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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Calendar of Observing Highlights
Tuesday, October 3 at 4 a.m. EDT – Moon meets Neptune
In the western sky in the hours before dawn on Tuesday, October 3, the waxing gibbous moon will encounter Neptune. For observers in eastern North America, the pair will set at 4:30 a.m. local time, with the moon still some distance away. More westerly skywatchers will see the moon move within two degrees of Neptune before moonset. Observers in most of Antarctica, the southeastern tip of Australia, New Zealand, and southwestern Polynesia can see the moon occult the distant blue planet.
Thursday, October 5 pre-dawn - Venus grazes Mars
In the eastern pre-dawn sky of Thursday, October 5, bright Venus will sit very close to much dimmer Mars. At only 0.25 degrees separation, the two planets will fit within the view of a backyard telescope's eyepiece. The two planets will be slightly farther apart on the surrounding mornings.
Thursday, October 5 at 2:40 p.m. EDT - Full Hunter's Moon
The full moon of October, traditionally called the Hunter's Moon, Blood Moon, or Sanguine Moon, always shines in or near the stars of Cetus and Pisces. Since it's opposite the sun on this day of the lunar month, it rises at sunset and sets at sunrise. This month's full moon is also the Harvest Moon, traditionally defined as the full moon closest to the September equinox.
Monday, October 9 pre-dawn – Moon meets Aldebaran
From midnight to dawn on Monday, October 9, the waning gibbous moon will move towards the Taurus the Bull's brightest star Aldebaran. Observers in central and northeastern Asia will see the moon pass in front of the star.
Thursday, October 12 at 8:25 a.m. EDT - Last Quarter Moon
Last quarter moons rise around midnight and remain visible in the southern sky during morning daylight. At this phase, the moon is illuminated on the eastern side, towards the pre-dawn sun. At last quarter, the moon is positioned ahead of the Earth in our trip around the sun. About 3½ hours later, earth will occupy that same location in space. After last quarter, the waning moon wane traverses the last quarter of its orbit around the earth, on the way to new moon.
Sunday, October 15 at 5:44 a.m. EDT – Moon Occults Regulus
In the eastern pre-dawn sky on Sunday, October 15, much of North America will see the lit leading edge of the old crescent moon pass over the bright star Regulus. The star will reappear from behind the dark limb about an hour later. Times and durations vary by region. Northeastern USA observers will see the event start at 5:44 a.m. and end in twilight at 6:43 a.m. EDT. The mid-west will witness a shorter occultation.
Tuesday, October 17 pre-dawn – Venus and Mars meet the Moon
Between 5 a.m. local time and dawn on Tuesday, October 17, the old crescent moon will be visible sitting about 1 degree to the left of dim reddish Mars. Bright Venus will be a palm's width below the two objects. Hours later, observers in central Asia will see the moon's orbital motion carry it within 2 degrees of Venus.
Wednesday, October 18 pre-dawn – Morning Zodiacal Light for Northern Hemisphere Observers
During moonless periods in September and October, the steep morning ecliptic favors the appearance of the zodiacal light in the eastern sky for about half an hour before dawn. This is reflected sunlight from interplanetary particles concentrated in the plane of the solar system. During the two weeks starting just before the new moon on October 19, look east for a broad wedge of light rising from the horizon and centered on the ecliptic (marked by green line).
Thursday, October 19 all night - Uranus at Opposition
Uranus reaches opposition on October 19th, making it the closet for the year and visible all night. Throughout October, it moves retrograde (westwards) between the two fishes of Pisces.
Thursday, October 19 at 3:12 p.m. EDT - New Moon
When new, the moon is travelling between the Earth and sun. Sunlight is only reaching the side of the moon that is turned away from us, and it's in the same region of the sky where the sun is, so it cannot be seen. A day or two after new moon, look for the slender sliver of the waxing crescent moon low above the western horizon after sunset.
Saturday, October 21 pre-dawn - Orionid Meteor Shower Peak
The annual Orionid meteor shower, composed of debris from repeated passages of Comet Halley, runs from September 23 to November 27. It peaks between midnight and dawn on Saturday, October 21 under a dark moonless sky. At that time the sky overhead is moving directly into the densest region of the particle field, producing 10-20 fast meteors per hour. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but will be travelling away from the constellation of Orion.
October 23 and 24 early evening – Moon passes Saturn
In the southwestern early evening sky in late October, the young crescent moon will hop over yellowish Saturn, making a nice sight in binoculars. On Tuesday, October 23 the moon will sit 7 degrees to the right of the ringed planet, and then the following evening it will sit 5 degrees to the upper left.
Friday, October 27 at 6:22 p.m. EDT - First Quarter Moon
At first quarter, the relative positions of the Earth, sun, and moon cause us to see one-half of the moon illuminated by the sun - 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 shape, but the fact that our natural satellite has now completely the first quarter of its orbital journey around Earth since the last new moon.
Sunday, October 29 evening – Pallas at Opposition
On Sunday, October 29, the major asteroid Pallas reaches opposition, when it is closest to Earth and brightest for this year. In October, it moves westward through the stars of Eridanus, which is west of Orion, and it visible in a backyard telescope.
Monday, October 30 evening - Neptune near the Moon
On the evening of Monday, October 30, the waxing gibbous moon will sit less than 2 degrees below tiny blue Neptune - their second encounter of the month. For most of Antarctica and the southern tip of Africa, the moon will occult the planet.
Mercury reaches superior conjunction with the sun on October 8thand eventually emerges from the western evening twilight at the close of October when it commences a very poor apparition for mid-northern observers.
Extremely bright Venus shines in the eastern pre-dawn sky during October, dropping steadily lower as it swings sunwards. On the mornings surrounding Thursday, October 5, Venus will pass very close to much dimmer Mars. Only 0.25 degrees apart at closest approach, the two planets will fit within the field of view of a backyard telescope's eyepiece.
During October Mars climbs away from the sun in the eastern pre-dawn sky while its prograde (eastern) motion carries it from Leo into Virgo on October 13. Meanwhile, Mars will brighten slightly as it slowly decreases its distance from Earth. On October 5, descending Venus will pass within only 0.25 degrees of Mars, making both planets visible together in the field of view of a backyard telescope. On October 17, the old crescent moon will be situated only one degree to the left of Mars.
For the first third of October, Jupiter, moving prograde through Virgo, can be observed briefly after sunset, embedded in the twilight very low in the western sky. After passing solar conjunction on October 26, it will return to visibility in November, when it enters the morning pre-dawn sky.
Yellow-tinted Saturn spends October in the southwestern evening sky travelling eastward through the stars of southern Ophiuchus. It is visible with naked eyes starting at dusk, setting about 10:30 pm local time on the 1stand just after 8:30 pm at month end. On Tuesday, October 23 the young crescent moon will sit 7 degrees to the right of the ringed planet. The following evening it will hop to sit 5 degrees to the upper left.
Moving retrograde (westwards) through the stars of Pisces during October, Uranus reaches opposition on October 19, when it will be closest to Earth for this year. As a result, the blue-green planet will be visible all night this month. At visual magnitude 5.7, Uranus is observable in binoculars and also with naked eyes under dark skies. The star Omicron Piscium, located about 1 degree to the planet's lower left, will aid in finding it.
During October, tiny blue Neptune is observable all night in telescopes as it moves retrograde (westwards) in Aquarius. The naked eye star Hydor, located only 0.5 degrees above the planet, will aid in finding it with binoculars and telescopes. In the pre-dawn western sky on Tuesday, October 3, the waxing gibbous moon will approach Neptune, with observers in most of Antarctica, the southeastern tip of Australia, New Zealand, and southwestern Polynesia seeing the moon occult the planet. On the evening of Monday, Oct. 30, the waxing gibbous moon will sit less than 2 degrees below Neptune. For most of Antarctica and the southern tip of Africa, the moon will occult the planet.
Gibbous: Used to describe a planet or moon that is more than 50% 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.