The yearly Perseid meteor shower peaks on the night of August 12-13 this year, with the highest rate of meteors expected to occur around 1:00 am Arizona time in the early morning hours of the 13th. However, the meteor shower peak is expected to run for several hours on either side of this time as well.
With the “new moon” on August 14th, the skies will be as dark as they ever get for this yearly event, meaning that it will be worth heading to a dark location to allow your eyes to dark-adapt and enjoy the spectacle at its best.
Why do meteor showers occur on the same date each year? Well, consider your own birthday. On the day you were born, the Earth was at a particular point in its orbit around the Sun. Each year on your birthday the Earth is back in this same spot in its orbit.
During its orbit around the Sun, our planet occasionally runs into debris left from the passage of comets that went by in years past. Just like your own birthday, we run into these debris streams at the same point in our orbit each year, so you could consider August 12-13 the “birthday” of the debris stream that gives rise to the Perseid meteors. (For those interested, the comet that shed this particular trail of debris is Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which has a 130-year-long orbit and last passed through the solar system in 1992, leaving debris all along its orbit like an unrepentant litterbug tossing trash out of their car window.) While it looks like the meteors are hitting us, it’s actually Earth (and in particular, our atmosphere) that is doing the hitting as we speed around the Sun at about 66,000 mph.)
It’s easy to be a meteor watcher. A great location for us in Fountain Hills would be anywhere up in McDowell Mountain Regional Park, but your own dark backyard will work fine. No binoculars or telescopes needed, but if you have glasses do wear them for sharpest vision. Find a comfortable place, set up a chaise lounge or similar, lean back, look somewhere to the northeast (where most of the meteors will appear to come from) and enjoy the show. Be patient, you might be treated to a short storm of meteors if we happen to hit a particularly dense patch of dust out in space. After midnight you should see at least a meteor every minute.
Expect good meteor watching for several days on either side of the peak night as well. Earlier in the evening of the peak you may see fewer meteors but the ones you do see will be “Earth-grazers” that blaze a long trail across the sky as they skim the top of our atmosphere. So there is really something to see at any time. I hope you can get out to enjoy the spectacle.