The planets of our Solar System are one of the constant features in the night skies. Always in motion, they are fascinating to observe as they cross the heavens. Most of the planets are relatively bright, but some can be quite a fun challenge to observe. This ultimate planet viewing guide is the perfect resource if you are wondering which planets are visible tonight and where to find the planets in the night sky.
The guide also includes great facts on transits, occultations, the greatest elongations and for Mercury and Venus, and oppositions for the outer planets.
What Planets are Visible Right Now?
The five planets closest to Earth are easily visible to the naked eye, hence the term ‘naked eye planets’. The naked eye planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Uranus is also technically visible to the unaided eye but because it borders on the limit of what the unaided eye can see, it is quite difficult to distinguish from surrounding stars and requires dark skies and ideal conditions to detect without aid.
All planets are visible for most of the year, but there are definitely ideal times for viewing the different planets. There are times when the planets are not visible for some weeks or months at a time because they lie too close to the Sun.
We can divide the planets into two categories: the inferior planets Mercury and Venus, and the Superior planets Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The inferior planets lie within the Earth’s orbit. The superior planets are the planets that lie outside of Earth’s orbit, further away from the Sun.
Viewing the planets is quite different depending on if it is an inferior or superior planet.
Due to their proximity to the Sun, the inferior planets appear to change their position in the sky very quickly from one night to the next. Our view of the inferior planets from the outside of their orbits allows us to observe the phases of Mercury and Venus, just as we can see the phases of the Moon. Yes, you can see a crescent of Mercury or a gibbous Venus with a good large telescope!
The best time to view Mercury and Venus is when they are at their greatest elongation, the time when they appear to lie furthest away from the Sun as seen from Earth. Greatest eastern elongation is when the planet is seen furthest from the Sun in the evening after sunset. The greatest western elongation is when the planet is seen furthest away from the Sun in the morning before Sunrise, because it appears west of the Sun. Times of greatest elongation give an observer a better view of the planet because it does not lie in the Sun’s glare, and can be viewed for longer periods.
The worst time to view planets is when they are in conjunction, forming a straight line with Earth and the Sun. Conjunctions result in the planet being lost in the bright and harmful glare of the Sun. There are two types of conjunctions for inferior planets. An inferior conjunction is when the planet lies between Earth and the Sun, while a superior conjunction is when the planet lies behind the Sun.
Astronomy is a natural science of beautiful exceptions. If Mercury or Venus are at inferior conjunction and lie on the ecliptic (the apparent path of the Sun) we get to view rare transits of Mercury and Venus as they move across the face of the Sun. Transits of Venus usually occur only once a century, while transits of Mercury occur approximately 13 times in a century.
The superior planets have their own unique viewing qualities. Their orbits are further from the Sun than Earth’s and a result they appear to change position in the sky more slowly than the inferior planets. From Earth, we can only ever see the sides of the superior planets which face the Sun, and they therefore always appear as a full disk without going through any phases. Superior planets only form superior conjunctions with the Earth and Sun.
The best time to view superior planets is when they are at opposition, appearing opposite the Sun in the sky. This means they appear furthest away from the Sun in the sky, with Earth lying in between the planet and the Sun. This is the perfect time for viewing superior planets as they are visible for extended hours throughout the night.
Is Mercury Visible Tonight?
Mercury is one of the most challenging planets to view due to its close proximity to the Sun. The planet is always close to the horizon, following or heralding the Sun, and always bathed in the star’s light. We never get to see Mercury in true darkness. When the planet is visible, it is not for much longer than an hour before or after the sun rises or sets. An elevated, clear vantage point is ideal in helping you hunt down the planet and get optimum views.
Mercury can be found as an evening apparition early in the year when it isn’t at conjunction. The planet reaches its greatest western elongation 27th February and is located in Pisces. The apparition favours northern observers. The planet is at its greatest western elongation on 11th April, seen this time in the early morning sky. This morning apparition is best viewed from the Southern Hemisphere and is located in Aquarius.
Southern observers can catch a peak of the planet 23rd June when it is at greatest eastern elongation and found in the constellation Gemini. The tables turn when the planet once again appears as a morning apparition at greatest western elongation in the constellation Cancer on 9th August, best viewed from the Northern Hemisphere. The planet makes its way into the constellation Libra toward the end of the year, first appearing as an evening apparition on 20th October before Mercury’s final greatest elongation for the year, seen as a morning apparition on 28th November.
The true Mercurian treat of the year comes on 11th November when observers across most of the world get to view a rare transit of Mercury. It is not to be missed as it is so rare it only occurs an average 13 times a century. This will be the first transit of Mercury since 2016, and will be visible from the Americas, the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, New Zealand, Europe, Africa and the south and west of Asia as well as Antarctica. Unfortunately the transit is not visible from East Asia, Japan, Indonesia and Australia.
Because of its proximity to the Sun, care must always be taken when viewing Mercury – especially with binoculars and telescopes. Only a suitable solar telescope or a telescope fitted with a full aperture custom solar filter is suitable for viewing the transit of Mercury. The same is true for observing Mercury’s phases. Read here for more on solar telescopes and filters.
Is Venus Visible Tonight?
Venus is the second brightest object in the night sky after the Moon; by far the brightest planet. It is closer to the Sun than Earth, so we always see the planet trailing or shepherding the Sun. Lying much further from the Sun than Mercury, we get to see Venus for more hours before sunrise and after sunset, and even get to view it shining brilliantly in true darkness.
Another very special Venusian characteristic is that the planet is so bright it can even be seen during the day! Special care must always be taken if you are viewing Venus during daylight to ensure protection and safety for your eyes. Venus is also luminous enough that it casts its own shadow which you may see on a dark and moonless night. Like Mercury, Venus also goes through phases, and it is fascinating to observe our sister planet as a crescent and gibbous disk.
On 15th January, Venus will move unmistakably close to the bright orange star that marks the heart of Scorpius, Antares. The planet has also been slowly creeping its way toward Jupiter since December. You can see the planets as they draw toward a beautiful conjunction throughout the middle weeks of January. By 22nd January, the two brightest planets form a planetary conjunction in the east before sunrise. Planetary conjunctions are alignments of the planets as seen from Earth. This particular planetary conjunction has quite a wide separation of over 2 degrees, but is worth observing either way. It is visible the world over, and you can catch a glimpse of a 60% illuminated gibbous Venus at the same time.
The end of January provides a chance for viewers of Central and Eastern Pacific ocean and North West South America to witness a lunar occultation of Venus, as the crescent Moon momentarily blocks the planet from view. The occultation occurs in darkness/ at twilight for the Central Pacific and in daylight further east, where it will still be visible.
February is a busy month for the planet. Venus offers a great telescope target on the 4th and 5th as it passes 3.3 degrees north of the magnitude 6 Lagoon Nebula (M8). The nebula is also visible to the naked eye under dark skies and good conditions. On 11th February, Venus is 2.7 degrees north of the globular cluster M22; also visible to the naked eye and a wonder to view through binoculars. A conjunction of Venus and Saturn occurs on the morning of 18th February, providing a lovely opportunity to view the ringed planet.
The third week of March sees Venus at magnitude -4 alongside magnitude 2.5 Mercury in the dawn sky. The planets move closer together in the following days, and join for a conjunction on 3rd April. Visible only south of the northern tropics, the conjunction is a challenging one to observe. A waning crescent moon joins the two planets from 1st – 3rd April, and the three bodies are viewed together once more from 2nd – 4th May.
A final visible planetary conjunction involving the bright planet takes place 18th May as Venus and Uranus (magnitude 5.9) meet in the morning sky. Uranus is right on the cusp of naked eye visibility, and with the timing as well the incredible difference in brightness between the two planets, the conjunction is not that spectacular. It can only be viewed south of the northern tropics yet again.
Venus then makes an appearance in Taurus come June. Southern observers may catch a glimpse of the planet passing the Pleiades open cluster, though the timing before dawn is not ideal for viewing the stars. The planet will also pass 4.8 degrees north of Aldebaran the giant orange star that marks the eye of the Bull.
A superior conjunction takes place 14th August, shortly after Venus enters Leo, and the planet is lost to the Sun’s glare for several weeks before becoming visible again later in the year when it reappears again now as the evening star.
Is Mars Visible Tonight?
The red planet is the first of the superior planets. Even with the naked eye, the planet’s distinct rusty colour is visible. There are many great characteristics to view through a telescope too. It is one of only two planets (the other being Mercury) where the surface can be observed through medium and large telescopes.
While superior planets do not go through phases, the Earth does sometimes cast its shadow on neighbouring Mars, which gives the latter the appearance of a gibbous disk through a decent sized telescope. A telescope of 8+ inches makes it possible to see Phobos and Deimos, Mars’ two moons. Be sure to also observe Mars’ polar ice caps.
February 13th sees Mars entering the constellation Aries and marks the first conjunction involving Mars for the year. The planet meets with Uranus in evening skies, separated by 1 degree. While the conjunction is visible the world over, the positions of the planets favour northern latitudes. Uranus is near the naked eye limit at magnitude 5.8 while Mars is at a much brighter magnitude 1. Dark skies and visual aid make the pairing more easily visible.
Mars then enters Taurus 23rd March and passes the Pleiades between the 29th and 31st of the month. It moves to Gemini 17th May and reaches its most northerly declination until 2021. It is also visible near M35; an open star cluster the apparent size of the Moon, containing over 400 stars.
Mercury makes its reappearance in the dusk skies of mid-June and the gap between the two planets is steadily bridged over the following days. The conjunction of Mars and Mercury on the 18th is placed for southern latitudes, lying wonderfully close together with a separation of less than 0.2 degrees.
A waxing crescent moon passes Mars and Mercury on 4th July, while the 7th sees a widely separated conjunction of Mars and Mercury only visible south of the northern latitudes. The red planet reaches conjunction 2nd September, and is obscured from sight before re-emerging in the eastern morning skies from early October.
Is Jupiter Visible Tonight?
Jupiter is by far the biggest planet in the Solar System, so it is the third brightest object in the night sky despite its far distance from Earth.
A medium to large telescope reveals several Jovian features including the planets gas bands, the impressive Great Red Spot which is a centuries old raging storm, and the planet’s four largest moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. They appear as dots of light either side of the large planet, and you may observe the moons transit the face of their parent body.
The planet starts the year off with a conjunction along with the brightest planet Venus on 22nd January, located in the constellation Scorpius. The planets are not as close as some of the more photogenic conjunctions – being separated by some 2.26 degrees – but with their obvious brightness (and joined by the red star Antares close by) the conjunction is still one worth noting.
The planet remains in Scorpius for the earlier parts of the year until mid-April when it turns retrograde and moves from East to West into Ophiuchus.
Jupiter reaches opposition on 10th June, meaning it is at its closest (to Earth), brightest and best. It shines at a brilliant magnitude -2.5. By mid-August, it will once resume its direct path from West to East, eventually crossing Sagittarius’ borders in November. The 24th of the month offers a beautiful evening conjunction with Venus once again, this time with a narrower separation of 1.48 degrees. The conjunction is not visible from higher Northern latitudes.
Jupiter is lost to view for most of December as it is at superior conjunction, and only makes an appearance again in the morning skies in mid-January 2020.
Is Saturn Visible Tonight?
The last of the traditional naked eye planets is the magnificent ringed planet Saturn. It is one of the most popular telescope targets for obvious reasons: observing the rings at differing angles, observing individual rings and the Cassini Division, and catching a peak of the planet’s four largest moons: Enceladus, Dione, Tethys and Rhea.
You can find Saturn in Sagittarius early in the year. Saturn and Venus meet for a conjunction on 18th February. They are separated by over a degree, and the conjunction is best viewed from the south. It is not visible from higher up north. Both planets join again late in the year when they form another conjunction on 11th December at Dusk in northern regions. They are separated by just under two degrees, and it is a relatively challenging conjunction to view.
The ringed planet is also obscured in a series of visible lunar occultations throughout the year: 1st March, 29th March, 25 April, 22nd May, 19th June, 12th August, 8th September, and 2nd November.
Are Uranus and Neptune Visible Tonight?
Uranus is usually slightly under magnitude 6, making it visible to the naked eye on a dark, clear night. The planet is indistinguishable from neighbouring stars, and does not show any significant detail through binoculars or even a telescope. Viewing conditions are not any better for the outermost major planet Neptune. It is never bright enough to be viewed without optical aid, and also shows no noticeable features through binoculars or a telescope. Viewing these two planets requires ideal conditions, a detailed almanac, skill, patience, and a sprinkling of luck.
It is worth noting that Uranus is at superior conjunction on 23rd April and opposition on 28th October, while Neptune is at superior conjunction 7th March and opposition 10th September.
What Planets are Visible Chart
The below table is a summary of when the 7 major planets are visible throughout the months of 2019. Use the following keys to interpret the table:
Mor: The planet is visible during the morning hours, in the hours after midnight and before dawn, reaching its highest point during these hours.
Eve: The planet is visible in the hours after dusk and before midnight.
Dusk: The planet is visible in the hour or so before sunset.
Dawn: The planet is visible in the hour or so before sunrise.
AN: The planet can be seen all night or for most of the night.
* Cells that are blank show that the planet is at superior conjunction and lies too close to the sun to be visible from any location on Earth.
** It is possible that an observer will not be able to view the planet/s at the allocated times depending on latitude, local season and the apparent magnitude of the planet at the given time. It is always best to check your local almanac and weather conditions to get the most accurate picture of when the planets are best visible from your location.