Sprinkles of comet dust rain through the sky this season as numerous meteor showers light up the night—although not by much, in most cases. The notable highlights of the season start with the Lyrids in April.
The Lyrids are a modest display, active from April 19-24 and peaking on the 21st-22nd. Named after the constellation Lyra the Harp, from which about 10 meteors per hour appear to radiate, this display has surprised observers with unexpected outbursts of around 100 per hour in 1922, 1945, and 1982. This year, the peak of the shower coincides with a first quarter Moon, which—even though only 1/10th as bright as a full Moon—may be enough light to wash about half the meteors from view, so expect about 3-5 meteors per hour, even away from city lights. Slightly more might be seen after moonset in the early hours of the 22nd.
This shower occurs as Earth passes through the trail of Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which was discovered in 1861, but the link between meteor showers and comets wasn't made until several years later. Particles of dust along the comet's orbit are swept up by Earth as it plows through the trail at slightly more than 108,000 kilometers (67,000 miles) per hour, or about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) per second. As the particle enters the atmosphere, it's moving too fast for air molecules to get out of the way, causing a ram-pressure that heats the compressed air to several thousand degrees Fahrenheit. This incinerates the particle in a bright flash of light—a meteor (or "shooting star," as some still call them). However, the shower itself is the oldest-known of all the meteor displays, with Chinese observations dating back 2,600 years, to 687 BC.