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. 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).
Monthly skywatching information is provided to Space.com by Geoff Gaherty 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. [Related: The 12 Must-See Stargazing Events to Look Up for in 2016]
Best Night Sky Events of February 2016 (Stargazing Maps)
See what's up in the night sky for February 2016, including stargazing events and the moon's phases, in this Space.com gallery courtesy of Starry Night Software.
Monday, Feb. 8, 9:39 a.m. EST
The moon is not visible on the date of New Moon because it is too close to the sun, but can be seen low in the east as a narrow crescent a morning or two before, just before sunrise. It is visible low in the west an evening or two after New Moon.
Monday, Feb. 15, 2:46 a.m. EST
First Quarter Moon, February 2016
The First Quarter Moon rises around 10:45 a.m. and sets around 1:15 a.m. It dominates the evening sky.
Monday, Feb. 22, 1:20 p.m. EST
Full Moon, February 2016
The February Full Moon is known as the Snow Moonor Hunger Moon. It rises around sunset and sets around sunrise; this is the only night in the month when the moon is in the sky all night long. The rest of the month, the moon spends at least some time in the daytime sky.
Note that there is no Last Quarter Moon in February in North America, the previous one occurring on January 31 at 10 28 p.m. EST, and the next one occurring on March 1 at 6:11 p.m. EST. This is because, even though there are 29 days in February this leap year, the synodic lunar month (New Moon to New Moon) is 29.53 days long.
Mercury, Venus, and the Moon, February 2016
Saturday, Feb. 6, dawn
A slender crescent moon will be framed by the planets Mercury and Venus at dawn this morning.
Mercury at greatest elongation west, February 2016
Sunday, Feb. 7, dawn
Mercury will be at its farthest from the sun. Because of the angle the ecliptic makes with the horizon, this will be more favorable in the Southern Hemisphere, seen here half an hour before sunrise in Melbourne, Australia.
Aldebaran occulted by Moon, February 2016
Monday, Feb. 15, evening
The First Quarter Moon will occult the bright red star Aldebaran against the backdrop of the Hyades star cluster, as seen from Hawaii, Japan, southern China, and southeast Asia.
Jupiter and the Moon, February 2016
Tuesday, Feb. 23, 11 p.m. EST
The moon and Jupiter will rise close together in the southeastern sky.
Zodiacal Light, February 2016
Wednesday, Feb. 24–Wednesday March 9, evening
The faint glow of the zodiacal light will be visible for the next two weeks in the western sky after the end of evening twilight. It is a faint cone of light following the ecliptic, the green line shown here, quite distinct from the faint glow of the Milky Way to the northwest.
Double shadow transit on Jupiter, February 2016
Friday, Feb. 26, 4:37–5:03 a.m. EST
Jupiter's moons Io and Europa will chase their shadows across the face of Jupiter. The Great Red Spot will also be well placed for observation.
All five naked eye planets will be arrayed across the morning sky for most of the month.
Mercury is well placed low in the eastern sky at dawn for most of the month. It will be at greatest elongation west of the sun on February 7. This apparition is more favorable for observers in the Southern Hemisphere because of the angle the ecliptic makes with the horizon.
Venus continues to shine brightly at dawn all month, but is dropping towards the sun. It will be close to Mercury on the 13th.
Mars, in the morning sky, will be in Libra all month. Its tiny disk grows from 7 to 9 arc seconds during the month, as it moves towards opposition on May 22. Observers with good telescopes should begin to see some of the dark markings on Mars' surface this month.
Jupiter is now rising around 9 p.m. and shines brightly in Leo the rest of the night.
Saturn is well placed in Ophiuchus in the morning sky. Its rings are now spread widely, making it a beautiful sight in a small telescope.
Uranus sets in the west in mid-evening.
Neptune is in conjunction with the sun on 28th, making it too close to the sun to be observed all month.
- 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.
- 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.