Tonight will bring one of the of the biggest astronomical events of the year, one that is so famous that even most non-astronomers know about it: the Perseid Meteor Shower, which will peak tonight/early tomorrow morning.
The shower is caused by Earth running into a trail of space debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Think of it as a rainstorm. When driving into a rain shower, the rain does not come and go in a sudden burst. Likewise, the trail of cometary debris is the same way in that it starts very light, gets thicker until the deepest point is reached, and then starts lightening up again until the Earth passes completely through. The shower is called the Perseid because the meteors seem to radiate from the constellation Perseus.
Every August, Earth passes through the stretch of space junk, reaching the deepest concentration on the night of the 12/13th. According to some estimates, under ideal conditions (dark country skies), one can expect to see 100 meteors per hour come peak night. The best time to view is in the hours just before dawn as Perseus is at its highest then, about half way to Zenith in the Eastern sky. To improve odds of seeing meteors, travel out to the country to escape suburban/urban light domes.
So how about viewing tips?
First, plan to stay out a while, as it takes the human eye about 15 minutes to get optimal night vision capability. The bad news is that, even one bright flash of white light will wipe out night vision, requiring you to start the process all over again. Next, grab a lawn chair or, even better, a lounge-type chair. Trying to lean back with a straight-back lawn chair can be a pain in the neck, literally! Eyes ready for dark and with something to sit/lay on, settle in for a night of hopeful meteor watching (or at the very least, stargazing), just try not to fall asleep and don't forget to dress for the weather and bring the bug spray
Besides meteors, tonight can be a great time for binocular viewing, owing to your use of a chair. Under suburban (maybe) or rural skies (definitely), a pair of medium power (10x50) binoculars can yield some stunning wide-angle sights. For someone truly dedicated, why not try and keep a tally of how many meteors you see for every complete hour?
Unfortunately, this year's Perseid peak coincides with the near Full Moon. The good news: even the Moon won't be able to drown-out the brightest meteors with all its light.
As the last part of the puzzle, be sure to keep an eye on the local weather forecasts.
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