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).
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.
Sky Maps and Video Guides
Best Night Sky Events of February 2017 (Stargazing Maps)
See what's up in the night sky for January 2017, including stargazing events and the moon's phases, in this Space.com gallery courtesy of Starry Night Software.
Solar and Lunar Eclipses, Planets and Constellations In Feb. 2017 Skywatching | Video
On Feb. 26, 2017, South America, Africa and Antarctica will be treated to either a partial solar eclipse or a "ring of fire" annular eclipse.
Skywatching Planets, Comets and Zodiacal Light In February 2017 | Video
Mars, Venus, Uranus are visible this month. Comets 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, and 2P Encke can be seen with binoculars and telescopes. Look to the west at sunse to see the triangular glow of light, known as the zodiacal light.
Friday, February 3 at 11:19 p.m. EST — First Quarter Moon
At first quarter, the positions of the Earth, sun, and moon cause us to see one-half of the moon illuminated by the sun. The moon's bright half is on the western (right-hand) side - toward the setting sun. It rises around noontime and sets around midnight, so the moon is visible half the time by day – in the afternoon hours – and the other half at night, during the evening hours. The name quarter moon, even though it's really a "half-moon" shape, refers to the fact that, starting from new moon, our natural satellite has now completely the first quarter of its orbital journey around Earth.
Friday, February 10 at 7:34 p.m. EST - Full Snow Moon
The February full moon, known as the Snow Moon or Hunger Moon, always shines in or near the stars of Leo. It rises around sunset and sets around sunrise. The February moon reaches full phase on Thursday morning, so it will appear full on both Wednesday and Thursday evening. 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.
Saturday, February 18 at 2:33 p.m. EST - Last Quarter Moon
After full phase, the moon is now waning, illuminated less every evening. At last quarter the moon rises around midnight and sets near noon. Morning commuters might take note of it, shining high in the south against the blue daytime sky. The bright half is now on the left-hand side, towards the eastern dawning sun. At last quarter, the moon is positioned ahead of the Earth in our trip around the sun. When you see it in the sky, keep in mind that about 3½ hours later, earth will occupy the same point in space where the moon is now. After last quarter, the moon begins to traverse the last quarter of its orbit in its trip around the earth as it approaches new moon.
Sunday, February 26 at 9:58 a.m. EST - New Moon
The moon's orbit carries it between the earth and sun and sits in the same region of the sky where the sun is. Sunlight is only reaching the side of the moon that is turned away from us, so as a consequence it cannot be seen. Due to the moon's tilted orbit, it usually passes above or below the sun, instead of eclipsing the sun. Starting a day or two after new moon, you might catch a glimpse of the slender sliver of a waxing crescent moon low near the western horizon, as it gradually pulls away from the sun's vicinity and shifts toward the east.
Thursday, February 2 at 9 pm – Moon meets Asteroid Ceres
On the evening of Thursday, February 2, in the western sky, the moon will pass near the large asteroid Ceres. For most of North America, the southern pole of the moon will be within 30 arc-minutes (a lunar diameter) to the right of the magnitude 8.9 asteroid. The pairing can be observed at low magnification in the eyepiece of a backyard telescope (1 degree field of view shown in green). Observers in Eastern Siberia, Alaska, far northern Canada, and Greenland will see the southern limb of the moon occult Ceres.
Friday, February 10 evening – Penumbral Eclipse of the moon
In the eastern sky on the evening of Friday, February 10, the full moon will pass through the outer reaches of the Earth's shadow, creating a Penumbral Lunar Eclipse. Like most penumbral eclipses, this one will be nearly invisible as the Moon crosses only the southern portion of the penumbra. Any darkening will be most apparent between 7 pm and 8:30 pm EST, with maximum eclipse at 7:44 pm EST, when the moon is approximately 25 degrees above the eastern horizon for Eastern Time Zone observers.
Monday, Feb. 13 to Monday, Feb. 27, after evening twilight – Zodiacal Light
For two weeks commencing Friday, February 6, after evening twilight. Look to the south of west, near Venus and Mars, for the faint wedge of zodiacal light, reflected sunlight from interplanetary matter along the ecliptic (marked by green line). Don't confuse it with the brighter Milky Way to the northwest.
Tuesday, February 14 overnight – Moon meets Jupiter
In late evening on Tuesday, February 14, Jupiter and the waning gibbous moon will rise twenty minutes apart, with the moon less than 6 degrees above the planet. They'll fit within a binocular field of view and make a nice photo opportunity. The pair will cross the night sky together and set in the west before sunrise, by which time the distance between them is halved.
Friday, February 17 evening - Venus Reaches Maximum Brightness
On February 17, Venus reaches maximum brightness for the current evening apparition. A telescope will reveal that Venus is showing a waning crescent phase, but has brightened due to its larger apparent disk diameter as it moves towards Earth, on its way towards inferior conjunction with the Sun.
Monday, February 20 pre-dawn – Moon meets Saturn
Low in the eastern sky in the hours before dawn on Monday, February 20, the waning crescent moon will sit less than 7 degrees above yellowish Saturn. With Saturn rising at 3:30 am local time, the pair is best viewed before 6 am local time.
Sunday, February 26 - Annular Solar Eclipse
An annular solar eclipse, produced when the moon is near perigee and leaves a ring of sunlight visible during totality, occurs on Sunday, February 26. The track for this eclipse will commence west of southern Chile and Argentina, cross the Southern Atlantic Ocean, and end over Angola, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The partial eclipse will be visible over most of South America, Africa, and Antarctica. Maximum eclipse occurs in the South Atlantic at 14:54 UT. The Sun will appear only slightly larger than the Moon. North Americans can view live broadcasts of the eclipse online, with totality occurring about noon EST.
Sunday, February 26 evening – See Mars near Uranus in Your Telescope
Just after 7 pm Eastern Standard Time on the evening of Sunday, February 26, Mars will pass within 34 arc-minutes (about the moon's diameter) to the upper right of blue-green Uranus. The pair of planets will be in the lower third of the western sky, situated between the strings of stars defining the two fishes of Pisces. The two planets should fit together in the field of view of a low power eyepiece, regardless of telescope (1 degree and 30 arc-minutes FOV circles shown). For a reference to help in finding them, Venus will be shining brightly about 11 degrees to the lower right.
Tuesday, February 28 evening – Moon near Venus and Mars
In the western early evening sky on Tuesday, February 28, the waxing crescent moon will form a lovely triangular grouping with Venus and Mars. The trio will make a nice widefield photo opportunity. Use binoculars or a telescope to hunt for Uranus 1.5 degrees below Mars.
For the first half of February, Mercury is completing a morning apparition. This has been a poor one for northern hemisphere observers due to the shallow ecliptic, but a good one for the southern hemisphere. During the month, it recedes from Earth and drops sunwards towards superior conjunction next month – causing its disk to decrease in diameter, brighten, and wax from a slim crescent to a nearly full disk.
During February,Venus continues to shine brightly in the western early evening sky, reaching maximum brilliance on Feb 17. It spends the month among the stars of Pisces, its disk growing in diameter and waning to a slim crescent as we close the distance between us. In the western early evening sky on Tuesday, Feb 28, the waxing crescent moon will form a broad triangular grouping with Venus and Mars, making a nice widefield photo opportunity.
Mars is a dim, but easily visible reddish object this winter. It shifts steadily eastward through Pisces during February, while maintaining its place in the western evening sky to the upper left of Venus. It sets about 9:50 pm local time. Through the month, it decreases in brightness and disk size as we increase our distance from it. In the western early evening sky on Tuesday, Feb 28, Mars joins the waxing crescent moon and Venus to form a broad triangular grouping.
Very bright Jupiter sits only 4 degrees above the bright star Spica in Virgo all month. As February begins, the planet rises in the east just before midnight. By the end of the month, Jupiter rises around 9:30 pm local time. All month long it can be spotted over the southwestern horizon as day breaks. On Feb 6, Jupiter halts its eastern motion and commences a four month long retrograde loop, which can be observed using its positional change compared to Spica. Starting on Tuesday evening, Feb 14 and continuing into Wednesday morning, the waning gibbous moon will rise and cross the sky with Jupiter, moving from less than 6 degrees above the planet to half that separation at sunrise. They'll fit within a binocular field of view and make a nice photo opportunity.
Yellow tinted Saturn, in the pre-dawn eastern sky, moves from southern Ophiuchus into Sagittarius on February 24. By month end it rises about 3 am local time, but it can be spotted low in the southeastern sky by dawn all month long. On Monday morning, February 20, the waning crescent moon will sit less than 7 degrees above Saturn, with the pair best viewed before 6 am local time.
Throughout February, Uranus is in the southwestern evening sky, in the constellation of Pisces and visible from nightfall until mid evening. At magnitude 5.8, it is not readily visible with unaided eyes, but binoculars or a small telescope can reveal it as a tiny blue-green dot.
Neptune, in the constellation of Aquarius all month, is heading towards solar conjunction on March 1 and is invisible within the glow of the southwestern sky at dusk.
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.