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 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.
Summer Stargazing Tips
Planets 'Dance' with the Moon & Perseid Meteor 'Rain' This Month | Video
Find out where to find the planets' Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune in the night sky. Dwarf planets' Pluto and Ceres are also visible with the aid of telescopes. The Perseid Meteor shower peaks on Aug. 11-12.
August 2016 Skywatching: Planets, Constellations and the Perseids | Video
Learn where to spot Jupiter, Saturn and Mars this month. The constellation's of Lyra, Cygnus and more have a bevy of targets to view. Also, the Perseid Meteor shower peaks on Aug. 11-12.
Tuesday, August 2, 4:45 p.m. EDT
The moon is passing between the Earth and sun and appears in the same region of the sky where the sun is. Sunlight is falling on that side of the moon that is turned away from us, so as a consequence it cannot be seen. A couple of days 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.
Wednesday, August 10, 2:21 p.m. EDT
First Quarter Moon
After a little over a week, the geometry between the Earth, sun and moon allows us to see one-half of the moon illuminated by the sun. In the sky, the bright half is on the right side facing toward the sun. The moon is visible half the time by day – the afternoon hours – and the other half at night, during the evening hours. It rises around noontime and sets around midnight. Those who are confused about the terminology of a quarter moon, even though it’s really a “half-moon” should realize that starting from new moon, our natural satellite has now completely the first quarter of its orbital journey around Earth.
Thursday, August 18, 5:27 a.m. EDT
The full moon of August, traditionally called the Sturgeon Moon, Grain Moon or Green Corn Moon, and always shines in or near the stars of Capricornus, the Sea Goat. Some think of it in terms of poetry and romance, but it’s a bane to stargazers, lighting up the night sky and dimming or hiding all but the brightest stars. Being opposite to the sun it rises at sunset, sets at sunrise. Just prior to sunset your shadow will point toward that part of the horizon where the full moon will soon make its appearance.
Wednesday, August 24, 11:41 p.m.
Last Quarter Moon
After full phase the moon is now diminishing in illumination. Now 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 side. The moon is now 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 that same part of space where the moon is now. The noon now begins to traverse the last quarter of its orbit in its trip around the Earth.
Moon Points Way to Mercury
Thursday, Aug. 4, 20 to 30 minutes after sunset
An exceedingly thin crescent moon, just two days past new phase, sits to the lower left of the planet Mercury. Scan low above the western horizon with good binoculars to pick them out of the bright evening twilight. Well to their lower right shines Venus, while higher up to their upper left glows Jupiter.
Jupiter Pairs with the Moon
Friday, Aug. 5, 20 to 30 minutes after sunset
You won't need binoculars to see this. The crescent moon is a bit higher and wider and Jupiter should readily be seen with the unaided eye through the light of the bright twilight glow. The largest planet in the solar system will stand less than 2 degrees above the upper cusp of the lunar crescent.
August Fireworks: The Perseid Meteors
Late Thursday night, August 11 into the morning hours of Friday, August 12
The Perseids are the most famous of all meteor showers. It never fails to provide an impressive display and due to its summertime appearance, it tends to provide the majority of meteors seen by non-astronomy enthusiasts. Initially, there is going to be a significant hindrance for prospective meteor watchers in the form of a gibbous moon.
Three for the Money: Two planets and a colorful star
Tuesday/Wednesday (Aug. 23-24), 60 to 90 minutes after sunset
Three bright objects will hover in an eye-catching vertical line in the south-southwest sky as darkness falls. The brightest will be in the middle of the trio: Mars shining with a fiery yellow-orange glow. Above Mars is the ringed wonder, mellow, yellow Saturn (a telescope magnifying 30x or more will bring out the rings) and below Mars is its "rival" the 1st-magnitude star, Antares, shining with a distinctly reddish light.
Dynamic duo: A stupendously close conjunction of the two brightest planets!
Saturday, Aug. 27, 30 to 45 minutes after sunset
Venus and Jupiter engage in their closest conjunction in nearly a half a century. Along the U.S. East Coast they will come to within 4 arc minutes of each other around sunset, low above the western horizon, possibly appearing like some super-brilliant star; Venus will appear about 8 times brighter and hover just above the dimmer Jupiter. By the time the sun sets for the west coast, the distance between them will have noticeably increased, but will still make for an eye-catching sight in the twilight sky.
Mercury is in the evening sky all through August, but very low in the evening twilight near the west-southwest horizon about 20 to 30 minutes after sunset. Greatest elongation from the sun is on the 16th, but overall this is a poor apparition for those living in the Northern Hemisphere.
Venus is also very low in the western sky in August, but easier to pick out in the twilight because of its great brightness. It will have a spectacularly close conjunction with Jupiter on the 27th.
Mars is visible as a very bright yellow-orange "star" in the south-southwest sky as darkness falls. It will form a striking vertical line along with Saturn and the bright red star Antares on August 23 and 24.
Jupiter drops deeper in the western evening twilight each evening in August, while also getting closer to Venus. The two engage in a remarkably tight conjunction on August 27.
Saturn is visible in the south-southwest after sunset, not setting until after midnight. It will form an eye-catching array with Mars and the ruddy star Antares on August 23-24.
Uranus, appearing as a greenish-blue star, barely visible to the unaided eye (magnitude 5.8) is in the constellation Pisces and rises late in the evening and remains in the sky the rest of the night.
Neptune in the constellation Aquarius, is a very dim, nearly 8th-magnitude object and is visible only with very good binoculars or a telescope. It rises during the mid-evening hours and remains visible the rest of the night.
- 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.