! If you’re up before the Sun rises, be sure to check out the eastern skyline for the very close apparition of the Moon and Jupiter. The two will only be separated by about a half a degree. What a great way to wake up!

As the sky darkens tonight, let’s discover the wonderful world of low power. Start your journey by re-locating magnificent M13 and move about 3 degrees northwest. What you will find is a splendid loose open cluster of stars known as Dolidze/Dzimselejsvili (DoDz) 5 – and it looks much like a miniature of the constellation of Hercules. Just slightly more than 4 degrees to its east and just about a degree south of Eta Hercules is DoDz 6, which contains a perfect diamond pattern and an asterism of brighter stars which resembles the constellation of Sagitta.

Now we’re going to move across the constellation of Hercules towards Lyra. East of the “keystone” you will see a tight configuration of three stars – Omicron, Nu and Xi. About the same distance that separates these stars to the northeast you will find DoDz 9. Using minimal magnification, you’ll see a pretty open cluster of around two dozen mixed magnitude stars that are quite attractive. Now look again at the “keystone” and identify Lambda and Delta to its south. About midway between them and slightly to the southeast you will discover the stellar field of DoDz 8. The last is easy – all you need to do is know the beautiful red/green double, Ras Algethi (Alpha). Move about 1 degree to the northwest to discover the star-studded open cluster DoDz 7. These great open clusters are very much off the beaten path and will add a new dimension to your large binocular or low power telescoping experiences.

Until next week, keep your eyes on the skies!