What Planets are Visible Tonight? The Indispensable Astronomer’s Guide to the 5 Visible Planets in 2017

We understand completely!

You know the best views in the night sky come from the five visible planets, but you're just not sure if they're out tonight...

Or where to look if they are.

You, my astronomer friend, are in luck!

This massive guide to what planets ​are visible tonight is your one-stop answer to all those questions.  (If you want the simple, 1-page pdf of the info on this page, click here)

Feel free to read start-to-finish at your leisure, or use the 'Quick Navigation' box below to jump to the planet of your choice.


Introducing... The Five Visible Planets

There are eight official planets in our solar system (if you thought there were nine, read this). We live on one of them, which leaves seven for us to look at in the night sky.

From the sun outwards, they are Mercury, Venus, [Earth], Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The first five, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are bright enough to be easily picked out with the naked eye and are collectively known as the five visible planets. They all make a great sight for a telescope.

Don't own a telescope yet?

Read our review of the best telescopes for seeing the planets and be amazed at the spec's of the winner!

At Love the Night Sky, our passion is to help novice and aspiring astronomers get the most joy they can from the night sky so, in this article, we’re going to look at the when in 2017 is best to see the five visible planets as well as what to look for, how to see them and the best way of doing so.

So, strap in and discover which planets we can see tonight out of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

Seeing the Five Visible Planets in 2017


All 5 visible planets have great seeing at some point during 2017, which you can see at a glance by scrolling down to the table below.

Before reading it though, it helps to understand what makes a good time and a bad time to see what planets are out tonight.​

Imagine the five planets in two groups:

  • Inferior Planets: Mercury and Venus lie inside Earth's orbit
  • Superior Planets: Mars, Jupiter and Saturn lie outside Earth's orbit

This separation lets us think about the best time to see each planet based on their position relative to both the sun and us down here on Earth.

The Inferior Planets

Alignment of Mercury and Venus

Moon, Venus and Mercury (credit below)

Mercury and Venus orbit the sun inside of the path of Earth, which means a number of significant things:

  • They orbit faster than earth, so they change position in the sky quickly
  • They present crescent phases to us, like the moon, because we can see them ‘from behind’
  • The best time to see them is at ‘greatest elongation’, which is either western or eastern. This is when they are farthest away from the sun as we see them. 

The worst time to see the inferior planets is when they are in conjunction. This is the name given to the moment when the earth, the sun and the planet are all in a straight line.

There are two types of planetary conjunction:

  1. Superior, when the planet is on the opposite side of the sun from us
  2. Inferior, when the planet sits between us and the sun

On each occasion, the planet is invisible to us as it is either behind the sun at superior conjunction or lost in the sun’s glare as it passes in front of it during an inferior conjunction.

The rare exception to this is when an inferior conjunction happens and the planet is on the same plane (or level) as us and the sun… in that case we see a spectacular transit of Venus or Mercury across the face of the sun.

you'll need to be very young to witness a Venusian transit for yourself, as the next is not until 2117. Fortunately, Mercury will cross the sun’s disc just 2 years from now, in 2019.

The Superior Planets

Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all orbit further away from the sun that our own planet does. For this reason, these planets are called superior and they have a different character in the sky from the inferior Mercury and Venus:

  • They take longer to complete an orbit of the sun than Earth, which makes them appear to move only slowly across the night sky
  • Being inside their orbit, we can only see the side facing the sun, so they are always a complete disc
  • The best time to see the superior planets is at inferior conjunction

Just like Mercury and Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn also form conjunctions with Earth and the sun.

Also, like them, the superior planets are invisible to us at superior conjunction because they are lost behind the sun.

However, unlike the inferior planets, the outer planets never pass between Earth and the sun. At their inferior conjunction we sit directly between them and the sun, i.e. the sun is behind us and the planet presents great visibility all night long.

Synodic Periods of the Five Visible Planets

The period most relevant to us as astronomers is the ‘synodic period’. This is the amount of time it takes for a planet to move from one location in the sky to the same location from our perspective.

Take Mercury. It has an orbital period of 88 days, but we only see its greatest western elongation every 116 days, because we too are moving through space.

In the 88 days of Mercury’s orbit, a whole season has passed on Earth and we've travelled along almost a quarter of our own orbit. Even though it has done a full loop of the sun, Mercury  appears in a different part of our sky because we have moved as well.

It's another 28 days before Mercury is back to its greatest elongation from our perspective, i.e. its synodic period of 116 days has passed.

This effect is also true of the superior planets which have much longer orbits than our own.

Distant Saturn, for example, takes almost 30 earth years to go around the sun. Our own year is (of course) just 365 days long.

When we complete that year, we haven't quite caught back up with Saturn because it has moved forward on its own journey.  It takes us another 13 days before Saturn appears to be in the same place we saw it before, giving a synodic period of 378 days, or 365 + 13.

Did you know... you can get all the best info from this article on 1 page?
CLICK HERE to get your free crib sheet.


What Planets are Visible Tonight?

If you want to know "what planets can I see tonight?" then the table below is the perfect solution for you. It shows which of the five visible planets can be seen from Earth for each month  in 2017, including opposition and greatest elongation dates:

Month

Mercury

Venus

Mars

Jupiter

Saturn

January

GE 19th (M)

GE 12th (E)

Evening

Evening

Morning

February

Evening

Evening

Evening

Morning

March

Eve /Morn

Evening

Evening

Morning

April

GE 1st (E)

Morning

Evening

Opp 7th (E)

Morning

May

GE 17th (M)

Morning

Evening

Evening

Morning

June

GE 03rd (M)

---

Evening

Opp 15th*

July

GE 30th (E)

Morning

---

Evening

Evening

August

Morning

---

Evening

Evening

September

GE 12th (M)

Morning

Morning

---

Evening

October

Morning

Morning

---

Evening

November

GE 23rd (E)

Morning

Morning

Morning

Evening

December

Morning

Morning

Morning

---

* Saturn visible all night in June

GE = Greatest Elongation,  Opp = Opposition

(E) = Evening,  (M) = Morning,  --- = Not Visible

You can embed this calendar on your own website: click here for embed code.

You can grab a simple 1-page pdf of the info in this article, including all the observing challenges, by clicking here.


Planets Visible Tonight


Now you know which planets are out tonight, it’s time to take a look at them individually for more detail on where they'll be throughout 2017.

Can I See Mercury Tonight?


Of the five planets nearest to us, Mercury is the trickiest one to see and study.

The challenge, as you might expect, comes from the short distance between the Sun and Mercury, and the consequent rapid (88 day) orbit the planet has.

Being so close to the sun, it never strays very far from its side from our perspective. This means that even at best seeing, Mercury is only visible for up to around an hour before morning sunrise, or an hour after sunset in the evening. It also means that the little planet is rarely to be found very high above the horizon.

Being so fleet of foot, it does not hang around long.

Its journey from best seeing to lost in the sun's glare is only a couple of short weeks, sadly Mercury spends more time being invisible to us than visible.

Always be careful when watching Mercury, the sun is never far away and will damage your eyes if you look at it. Worse, the sun will likely blind you if you catch even a glimpse of it with binoculars or a telescope.

Mercury Seeing Challenges:

  • Mercury. Yes, your first challenge is to see the planet itself. Whilst it is bright, it's always in the glare of the dawn or dusk  low towards the horizon. Seeing the planet Mercury is a great first achievement!
  • Mercury's phases. What is worth looking out for is the crescent of Mercury. Sky & Telescope Magazine always carries an almanack of how much of the surface is illuminated. (Read our Sky & Telescope review here)

We've created a simple, 1-page pdf with all the seeing challenges from this article, click here to get your free copy.

Best Times to See Mercury in 2017

Although there are 6 greatest elongation dates in 2017, not all of them present good seeing as the planet will be low in the sky and so lost in the twilight or dawn glow of the sun.

The dates of Mercury's Greatest Elongations in 2017 are 19 Jan (morning), 1st April (evening), 17th May (morning), 30th July (evening), 12th Sept (morning), 23rd Nov (evening), 01st Jan 2018 (morning).

The best dates to see Mercury in 2017 are about one week either side of:

  • ​19th January before sunrise
  • 01st April after sunset
  • ​12th September before sunrise
  • 01st January 2018 before sunrise

Planet Mercury - Fact Box

Where is planet mercury tonight?

Planet Mercury (credit below)

Orbital period: 88 days

Synodic period: 116 days

Magnitude: -1.9

Moons: 0

What to look for in 2017: When Mercury is at greatest elongation, look for the phases of the solar system's smallest planet.

Can I See Venus Tonight?

One planet out from Mercury and Venus presents us with the brightest object in the night sky, after the moon.

It too is relatively close to the sun, so like Mercury is known as either a morning or evening ‘star’, rising in the morning before the sun or setting after it in the evening.

It strays further from our star than Mercury and can be seen when the sky is truly dark. Like Mercury, though, it has crescent phases which can be seen through a small telescope.

Venus has neither moons nor surface features, so it is the crescent disc which brings the reward for searching out this easy-to-find body.

Venus Seeing Challenges:

We've created a simple, 1-page pdf with all the seeing challenges from this article, click here to get your free copy.

Best Times to See Venus in 2017


Venus is slower to make its way around the sun than Mercury and so presents more opportunities for us to see it.

Venus is an evening star from the start of 2017 to around the middle of March. At that time, for a few short days (nights) it will be both an evening and morning star as it reaches inferior conjunction, before moving to its newfound morning home for the rest of the year.

Its greatest elongation dates in 2017 are 12th January in the evening and 03rd June in the morning.

Planet Venus - Fact Box

Where is planet Venus tonight?

Planet Venus without Clouds (credit below)

Orbital period: 224 days

Synodic period: 583 days (approx 1.5yrs)

Magnitude: -4.6

Moons: 0

What to look for in 2017: With Venus shining brightly in our skies for most of 2017, there are plenty of opportunities for you to see its lovely phases.

Can I See Mars Tonight?


Passing past our home planet, we begin the journey through the superior planets with Mars.

Famous to everyone, astronomer or not, its ‘redness’ is easy to pick out in the night sky. It’s a bright planet when visible, but it does move closer and further away from the Earth over a period of 26 months

When it’s closer, like in May 2016 (and even closer in July 2018), it appears to shine so much brighter in our night sky and has the added advantage of presenting a larger disc for us to study through our scopes.

Unlike the inferior planets, the three brightest superior ones have distinguishing features and moons which we can hunt for with a decent telescope.

Binoculars will show each planet's color but not their disc, i.e.  it will look like a bright star.

For Mars in particular, a four-inch scope will show the disc and possibly some shading/polar caps, but you'll need a six-inch scope to see any level of detail, and even then you’ll need decent seeing conditions… and Mars being nearer helps!

Mars Seeing Challenges:

  • Redness of the disc. It should be apparent in any size of telescope
  • Gibbous Shape. Mars does not show phases like the inner planets, but it is close enough that Earth casts a shadow on it at various times on its journey around the sun. This has the effect of giving Mars a gibbous shape which you'll see in a 'scope.
  • Polar Ice Caps. Easier to see at Martian winter. Mars northern hemisphere winter solstice is Nov 28, 2016, so the northern ice cap is most pronounced around that period. Winter solstice at the southern ice cap is almost a year later, on Nov 20th, 2017.
  • Shades of Color. Unless you have a truly ginormous telescope you are (I’m sorry to say) not going to see detail in the surface features. However, you should be able to make out smudges of colour, where darker and lighter areas of the Martian surface rub against each other.
  • Phobos and Deimos. Meaning fear and panic, these are the two small moons of Mars. They are very dim (magnitude 11.3 and 12.4 respectively) and so beyond the reach of smaller scopes. You’ll ideally need a 6” with decent seeing conditions to find them... although it is technically possible with a smaller scope.
  • Dust Clouds. Mars experiences dust storms and you may be fortunate enough to see one of those through your scope. You're most likely to see them during Martian summer, which is the first quarter of 2017 in the northern hemisphere.

We've created a simple, 1-page pdf with all the seeing challenges from this article, click here to get your free copy.

Best Times to See Mars in 2017

There is no opposition in 2017 for the red planet, the most spectacular views will have to wait until the close approach of 2018.

However, Mars is visible in the night sky for most of 2017. Until May, you’ll find it in the evening sky, when it will sink out of sight behind the sun. We lose it for the summer, after which it makes  a welcome return to morning skies from September until the end of the year.

To get a better grasp on where abouts in the sky it can be seen, check out this great star map with Mars's path plotted on it.  The summary of constellations forming a backdrop to Mars throughout 2017 is:

  • Start of Year: Aquarius
  • ​Mid Jan - Feb: Pisces
  • ​March to mid-April: Aries
  • ​Mid-April to May: Taurus
  • ​June to August: Not visible
  • ​September to mid-October: Leo
  • Mid-October to mid-December: Virgo
  • End of year: Libra

Planet Mars - Fact Box

Where is planet Mars tonight?

Hubble picture of Planet Mars (credit below)

Orbital period: 687 days

Synodic period: 780 days (approx 2yrs)

Magnitude: -2.0 (but can be -2.9 at closest)

Moons: 2

What to look for in 2017: There is no Martian opposition in 2017, but there is evening viewing until May, then morning from September. Start your seeing challenges trying to observe the polar ice caps and any variation in the Martian surface color.

Can I See Jupiter Tonight?


The fourth of our five planets is the solar system’s giant: Jupiter.

Even though it is much further from us than Mars is, the fact it's well over a thousand times larger than the red planet means Jupiter shines more brightly in our skies. In fact, Jupiter's brightness at night is beaten only by Venus and the moon.

Binoculars will show you the famous Galilean moons of Jupiter and a small scope will bring out the different brightnesses of the bands on the planet's surface, if not the colors themselves.​

Jupiter Seeing Challenges:

  • Galilean moons. The four moons closest to Jupiter (from a total of 67 known moons) were discovered by Galileo Galilei over 400 years ago 1610. Outwards from the planet, they are Io, Europa, Ganymede (itself bigger than planet Mercury) and Callisto.
    They are easily visible as pinpricks of light either side of Jupiter, when they're not behind it. They move quickly and this almanack will tell you which ones can be seen on any given day.
  • Bands of Color. Jupiter is famous for its gas bands and even a relatively small telescope will show you the main bands as faint shades of grey. Larger scopes will reveal more detail and some color.
  • Great Red Spot. This is perhaps Jupiter's most famous feature. You’ll need a decent magnification (250x) to see it, and this almanack to make sure you’re looking for it at the right time.
  • Moon Transits. Seeing the moons themselves is simple, but can you see them and their shadows cross in front of the front of the planet? With good seeing, optics and this almanack, you’ll be proud of managing to see one of these events.

We've created a simple, 1-page pdf with all the seeing challenges from this article, click here to get your free copy.

Best Times to See Jupiter in 2017

Jupiter reaches opposition on 7th April, which will be the best time of the year to see it.

Jupiter begins the year in Virgo and spends its evenings there until it falls into the sun's and out of our sight in September.

The massive planet reappears on the other side of the sun, in our morning skies, from November and is now be visible in Libra. See visual details in this star chart.

Planet Jupiter - Fact Box

Where is planet Jupiter tonight?

Planet Jupiter from Hubble (credit below)

Orbital period: 4330 days (12 yrs)

Synodic period: 398 days (13 months)

Magnitude: -2.7

Moons: 67, but four to look for

What to look for in 2017: Jupiter reaches opposition in spring this year which presents a great opportunity to see the bands and great red spot which mark out the planet. If you're feeling particularly up for a challenge, try and see a Galilean moon transit across Jupiter's face.

Can I See Saturn Tonight?


We come finally to Saturn, the last of the five planets you can see from Earth, and arguably the most spectacular.

Certainly, for very many astronomers, nothing beats their first view of Saturn and its awe-inspiring rings through the eyepiece of a telescope.

Like Jupiter, Saturn is a gas giant and even with its truly enormous distance from us it shines brightly in the sky and is easy to pick out with the naked eye.

Turn any size telescope on it and you will see the planet's rings, but there are only subtle surface features that you'll need a large telescope to pick up.

Saturn Seeing Challenges:

  • Saturn's rings. Of course this is where we start! In 2017 the rings will appear wider (more angled towards Earth) that since 2003. Binoculars won't show them up, but even the most modest telescope will reveal their glory.
  • Individual rings. With a larger telescope and more magnification, it's not too hard to break the rings down into their characteristic concentric circles. Rings A, B, C and D and the Cassini Division can all be picked out with powerful magnification.
  • Titan. Saturn’s largest moon (which, like Ganymede, is also larger than Mercury) shines at magnitude 8.3 and is visible with a 4” scope.
    It orbits quite a distance from the planet but is a relatively easy find if you look at the right time.
    There are another 61 moons around Saturn, but none even close to the size of Titan. However, if you’re fortunate enough to have an 8” scope, you could try spotting the next four largest moons, which are Enceladus, Dione, Tethys and Rhea. Use this almanac to help you find them.

We've created a simple, 1-page pdf with all the seeing challenges from this article, click here to get your free copy.

Best Times to See Saturn in 2017

Saturn is low in the sky for most of 2017 but prominent in the morning and gradually more through the night, until it's out all night when it reaches opposition on the 15 June.

It continues to move earlier into the evening and disappears into twilight from November. You can see its month-by-month path through the heavens throughout 2017 here.

Planet Saturn - Fact Box

Where is planet Jupiter tonight?

Saturn and her glorious rings (credit below)

Orbital period: 10,759 days (29.5 yrs)

Synodic period: 378 days (54 weeks)

Magnitude: 0.7

Moons: 62, but Titan biggest by far (click this link to see Saturn's moons through your telescope)

What to look for in 2017: Saturn presents its rings towards Earth in a wider angle than any time in the last 13 years. Take this rare opportunity to see if you can 'split' them into separate bands either side of the Cassini division.

DID YOU KNOW... You can get all the seeing challenges from this article on a free 1-page pdf. Just CLICK HERE to get your copy.




Can I See Uranus and Neptune Tonight?

We touched on them briefly in the introduction. Uranus and Neptune are the last two planets in the solar system.

We’ve not covered them in detail as they are a much harder spot than the other five, but they may be a challenge you want to take on as you become more proficient at looking around the sky with your telescope.

You’ll need a magnification of at least 100x to see the disc of Uranus and more for Neptune. You’ll also need a finder chart for them both so you know where to look.

It can be hard to know if you’ve found what you’re looking for, but they both shine with a blue light and, of course, they move over successive nights with respect to the background stars.

So... What Planets Can You See Tonight?

The five visible planets all put on a spectacular show at various points across 2017, and each offers its own unique challenges from the simple to the moderately difficult.

If you want more detail, click here to sign up for our weekly email, where every Friday we’ll tell you what to look out for in the night sky over the coming week.

Planet-Finding Resources

We've created a simple, 1-page pdf with all the seeing challenges and the best times to see each of the visible planets in 2017, click here to get your free copy.



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Image Credits

​Color picture of Mercury Credit: By NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington - NASA/JPL.Edited version of Mercury in color - Prockter07.jpg by jjron (cropped to square)., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24301424

​Planet Venus without clouds Credit: By NASA - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA00104, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11826

​Hubble picture of planet Mars Credit: By NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) - http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2005/34/image/j/ (image link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3193645

​Hubble picture of planet Jupiter Credit: By NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center) - http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/heic1410a/ or http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2014/24/image/b/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32799232

​Cassini picture of planet Jupiter Credit: By NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute - http://www.ciclops.org/view/5155/Saturn-Four-Years-On https://www.nasa.gov/images/content/365640main_PIA11141_full.jpg http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA11141, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7228953

​Moon, Venus and Mercury Credit: By ESO/Y. Beletsky - http://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1025a/, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10726475

Featured image of Sun and Planets Credit:  By WP - Planets2008.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24756373