As almost everyone knows, the Earth is not alone in space. It has seven siblings, other planets that also orbit the Sun. Five of these – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn – can be spotted with only the naked eye. But which planets can be seen tonight?
Planets when they are visible, appear as bright “stars” that will gradually move over time. Mercury and Venus move the quickest and careful daily observation will reveal their passage against the brighter background stars.
Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn can also be seen to move. Slower than Mercury and Venus, you may need to note their positions and watch them carefully for several weeks to notice a change.
The two most distant planets – Uranus and Neptune – require binoculars or a telescope to be seen. As with the other worlds, you can track their movements but you’ll need a good star chart and months to notice a difference.
Every world is different but whether you’re looking at one of the five easily visible planets or the fainter pair, you’ll notice they all have one thing in common: unless the planet is close to the horizon, they don’t appear to twinkle.
This helps us to identify the planet among the more distant stars and is especially useful when observing Uranus and Neptune. The reason they don’t twinkle is that they each appear as very small discs in the sky, whereas the stars are merely tiny points of light. The light of the stars is more susceptible to changes in the atmosphere and they will twinkle as a result.
Table of Contents
- Is Mercury, The Elusive Planet, Visible Tonight?
- Where Can You Find Venus?
- When Can We See Mars from Earth?
- Is Jupiter Visible Tonight?
- Saturn, the Ringed Planet
- Uranus, the Pale Blue Planet
- Neptune, the Sapphire Planet
- What Planets To See In the Upcoming Months?
Is Mercury, The Elusive Planet, Visible Tonight?
Of all the planets, Mercury is the closest to the Sun and, consequently, never strays very far from the Sun in the sky. It always appears close to the horizon just before sunrise or just after sunset and is never visible at midnight.
Taking just 88 days to complete one orbit, it moves quickly and may only be visible for a few weeks at a time. As a result, it can be tricky to spot and some people go their entire lives without ever seeing the planet at all.
Astute sky watchers keep track of its movements and wait for a crescent Moon to appear nearby. The Moon then serves as a convenient marker, allowing astronomers to more easily spot the pinkish-white light of the planet.
Binoculars won’t reveal anything of the planet and a telescope is required to see anything more than a point of light. A small telescope with a low magnification of only about 40x will show a tiny disc and a higher magnification will reveal phases like the Moon. If you want to see more detail, you’ll need a large telescope and a much higher magnification.
The list below shows the best times to see the planet until December 2021.
- Late June to mid July 2021
- Late October 2021
- Early to late May 2021
- Late August to late September 2021
- Late December 2021
Where Can You Find Venus?
Of all the planets, Venus is the most easily seen. It’s our closest neighbor and, after the Sun and Moon, is the third brightest natural object in the sky. It’s the second planet in distance from the Sun and, like Mercury, can only be seen in the predawn or evening twilight and never at midnight.
When visible, it appears as a brilliant white “star” for months on end and can be a very pretty sight when the Moon is nearby. If the planet is close to the horizon it will glimmer with a multitude of different colors, making it a very conspicuous sight. In fact, it has often been reported as a UFO by unsuspecting members of the public!
Good binoculars may show a very tiny disc, but a small telescope will show you more. Like Mercury, the planet has phases, like those of the Moon, and a magnification of around 100x should reveal this.
Venus is unmistakable. It’s the third brightest object in the sky (after the Sun and Moon) and appears as a brilliant white star. If you’d like to see it for yourself, you can catch it in the evening sky from late May 2021 until the end of the year.
When Can We See Mars from Earth?
Mars, the fourth in distance from the Sun (after the Earth) takes 687 days to complete an orbit and unfortunately, is only at its best every two years or so. When this happens, it appears as a brilliant coppery orange “star”, brighter than all the others in the sky.
You typically won’t be able to see anything more than a star-like point through binoculars. Sometimes, when the planet is at its best, a good pair of binoculars may just be able to show a tiny disc, but a telescope will always provide a better view.
Again, unless you’re observing the planet at its best, you may not see much. However, if the planet is close to the Earth, you’ll only need a magnification of about 50x to see a disc. Doubling the magnification to 100x may also reveal some dark surface markings and the glint of a polar ice cap.
Mars will remain visible in the evening sky until mid August 2021 and then it will disappear behind the Sun and re-emerge into the morning twilight in late November 2021.
Is Jupiter Visible Tonight?
Jupiter, the largest of the planets and fifth in distance from the Sun, takes nearly twelve years to orbit the Sun. It appears yellow-white to the naked eye, like pale gold.
Unlike the other planets, Jupiter is well worth a look with binoculars. Even a modest set of 10×50 binoculars will reveal a tiny disc and its four largest moons on either side of the planet. Sharp-eyed observers have even reported seeing these moons with just their eyes.
Nothing, however, compares to the view through a telescope. The moons are easily visible and can be tracked as they move from hour to hour.
The disc is clearly seen with a low magnification of about 30x while the dark bands of its atmosphere may also be glimpsed. Larger telescopes and magnifications may also reveal the famous Great Red Spot. This storm, large enough to swallow the Earth, has been observed for centuries.
If you want to spot this giant world in the night sky, the planet is best seen in the morning sky until late August and then remains visible for the rest of the year.
Saturn, the Ringed Planet
Saturn is the most distant planet known to the ancients. The planet appears as a yellow-ish starlike point to the naked eye but a small telescope is required to see its famous set of rings. Despite being the faintest of the naked eye planets, it still appears brighter than most stars and is easily seen when at its best.
For many, Saturn is the jewel in the crown of the solar system. When its rings appear wide open to us, good binoculars may show the planet as a tiny, elongated spark of light.
Nothing compares to seeing Saturn through a telescope for the first time. Small telescopes and a magnification of only about 30x are enough to show the rings. Several of its moons, such as Titan, are also visible.
Saturn is very close to Jupiter throughout 2021 and is visible at very similar times throughout the year. It’s at its best in early August and remains visible in the evening sky throughout the rest of the year.
Uranus, the Pale Blue Planet
Our next planet, Uranus, is faint but barely visible with the naked eye under dark skies. That being said, you have to know precisely where to look. For that reason, the vast majority of astronomers use binoculars or a telescope to observe this distant world.
It orbits the Sun once every 84 years, taking about seven years to move through each constellation of the zodiac. It starts the year among the faint stars of Pisces, the Fish, and then moves into Aries the Ram by mid-February. It will remain there for the rest of the year.
Binoculars show the planet as an unblinking pale blue-white “star”, but nothing more is visible. A small telescope may reveal a disc at about 40x but, typically, a magnification closer to 100x is needed. Unfortunately, the planet is too distant to show any atmospheric markings without a larger telescope and a higher magnification.
Neptune, the Sapphire Planet
Neptune, the most distant planet from the Sun, can only be seen with binoculars or a small telescope. Like Uranus, it won’t appear as anything more than a star through binoculars and a high magnification is required to see a disc through a telescope. What sets Neptune apart is its color – it’s quite clearly blue, causing it to stand out from the surrounding stars.
As the slowest moving planet, it takes nearly 165 years to complete an orbit of the Sun and therefore spends nearly fourteen years in each constellation.
What Planets To See In the Upcoming Months?
There isn’t a night in 2021 when at least one of the planets isn’t visible. Only thing that changes is what planets you can see tonight.
The brightest of these “moving stars” can be observed and tracked as they wander across the sky. Pretty soon, with a little help from the Moon, you can easily learn to find and identify each one – a skill that, once learned, will not be soon forgotten.
Mars’ solitude in the evening sky finally comes to an end this month as first Mercury, then Venus, both return to the twilight after sunset. Mercury becomes visible low over the west-north-western horizon around the 5th and is probably best seen from about the 15th to the 20th. A crescent Moon is just to its left on the 13th, making it an ideal marker to help you find the tiny planet.
Venus creeps above the same horizon around mid-month and forms a very close conjunction with Mercury on the 28th. Look for the pair about ten degrees above the horizon around 15 or 20 minutes after sunset. It’s another fine binocular sight to look for.
Mars now sets nearly four hours after the Sun but isn’t a very spectacular sight. A crescent Moon is to the lower right on the 15th. Jupiter and Saturn are both visible for about three hours before sunrise, with the last quarter Moon passing them both from the 3rd to the 5th. The Moon then returns, as a waxing gibbous, to appear between the two planets on the 31st.
Mercury has now vanished from the evening sky, leaving Venus and Mars alone in the twilight. Venus spends the month distancing itself from the Sun, but remains a steady brightness throughout. A one day old crescent Moon appears to its right on the 11th. The gap between Venus and Mars will close during the 30 days of June, but the planets won’t be at their closest until July.
Saturn starts to rise before midnight from around the 11th, with Jupiter doing the same from the 24th onwards. Look for a waning gibbous Moon to the lower right of Jupiter on the 1st. It will return to appear below Saturn on the 27th before appearing close to Jupiter again on the 28th and 29th. Mercury makes a return to the pre-dawn twilight for the last few days of the month, but it will be very low over the eastern horizon and difficult to spot.
This is the last full month you’ll be able to see Mars in the evening sky. It’s losing its race against the Sun and the distance between it and Venus is growing smaller too. The pair will fit within the same binocular view from about the 2nd to the 22nd with the waxing crescent Moon close by on the 11th and 12th. Keep your eye on the two planets from the 10th to the 15th. Venus will pass Mars during this time, with the pair being closest on the 12th and 13th of the month.
Jupiter and Saturn are both rising before midnight but you’ll have to wait until the end of the month to easily see them both over the south-eastern horizon at 11pm. The just-past full Moon is to the right of Saturn on the evening of the 23rd and then passes Jupiter two nights later.
Meanwhile, Mercury can be glimpsed low down in the east-north-east during the first half of the month, but it won’t be easy to spot. Look for a waning crescent Moon just to its upper right about thirty minutes before sunrise on the 7th.
This is your last chance to see Mars in the evening sky this year. You might be able to spot it very low over the western horizon about half an hour after sunset, but it’s now quite faint and difficult to find. It’ll only be visible for about the first five days before it vanishes from view.
Venus is also fairly low in the west, but it’s a lot brighter and easier to spot than Mars. A crescent Moon appears to its right on the 10th.
Saturn reaches opposition on the 2nd, meaning it appears directly opposite the Sun in the sky. It therefore rises at sunset, sets at sunrise and is visible all night. It’s now at its brightest, and is also at its best when viewed through a telescope. A waxing gibbous Moon hangs to its lower left on the 20th.
Jupiter also reaches opposition this month, on the 20th. It’s now at its brightest, with it’s only rivals being Venus and the Moon. You can see the nearly full Moon close to the planet on the 21st.
Lastly, Mercury is lost within the Sun’s glare for almost the whole of August, but starts to make an appearance in the evening sky during the last few days of the month. Unfortunately, it’s too close to the horizon to be easily seen and will be a better target in September.
Mars may be temporarily invisible this month, but Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn can all be potentially seen in the evening sky. Mercury is the hardest. It doesn’t appear very high over the western horizon after sunset and will prove challenging to spot. Your best bet may be on the 8th, when the crescent Moon hangs just to its upper right. Using binoculars will help.
Venus continues to shine brilliantly and sets nearly two hours after the Sun by month end, but is still not at its best. Look for the crescent Moon to its right on the 9th.
The waxing gibbous Moon then appears below Saturn on the 16th and is close to Jupiter the following night. Both planets are moderately high over the south-eastern horizon at sunset and are still well placed for observation.
Mars remains invisible throughout October, leaving Venus, Jupiter and Saturn remaining in the evening twilight. Venus is still distancing itself from the Sun and sets nearly two and a half hours after the Sun by the end of the month. You’ll find a crescent Moon just to its upper left on the 9th.
Jupiter and Saturn emerge into the darkening sky over the south-eastern horizon after sunset, with the planets being at their best visibility between 8pm and 10pm. The first quarter Moon is to the lower right of Saturn on the 13th and will then appear close to Jupiter on the 14th and 15th.
If you’re an early riser, you might be able to catch Mercury in the pre-dawn twilight in the last ten days of the month. You’ll find it low over the eastern horizon at about twenty minutes before sunrise. It’s probably at its best around the 25th or 26th, when the planet is at its brightest, but unfortunately there’s no Moon or other bright stars or planets nearby to help you.
The November nights begin with Venus dominating the evening twilight skies for several hours after sunset. It remains above the horizon for about two and a half hours at the beginning of the month and for three and a quarter hours by month’s end. You’ll find a crescent Moon to its right on the 7th.
After you’ve seen Venus, look toward the south for Saturn and Jupiter. Venus appears to be catching up to them both, with the three planets being nearly equally spaced by November 30th. A first quarter Moon hangs close to Saturn on the 10th before sidling up to Jupiter the following night.
If you weren’t able to spot Mercury in the pre-dawn twilight at the end of last month, you’ll have a last chance during the first half of November. It’ll be low, but bright, and will appear over the east-south-eastern horizon.
If you have an unobstructed view, look out for a thin crescent Moon just above it on the morning of the 3rd, about twenty minutes before sunrise. You might also be able to spot the bright star Spica to its right. All three will fit within the same binocular field of view.
Lastly, Mars returns to visibility this month, also in the morning sky. If you’re lucky, you might just be able to glimpse it just to the upper right of Mercury on the 11th, but the pair will be challenging to say the least. The planet doesn’t brighten or rise too much this month, and with no close passes by the Moon, you’ll be lucky to see it.
If you thought Venus would catch up to Jupiter and Saturn, you’re unfortunately mistaken. Our nearest planetary neighbor is now moving rapidly closer toward the Sun in the evening sky, but there’s still plenty of time to enjoy it in the evening twilight. A crescent Moon appears below it on the 6th.
The Moon then appears below Saturn just a day later and below Jupiter on the 8th. Time is running out to observe both these giant worlds; Saturn remains above the horizon for a little over four hours, while Jupiter sets nearly six hours after the Sun at the beginning of the month. By New Year’s Eve, that time has shrunk by two hours to just two and a half hours for Saturn and four hours for Jupiter. Look to the south-west after sunset to spot the pair.
Mercury also puts in an appearance in the evening twilight for the last week of the year. It’ll be low over the south-western horizon, but Venus can act as a marker. Mercury appears directly below its brighter sibling on the 26th, and to its left on the 30th. On both occasions, the pair will fit within the same binocular field of view.
Meanwhile, in the morning sky, Mars continues to brighten slightly and is slowly distancing itself from the Sun. It forms a nice triad with the crescent Moon and orange star Antares on December 31st. Once again, you should be able to fit all three within the same binocular field of view, for a fine end to the year.