How To Identify Planets in the Night Sky - Adler Planetarium (2022)

Have you ever looked up at the night sky and wondered if a particularly bright star was actually a planet? It can be tricky business, but with some helpful tools to equip you, you’ll be identifying planets in no time! Follow this guide to figure out if what you’re looking at is a planet or a star.

Before we get started, we’re going to assume two things: first, that you’re not looking at the night sky with a telescope but rather with the naked eye, and second, that you’re in a place where your view isn’t blocked by large buildings, really tall trees, etc.

What Planets Are Visible By the Naked Eye?

The first step to identifying planets is to know which planets are possible to see without a telescope. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are the five brightest planets in our night sky and, therefore, observable by most people. Of this list, Mercury can be the hardest one to spot… it is the closest planet to the Sun and is never seen too far from the Sun, so its low altitude and the glare of the rising or setting sun can make it hard to pick out.

Are Planets Visible At the Same Time Each Year?

In short, no. It is important to note that while we can see the brightest planets fairly regularly, there isn’t a single time in every year that is best for a particular planet. Planets move around the Sun at different rates and the Earth moves around the Sun, so the combination of these movements means we see planets in the night sky at different times each year.

What Do Planets Look Like?

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The easiest way to pick out planets is to remember this quick rule of thumb: stars twinkle and planets don’t. Seen with the naked eye, planets and stars both appear as pinpoints of light. When you observe a star, you’ll notice that it twinkles and the light may appear to change colors. Planets don’t appear to twinkle much at all. Why the difference? Stars are MUCH farther away from us than planets, so the beam of light from a star is affected more by passing through our atmosphere than the beam of light from a much closer planet. Our air is the cause of twinkling. If you were out in space, neither planets or stars would twinkle at all!

Do Planets Always Look the Same?

Not exactly. Depending on how far a planet is from the Earth, it might look brighter or dimmer in the sky as compared to another time. The change in brightness for Jupiter and Saturn, for example, isn’t a huge amount. They are far enough from Earth that if we are a little closer or farther away, it doesn’t affect their brightness all that much. Mars, on the other hand, can look quite different from one year to the next. In late July 2018, Mars was around 40 million miles from the Earth and appeared very bright orange in the early evening sky. Several months into 2019 however, Earth had moved enough in its orbit that Mars was almost on the opposite side of the Sun—more than 200 million miles away! It was quite a bit dimmer at this point.

How close the planet is to the horizon also has a huge effect on how bright it appears. When a planet is high above the horizon, you are looking through less air to see it. When a planet is closer to the horizon, you are looking through more air, and so the planet will appear dimmer than when it was higher up in the sky.

Planets are also different colors! Mercury is white-ish in color and Venus is bright white. Mars is a rust-orange color. (We know, it’s called the Red Planet—what can we say? It’s orange.) Jupiter is a light tan color and Saturn is a yellow-ish tan color.

How To Know Which Planets Are Visible Tonight

Now that you know which planets are visible and what they might look like, you’ll need to know which planets are visible in your night sky. As previously mentioned, this will vary throughout the year and from year to year. It’s also important to note that you may not necessarily be able to see all five planets at the same time or in one night.

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To get started, you can enlist the help of one of the following online resources that help you know what’s visible in your sky tonight.

Using the resources above, you can plug in the date you’ll be observing as well as your location to get a list of which planets are visible in your area, at what times, and their location in the sky.

I Know What Planet(s) I Can View Tonight—But How Do I Know Where To Look?

Let’s use an example fromtimeanddate.comto explore how we can use the information provided to us to find the planet we’re looking for. Here are the basics of our observing information:

Date of Sky Observing:12/27/19
Location:Chicago, IL, USA

According to our date and location, we have the opportunity to see planets at the following times:

Mercury:From Saturday 6:51 am
Venus:Until Friday 7:04 pm
Mars:From Saturday 4:07 am
Jupiter:From Saturday 7:16 am
Saturn:Until Friday 5:36 pm

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First, you may wonder what the terms “from” and “until” mean. To really understand these listings, you have to take the time of the rising and setting of the Sun into account for this specific location.

December 27, 2019, was a Friday. This listing assumes the reader is viewing the information on that day.From Saturday 6:51 amfor Mercury means that the planet rose at 6:51 am on Saturday, December 28. Sunrise was at about 7:15 am that day, so for practical purposes, Mercury wasn’t visible because it was lost in the glare of the rising Sun. The same goes for Jupiter.From Saturday 7:16 ammeans that taking the time of sunrise into account, Jupiter rose at about the same time as the Sun did and also was not visible.

From Saturday 4:07 amfor Mars means that it rose at about 4:07 am. Sunrise was at about 7:15 am, so Mars was visible—local weather permitting, of course!—after it rose until the glare from the rising Sun blotted it out around 45 minutes or so prior to sunrise.

We’re now going to focus on the planet Venus. According to Time and Date, for this particular date and this location, it was best to view Venus after sunset until around the time Venus set, which was a little after 7:00 pm local time. As visibility improved and the sunset glare faded, Venus would have been quite bright. Let’s pretend we wanted to look for Venus around 6:00 pm that night. The chart below shows where in the sky Venus was throughout December 27, 2019, and specifically at 6:01 pm, as denoted by the yellow circle and orange dotted line:

How To Identify Planets in the Night Sky - Adler Planetarium (1)

Imagine the whole sky as you see it as a dome with its edges resting on the horizon. This dome will help us find thealtitudecoordinate, which is the angle the planet makes with the horizon. The horizon line is 0° and the sky straight above your head is 90°. This point above you is called thezenith. (Note that altitude numbers can be negative. If you see a negative number for a particular time and date, that means that the planet will be below the horizon line from your location at that time and, therefore, not visible.)

To find thedirection(also known asazimuth) coordinate, look for the degrees listing. If you face north and imagine the horizon all around you as a big flat circle, then true north is 0°, east is 90°, south is 180°, and west is 270°. At 6:01 pm on December 27, 2019, Venus had a direction of 233°. Since south is 180° and west is 270°, a direction of 233° places Venus about halfway between south and west.

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Putting this all together: at 6:01 pm on Friday, December 27, 2019, Venus had an altitude of 9° and a direction of 233°. As seen from Chicago, this means that we would have found the planet very low in the southwest sky. Remember when we mentioned above about what a planet looks like when it is closer to the horizon? It was likely somewhat dimmer at this time, too.

A second way to find Venus’ location is via a mobile sky observing smartphone app. Some examples includeNight Sky,Sky Safari, andStellarium. Note that some apps are free, some cost money upfront, and some are free to start but require money to unlock certain features. We recommend doing your homework before you download.

Or, finally, for those who like a good challenge, you could do your planet-finding the “old fashioned” way and use the specific celestial coordinates to map the exact location in the sky on your own. Find a beginner’s guide on how to map celestial coordinateshere.

And there you have it! You can now look for planets like a pro. Now go forth and impress your friends with your incredible knowledge—and get out and observe the sky!

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Tour the night sky weekly with the Adler Planetarium’s Theaters Manager Nick, who using cutting edge visualizations, NASA images, and astrophotography to show you what you can see weekly in the night sky!

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Watch exclusive live episodes ofSky Observers Hangout in 2021! Every other Monday, our astronomy educators teach you about what it means to observe our sky, from catching a glimpse of the phenomenon known as Chicagohenge, to seeing a rare celestial event like the Jupiter and Saturn Great Conjunction of 2020. Subscribe to our YouTube channel to get updates about Sky Observers Hangout.

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FAQs

How can you tell which planets are in the night sky? ›

The easiest way to pick out planets is to remember this quick rule of thumb: stars twinkle and planets don't. Seen with the naked eye, planets and stars both appear as pinpoints of light. When you observe a star, you'll notice that it twinkles and the light may appear to change colors.

How do you find planets in the sky with a telescope? ›

And use their evening sky map. But most often what i do is simply check free astronomy software like

How do you find Jupiter in the night sky? ›

Jupiter. Jupiter is south of the Great Square of Pegasus and southeast of the dim Circlet in Pisces. On the evening of Sept. 11, you'll find it blazing about 6 degrees to the upper right of the nearly full moon.

How do you find Venus in the night sky? ›

Venus is really easy to find after the sun has set. Just look generally west, where Venus will be visible about 40º above the horizon (around halfway between the horizon and the zenith above your head).

What Colour is Venus in the night sky? ›

To the naked eye, Venus appears as a white point of light brighter than any other planet or star (apart from the Sun).

What is the bright white star in the sky? ›

Sirius, also known as the Dog Star or Sirius A, is the brightest star in Earth's night sky. The name means "glowing" in Greek — a fitting description, as only a few planets, the full moon and the International Space Station outshine this star.

Why can't I see planets through my telescope? ›

Planets are small and far enough away that they will never fill a significant portion of your field-of-view, even at you scope's highest usable magnification.

What planets are visible with a telescope? ›

Through a medium-sized scope, you'll see Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn change on a nightly basis. And you won't need a dark sky to do so: Even under city lights, the planets provide easy objects to watch evolve. Through a telescope, you can detect Mercury's phases, but details are scant.

Can we see planets through telescope? ›

With just a small or medium-sized telescope, skygazers can easily observe planets. You'll be surprised how much of our solar system you can see! And you don't need a dark sky to view all of our solar system's planets; even under city lights, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can be easy to see with a telescope.

What's the easiest planet to see? ›

Venus is visible in the night sky at the moment too - it is the brightest planet and easiest to spot. Venus appears at sunrise and sunset because it is closest to the Sun.

How can you see Saturn in the night sky? ›

To the naked eye, Saturn will look starlike. Look closely and you may observe its distinct golden color, which will be further enhanced with a set of binoculars. You will need a telescope to see Saturn's rings. If you don't have a telescope, contact your local astronomy club!

Is Venus visible from naked eye? ›

Yes, Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, and Mercury are visible naked eye (listed here in order of how bright they are when visible).

Does Venus twinkle like star? ›

Originally, the terms "morning star" and "evening star" applied only to the brightest planet of all, Venus. It is far more dazzling than any of the actual stars in the sky and does not appear to twinkle. Instead, it glows with a steady, silvery light.

What does Venus look like in the sky? ›

From space, Venus is bright white because it is covered with clouds that reflect and scatter sunlight. At the surface, the rocks are different shades of grey, like rocks on Earth, but the thick atmosphere filters the sunlight so that everything would look orange if you were standing on Venus.

Does Venus look like a bright star? ›

Venus can often be seen within a few hours after sunset or before sunrise as the brightest object in the sky (other than the moon). It looks like a very bright star. Venus is the brightest planet in the Solar System.

What does Venus look like to the human eye? ›

Answer: Venus tends to look bright white to the human eye.

What color are the 8 planets? ›

The planets of the solar system are varied in their appearance. Mercury is slate gray while Venus is pearly white, Earth a vibrant blue, and Mars a dusky red. Even the gas giants are different, Neptune and Uranus an opaque blue, while Jupiter and Saturn are mostly beige with brilliant red-brown belts.

What is the first star you see at night? ›

Why is Venus called “the Morning Star” or “the Evening Star?” Venus shines so brightly that it is the first “star” to appear in the sky after the Sun sets, or the last to disappear before the Sun rises. Its orbital position changes, thus causing it to appear at different times of the night throughout the year.

Who is a Morning Star? ›

The morning star is the planet Venus, it's a planet, but this is also called a star because Venus is far closer to the sun and due to its alignment in the sky unlike other planets. Since it is the brightest plant of all the terms morning star and evening star have been applied to Venus.

What is the shiny star next to the moon? ›

What is the shiny star next to the moon? The star you are likely referring to is actually not a star at all. The bright light near the moon in the night sky is the planet Venus. Venus is the third brightest object in our sky, second only to the sun and moon.

Can you see Saturn's rings with a telescope? ›

How to see Saturn's rings. Unlike Jupiter and its four large Galilean moons, the rings of Saturn are only visible in a telescope. Any small telescope will do for a peek, though about 150mm/6-inch is recommended for a good view.

How much magnification do you need to see Saturn's rings? ›

Viewing Saturn's Rings

The rings of Saturn should be visible in even the smallest telescope at 25x. A good 3-inch scope at 50x can show them as a separate structure detached on all sides from the ball of the planet.

Why is Jupiter white through my telescope? ›

The brighter view and lower magnification can make Jupiter just look like a bright white featureless disk to your dark adapted eyes. Picking the right magnification is a balance between what the atmosphere will support, what the telescope will support, view brightness, and image scale.

What do planets look like in a telescope? ›

You can observe the Solar System planets in your telescope. They won't look as big and bright as on the pictures taken by spacecraft flying nearby. Rather, they will look like small glowing spots. For example, Mercury will appear as a star if you observe it with a small telescope.

Which planets can be seen with naked eyes? ›

All five naked-eye planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter — are appearing together in the pre-dawn sky for the first time in a decade. You need only clear skies and your bare eyes to see them; no binoculars or telescopes are required.

What is the farthest planet you can see with a telescope? ›

At an average distance of 2.7 billion miles from the Earth, Pluto is a dim speck of light in even the largest of our telescopes. It takes almost 249 years to make one swing around the Sun, in a long looping orbit that takes it above and below the path of the other planets.

What is the farthest planet you can see without a telescope? ›

Saturn, the most distant, bright naked-eye planet, lies 950 million miles from Earth at mid-month.

Can you see Pluto through a telescope? ›

Can I See Pluto With a Telescope? Yes, you can see Pluto but you'll need a large aperture telescope! Pluto resides at the very edges of our solar system and shines only at a faint magnitude of 14.4. It is also just 68% of the size of Earth's moon, making it even trickier to observe.

Can you see planets with binoculars? ›

Binoculars will enhance your view of a planet near the moon, or two planets near each other in the twilight sky, for example. Mercury and Venus. These inner planets orbit the sun inside Earth's orbit. Therefore, both Mercury and Venus show phases as seen from Earth.

Do the planets twinkle? ›

Unlike stars, planets don't twinkle. Stars are so distant that they appear as pinpoints of light in the night sky, even when viewed through a telescope. Because all the light is coming from a single point, its path is highly susceptible to atmospheric interference (i.e. their light is easily diffracted).

Can you see satellites with the naked eye? ›

In fact, the average naked eye can only see objects up to around +6.5 apparent magnitude. To make matters more difficult, satellites are relatively small and not very reflective compared to other things we see in space like the Space Shuttle, International Space Station and, of course, the moon and stars.

What planets will align in 2022? ›

Planetary alignment on June 24, 2022

Observers will see five planets of the Solar System aligned in the sky: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. In fact, this will be a seven-planet alignment as Neptune and Uranus will also join the celestial show.

How can you see Mars in the night sky? ›

Wherever you are in the world, look south for the Moon, and the little orange-red dot you see near it will be Mars.

Does Saturn shine like a star? ›

Saturn is at its brightest when its rings are open, and it shines brighter than any star except for Sirius and Canopus.

Can you see Saturn with the naked eye? ›

Saturn. Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun, and the second largest, after Jupiter. It is one of the five planets visible from Earth using only the naked-eye (the others are Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter).

Can you see planets with your eyes? ›

The five brightest planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn - have been known since ancient times and can easily be seen with the naked eye if one knows when and where to look. They are visible for much of the year, except for short periods of time when they are too close to the Sun to observe.

Can you see Neptune with your eye? ›

You need optical aid to see Neptune

It's the only major solar system planet that's never visible to the unaided eye. This world is about five times fainter than the dimmest star you can see on a moonless night under dark skies. You'll need binoculars or a telescope for Neptune, plus a detailed sky chart.

Is Mars visible to the human eye? ›

When Mars and Earth are close to each other, Mars appears very bright in our sky. It also makes it easier to see with telescopes or the naked eye. The Red Planet comes close enough for exceptional viewing only once or twice every 15 or 17 years.

What planet flickers in the sky? ›

Saturn's flicking polar lights dance higher above the planet – 750 miles (1,200 km) – than any known aurora in the solar system. They ripple like tall curtains, changing every few minutes, according to a statement today from the space agency.

What is the only living planet? ›

Earth is the only planet in the universe known to possess life.

What is the star that flickers red? ›

It's so bright that every year in northern autumn, we get questions from people in the Northern Hemisphere who see a bright star twinkling with red and green flashes. It's found low in the northeastern sky at nightfall or early evening as seen from mid-northern locations. That star is likely Capella.

What is Earth's twin planet? ›

Venus is often called "Earth's twin" because they're similar in size and structure, but Venus has extreme surface heat and a dense, toxic atmosphere.

Can you see Venus from Earth at night? ›

Answer: You can only see Venus just before sunrise or just after sunset, when it is in a part of its orbit that is just barely visible from Earth's night side. A similar situation makes Mercury visible only during these times also.

What is the star directly over the moon? ›

The light isn't actually a star, despite sometimes being referred to as the Evening Star - instead it's the planet Venus and it's the second closest planet to the sun.

What is the darkest planet? ›

The planet is so hot that astronomers believe it is absorbing almost all of the heat from its star, and reflecting very little to no light. Objects that reflect no sunlight are black. Consequently, HD 149026b might be the blackest known planet in the Universe, in addition to the hottest.

Which planet is currently visible? ›

Saturn and Jupiter are now visible all night. Mars rises late in the evening and is high in the morning sky.

What is the brightest planet in the universe? ›

Venus, the second planet from the sun, is the hottest and brightest planet in the solar system.

Can we see other planets from Earth with naked eyes? ›

Which planets can we see from Earth with naked eyes? Only five planets are visible from Earth to the naked-eye; Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

How can you identify Mars in the night sky? ›

Wherever you are in the world, look south for the Moon, and the little orange-red dot you see near it will be Mars.

Can we see satellites in the night sky with naked eyes? ›

Satellite tracking is possible with the naked eye. Some satellites have large reflecting surfaces and under certain conditions they reflect sunlight to the earth thus rendering them visible.

What's the easiest planet to see? ›

Venus is visible in the night sky at the moment too - it is the brightest planet and easiest to spot. Venus appears at sunrise and sunset because it is closest to the Sun.

What is the farthest planet you can see with your eyes? ›

Saturn, the most distant, bright naked-eye planet, lies 950 million miles from Earth at mid-month.

Why do stars twinkle? ›

The stars seem to twinkle in the night sky due to the effects of the Earth's atmosphere. When starlight enters the atmosphere, it is affected by winds in the atmosphere and areas with different temperatures and densities. This causes the light from the star to twinkle when seen from the ground.

How can you see Saturn in the night sky? ›

To the naked eye, Saturn will look starlike. Look closely and you may observe its distinct golden color, which will be further enhanced with a set of binoculars. You will need a telescope to see Saturn's rings. If you don't have a telescope, contact your local astronomy club!

What color is Mars in the night sky? ›

When you see Mars in the night sky, it definitely has a reddish tint to it. People have been noticing that for a long time: even the ancient Egyptians called Mars 'The Red One.

How do you find mercury in the sky? ›

As an evening star, Mercury appears in the western sky, setting about an hour after the sun. As a morning star, it appears in the eastern sky, rising about an hour before the sun. There must be a clear, unobstructed horizon on these occasions. Mercury usually appears as a bright "star" with a yellowish or ochre hue.

How do you tell if it's a star or satellite? ›

A satellite will move in a straight line and take several minutes to cross the sky. A meteor, or shooting star, will move in less than a fraction of a second across the sky. Observe the kind of light from the "star". A satellite will brighten and dim in a regular pattern as it crosses the sky.

Do satellites look like stars? ›

All the artificial satellites look like a star to the naked-eye, but in motion against the background. It can be easy to mistake an airplane, but they usually give themselves away with their blinking lights whereas a satellite has more consistent light as they are being illuminated by the sun.

How many satellites can you see in one night? ›

Sightings can number up to a hundred in a single night if you have good viewing conditions. To identify a satellite you are looking for a star that looks like it is slowly moving across the night sky. On average they are visible for several minutes although some can be present for longer.

Which planet can be seen with naked eyes? ›

All five naked-eye planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter — are appearing together in the pre-dawn sky for the first time in a decade. You need only clear skies and your bare eyes to see them; no binoculars or telescopes are required.

Do the planets twinkle? ›

Unlike stars, planets don't twinkle. Stars are so distant that they appear as pinpoints of light in the night sky, even when viewed through a telescope. Because all the light is coming from a single point, its path is highly susceptible to atmospheric interference (i.e. their light is easily diffracted).

Can you see Pluto with your eyes? ›

To catch a glimpse of the dwarf planet, you'll need a telescope with at least an 8-inch diameter mirror, according to Sky and Telescope. Even at its brightest, Pluto is not visible to the naked eye and is about 27 million times fainter than Venus.

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