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. [Related: The 12 Must-See Stargazing Events to Look Up for in 2016]
Best Night Sky Events of May 2016 (Stargazing Maps)
See what's up in the night sky for May 2016 , including stargazing events, with a rare transit of Mercury across the sun on May 9.
Jupiter, Virgo Cluster and More In May 2016 Skywatching | Video
In May, the southern skies are home to the Gas Giant and its moons, Mars and Saturn. The Virgo Cluster of galaxies can be viewed with binoculars. Also, the Eta Aquarid meteor showers rain in early May.
Friday, May 6, 3:30 p.m. EDT
New Moon, May 2016
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.
Friday, May 13, 1:02 p.m. EDT
First Quarter Moon, May 2016
The First Quarter Moon rises around 12:30 p.m. and sets around 2:30 a.m. It dominates the evening sky.
Saturday, May 21, 5:14 p.m. EDT
Full Moon, May 2016
The May Full Moon is known as the Milk Moon, Flower Moon, or Corn Planting 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.
Sunday, May 29, 8:12 a.m. EDT
Last Quarter Moon, May 2016
The Last Quarter Moon rises around 1:45 a.m. and sets around 1:15 p.m. It is most easily seen just after sunrise in the southern sky.
Double shadow transit on Jupiter, May 2016
Saturday, May 7, 12:39–1:42 a.m. EDT
Shadows of Io and Callisto cross Jupiter simultaneously. The sun is behind us to the right, and Io is much closer to Jupiter than Callisto, so that its shadow is much closer to the moon casting it.
Transit of Mercury, May 2016
Monday, May 9, 7:12 a.m.–2:42 p.m. EDT
For 7 1/2 hours, Mercury will be visible crossing the face of the sun. A telescope with proper solar protection and magnifying at least 60 times is needed to see Mercury’s tiny disk.
Jupiter 2 degrees north of moon, May 2016
Sunday, May 15, 2 a.m. local time
The waxing gibbous moon will pass just south of Jupiter.
Mars at opposition, May 2016
Sunday, May 22, 7 a.m. EDT
Mars is directly opposite the sun in the sky, and is visible all night long.
Mars closest to Earth, May 2016
Monday, May 30, 6 p.m. EDT
Because of Mars’ elliptical obit, it is actually closest to Earth 8 days past opposition. This is the closest Mars has been to Earth since 2005.
Mercury transits in front of the sun on May 9. It will be well placed in the morning sky for observers in the Southern Hemisphere after May 19.
Venus is too close to the sun to be observed.
Mars is in opposition to the sun on May 22, and closest to Earth on May 30. This is generally a good apparition, but Mars is low in the southern sky for northern observers. It is visible all night in Scorpius.
Jupiter is well placed in the evening sky in Leo. It sets around 3 a.m.
Saturn is well placed in Ophiuchus, rising in late evening. Its rings are now spread widely, making it a beautiful sight in a small telescope.
Uranus is low in the eastern sky in Pisces, rising just before the sun.
Neptune is in the eastern morning sky in Aquarius.
- 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.