The night sky tonight and on any clear night offers an ever-changing display of fascinating objects you can see, from stars and constellations to bright planets, often the moon, and sometimes special events like meteor showers. Observing the night sky can be done with no special equipment, although a sky map can be very useful, and a good beginner telescope or binoculars will enhance some experiences and bring some otherwise invisible objects into view. You can also use astronomy accessories to make your observing easier, and use our Satellite Tracker page powered by N2YO.com to find out when to see the International Space Station and other satellites. Below, find out what’s up in the night sky tonight (Planets Visible Now, Moon Phases, Observing Highlights This Month) plus other resources (Skywatching Terms, Night Sky Observing Tips and Further Reading).
The night sky is more than just the moon and stars, if you know when and where to look.
Credit: Karl Tate/SPACE.com
Monthly skywatching information is provided to Space.com by Chris Vaughan of Starry Night Education, the leader in space science curriculum solutions. Follow Starry Night on Twitter @StarryNightEdu .
Editor’s note: If you have an amazing skywatching photo you’d like to share for a possible story or image gallery, please contact managing editor Tariq Malik at email@example.com.
Yearly Night Sky Guides:
Calendar of Observing Highlights
Thursday, February 1 at 06:30 GMT – Moon covers Regulus
On Thursday, February 1, the waning gibbous moon will occult the bright star Regulus for skywatchers in Scandinavia, northern Greenland, Svalbard, northern and eastern Russia, northeastern China, NW Alaska, and most of Japan (inset). When the moon rises in early evening in the Americas, it will already have shifted along its orbit (green line) to a position about 5 degrees below the star.
Friday, February 2 to Thursday, February 15, after evening twilight – Zodiacal light
For about half an hour after dusk during the two week period preceding the new moon on February 15, look west-southwest for a broad wedge of faint light rising from the horizon and centered on the ecliptic (green line). This is the zodiacal light – reflected sunlight from interplanetary particles of matter concentrated in the plane of the solar system. Try to observe from a location without light pollution, and don’t confuse the zodiacal light with the brighter Milky Way to the northwest.
Wednesday, February 7 at 10:54 a.m. EST – Last quarter Moon
At its last quarter phase, the moon rises around midnight and remains visible in the southern sky during morning daylight. At this time, the moon is illuminated on the eastern side, towards the pre-dawn sun. Last quarter moons are positioned ahead of the Earth in our trip around the sun. About 3.5 hours later, earth will occupy that same location in space. After this phase, the waning moon traverses the last quarter of its orbit around the earth, on the way to new moon.
Wednesday, February 7 and Thursday, February 8, pre-dawn – Moon hops over Jupiter
In the eastern pre-dawn sky on Wednesday, February 7, the waning last quarter moon will sit 6 degrees to the upper right of the very bright planet Jupiter. The next morning, the moon’s orbital motion will carry it to a position about 7 degrees to the planet’s left.
Friday, February 9 pre-dawn – Moon meets Mars and Asteroid Vesta
Continuing its eastward passage through the pre-dawn planets, on the morning of Friday, February 9, the waning crescent moon will pass 4 degrees to the upper left of reddish Mars, above the constellation of Scorpius. Look for the pairing low in the south-eastern sky between about 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. in your local time zone. Meanwhile, the major asteroid (4) Vesta will be positioned only 1.5 degrees to the upper left of the moon.
Saturday, February 10 pre-dawn – Mars meets its Stellar Twin
On the mornings surrounding Saturday, February 10, the slow eastward orbital motion of the red planet Mars will carry it to a point 5 degrees above its visual twin, the red star Antares. The brightest star in the constellation of Scorpius, Antares’ name means “Rival of Mars”. While almost exactly the same visual color and brightness as Mars, the star is about 553 light-years farther away from Earth.
Sunday, February 11 pre-dawn – Old Moon meets Saturn
Completing its eastward passage through the pre-dawn planets this month, on the morning of Friday, February 11, the old crescent moon will pass only 2 degrees above the yellowish planet Saturn. Look for the pair of objects low in the south-eastern sky between 5 and 6:30 a.m. in your local time zone.
Thursday, February 15 at 4:05 p.m. EST – New Moon, Partial Solar Eclipse
When new, the moon is travelling between the Earth and the sun. Since sunlight is only reaching the side of the moon turned away from us, and the moon is in the same region of the sky as the sun, the moon is hidden from view. This new moon will also generate a partial solar eclipse that is only visible from the daylit portions of Antarctica (about 2/3 of the continent) and southern South America. A day or two after new moon, look for the slender sliver of the young crescent moon just above the western horizon after sunset.
Friday, February 16 early evening – Young Moon near Venus
In the early evening on February 16, the very young crescent moon will sit only 2 degrees to the upper left of Venus. The pair of objects will appear slightly above the western horizon for a short period after sunset.
Friday, February 23 at 3:09 a.m. EST – First Quarter Moon
At first quarter, the relative positions of the Earth, sun, and moon cause us to see the moon half illuminated – on the western (right-hand) side. First quarter moons rise around noon and set around midnight, so they are visible starting in the afternoon hours. The term quarter moon refers not to its appearance, but the fact that our natural satellite has now completed the first quarter of its orbit around Earth since the last new moon.
Friday, February 23 at 16:00 GMT – Moon near Aldebaran
On the evening of Friday, February 23 in the southwestern evening sky, the first quarter moon will be positioned a few degrees to the upper left of Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus. Hours before, skywatchers with telescopes in Bermuda, northeastern North America, Greenland, and most of Europe can see the moon’s path (green line) carry it across Aldebaran in daylight. Farther east, in Svalbard, most of Russia, Kazakhstan, western Mongolia, and northwestern China, the event will occur in a dark sky, starting about 16:00 GMT.
Mercury passes superior conjunction, on the far side of the sun, on February 17, making it unobservable until the last few days of February, when it will be visible briefly after sunset, sitting very low in the western evening sky near Venus. Mercury’s return kicks off a very good evening apparition for northern hemisphere observers.
In early February Venus is positioned very low in the western evening sky after sunset, so it will be difficult to discern within the surrounding sky glow. Each evening through the month, our bright sister planet will climb higher and become easier to see. In early evening on February 16, the very young crescent moon will sit 2 degrees to the upper left of Venus. Look for the pair of objects low in the western sky for a short period after sunset.
Mars will spend February in the southeastern pre-dawn sky – rising shortly after 2:30 a.m. local time every morning. On February 1, Mars will sit only half a degree below Acrab, the highest of Scorpius’ three claw stars. After the first week of the month Mars will move eastward into southern Ophiuchus and towards the rich star fields of the Milky Way, passing about 5 degrees above its stellar twin, the reddish star Antares on the mornings around February 11. During the course of February, Mars will also slightly brighten (from visual magnitude 1.2 to 0.8) and its apparent disk diameter will increase in size from 5.6 to 6.7 arc-seconds as Earth’s orbital motion slowly reduces our distance from the Red Planet.
Very bright Jupiter will shine in the eastern pre-dawn sky during February, slowly moving eastward through central Libra. On the mornings of February 7 and 8, the waning last quarter moon will appear about 7 degrees above and beside Jupiter respectively. At the beginning of the month, Jupiter will rise about 2 a.m. in your local time zone, and then rise closer to midnight at month’s end. Meanwhile, the planet will grow slightly brighter and larger in telescopes as Earth slowly draws closer to it ahead of this spring’s opposition.
Saturn will be easily observable in the southeastern pre-dawn sky during February, appearing as a yellowish, visual magnitude 0.5 object among the stars of Sagittarius. Over the course of the month, Saturn will move from its position low in the east, and rise earlier, while it climbs away from the sun. The widely spaced chain of morning naked-eye planets – Saturn, then dimmer Mars to its upper right, and brighter Jupiter farther along the same trend, will nicely define the plane of our Solar System. On the morning of February 11, the old crescent moon will land 2 degrees above Saturn.
During February, blue-green Uranus will be well placed for observing in the southwestern evening sky, positioned between the two chains of faint stars that link the fishes of Pisces. By month end, the planet will be setting about 10 p.m. in your local time zone. At visual magnitude 5.8, Uranus is bright enough to observe in binoculars under dark sky conditions.
Blue-tinted Neptune spends February located about one degree east of the star Lambda Aquarii in Aquarius. With a visual magnitude of 8.0, the distant planet is only observable with telescopes during early evening for about the first week of February. After that, it rapidly descends into the western twilight, passing close to Venus on February 21.
Gibbous: Used to describe a planet or moon that is more than 50 percent illuminated.
Asterism: A noteworthy or striking pattern of stars within a larger constellation.
Degrees (measuring the sky): The sky is 360 degrees all the way around, which means roughly 180 degrees from horizon to horizon. It’s easy to measure distances between objects: Your fist on an outstretched arm covers about 10 degrees of sky, while a finger covers about one degree.
Visual Magnitude: This is the astronomer’s scale for measuring the brightness of objects in the sky. The dimmest object visible in the night sky under perfectly dark conditions is about magnitude 6.5. Brighter stars are magnitude 2 or 1. The brightest objects get negative numbers. Venus can be as bright as magnitude minus 4.9. The full moon is minus 12.7 and the sun is minus 26.8.
Terminator: The boundary on the moon between sunlight and shadow.
Zenith: The point in the sky directly overhead.
Night Sky Observing Tips
- Adjust to the dark: If you wish to observe faint objects, such as meteors or dim stars, give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness.
- Light Pollution: Even from a big city, one can see the moon, a handful of bright stars and sometimes the brightest planets. But to fully enjoy the heavens — especially a meteor shower, the constellations, or to see the amazing swath across the sky that represents our view toward the center of the Milky Way Galaxy — rural areas are best for night sky viewing. If you’re stuck in a city or suburban area, a building can be used to block ambient light (or moonlight) to help reveal fainter objects. If you’re in the suburbs, simply turning off outdoor lights can help.
- Prepare for skywatching: If you plan to be out for more than a few minutes, and it’s not a warm summer evening, dress warmer than you think necessary. An hour of observing a winter meteor shower can chill you to the bone. A blanket or lounge chair will prove much more comfortable than standing or sitting in a chair and craning your neck to see overhead.
- Daytime skywatching: When Venus is visible (that is, not in front of or behind the sun) it can often be spotted during the day. But you’ll need to know where to look. A sky map is helpful. When the sun has large sunspots, they can be seen without a telescope. However, it’s unsafe to look at the sun without protective eyewear. See our video on how to safely observe the sun, or our safe sunwatching infographic.