Some of the best telescope views of the night sky come from the planets, particularly Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the five brightest planets visible to the naked eye.
But, you wonder, which planets are out tonight and where should I look to see them?
Well, showing you which planets are visible tonight and where to look for them is what this guide is all about.
Use the ‘Quick Navigation’ box to get details on the planet of your choice.
Okay, let’s jump in and discover which planets we can see tonight.
- Introducing… The Planets
- Seeing The Five Visible Planets in 2020
- When to See the Inferior Planets
- When is the Best Time to See A Planet?
- Which Planets are Visible Tonight?
- Planets Visible Today – The Details
- Is Mercury Visible Tonight?
- Is Venus Visible Tonight?
- Is Mars Visible Tonight?
- Is Jupiter Visible Tonight?
- Is Saturn Visible Tonight?
- Can I See Uranus and Neptune Tonight?
- Planet-Finding Resources
Introducing… The 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 Five Visible Planets
The five planets closest to us are bright enough to be easily seen in the night sky with the naked eye. For that reason, these are collectively known as the five visible planets. From closest to the sun, outwards, the five visible planets are:
All of the planets look wonderful through a telescope, with many different and dynamic features to try and observe.
If you’ve never seen the awesome sight of Jupiter’s cloud belts, Saturn’s rings and Mars’ ice caps, then it’s time you checked out our reviews of the best telescopes to see the planets (opens in a new tab).
The Outer Planets
Technically these can be naked-eye visible but, unless you know where to look, they are not bright enough to be distinguishable from the background of brighter stars.
There are two outer planets: Neptune and Uranus.
We show you if you can see Neptune and Uranus tonight, but you will need at least binoculars and ideally a telescope to see their disc and any color. If you’d like more info, use these links for our telescope guides to seeing Neptune, or seeing Uranus.
Seeing The Five Visible Planets in 2020
All 5 visible planets have great seeing at some point during this year, which you can see at a glance by scrolling down to the table below.
Discover our reviews of this year’s best telescopes
Before reading it though, it helps to understand why there are times when the planets are well placed for observing and others when they are not visible.
Imagine the five planets split across two groups, the inferior and superior planets:
- Inferior Planets: Mercury and Venus lie inside Earth’s orbit, closer to the sun
- Superior Planets: Mars, Jupiter and saturn lie outside Earth’s orbit, further from the sun
When to See the Inferior Planets
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 parts of the planet facing away from the sun
- The best time to see them is at ‘greatest elongation’, which is when they appear to be at their farthest 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 Earth, the sun and the planet are all in a straight line.
There are two types of planetary conjunction:
- Superior conjunctions happen when the planet is on the opposite side of the sun from us, and
- Inferior conjunctions are when the planet sits between us and the sun
See both of these highlighted with the red rings on the diagram below.
The inner planets are invisible to us at and near conjunctions because they are lost in the glare of the sun.
The rare exception to this is when an inferior conjunction happens and the planet is on the same plane as us and the sun. When that happens we see a spectacular transit of Venus or Mercury across the face of the sun.
Sadly, they are quite rare. To see Venus pass in front of the sun you need to be a young person, and ideally not even born yet because there are 97 years to go before the next one.
Fortunately, we all stand a better chance of seeing little Mercury cross the sun’s disc but we still need to wait until 2032.
The best time to see Venus and Mercury is when they are at greatest elongation, shown as pink rings on the diagram below. At greatest elongation, they are as far from the sun as they get from our perspective on Earth.
For Mercury, that still normally means challenging viewing. It orbits so close to the sun that it is rarely visible for more than an hour before sunrise or after sunset, so we are always finding the planet in the glow of dusk or dawn.
Venus orbits further out, so we do get to see it against the inky blackness of night, but it too sets or rises within a few hours of the sun.
Which brings us to the final point you need to be aware of, planet hunter: at greatest eastern elongation, the planet is visible after sunset. At its greatest western elongation, we’ll see the planet in the morning, before sunrise.
When is the Best Time to See A Planet?
The diagram below shows an idealised position of inferior planets (inner ring) and superior planets (outer ring) hitting conjunction, greatest elongation and opposition with Earth (blue circle, middle ring).
A guide to conjunctions, oppositions and elongations. (Original source)
You can see that at conjunctions the planet is in the same line of sight as the sun, so it’s not possible for us to see it in the sky; the sun’s glare is too bright.
The best time to see superior planets is at opposition because they are directly opposite the sun but behind Earth (green ring in diagram), which makes them visible in the sky all night long. The best time to see inferior planets is at their Greatest Elongation.
When to See The Superior Planets
Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune 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, i.e. they only move a short distance compared to the background constellations
- Being inside their orbit, we can only see the side facing the sun, so they are always a complete disc. i.e. we never see them in crescent form
- The best time to see the superior planets is at opposition
Just like Mercury and Venus, the superior planets also form conjunctions with Earth and the sun. And, unsurprisingly, they too are invisible at this time because they are close to the sun in our sky.
The best time to see the outer planets of the solar system is opposition. If you refer to the diagram above, it’s easy to see why (green circle). Unlike the inferior planets, the outer planets never pass between Earth and the sun. At opposition, we sit directly between them and the sun, which we find easiest to think of as the sun being ‘behind’ us with the planet ‘facing’ us.
This is an awesome time for planet-watching because a planet at opposition is visible all night long and highest on the sky (transiting) around midnight!
Right, that’s more than enough understanding of why we can or can’t see the planets tonight. Let’s turn now to the most important part of this article: which planets can we see tonight?
Which 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 tonight for each month in 2020. It includes opposition dates for Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, and greatest elongation dates for Mercury and Venus.
For each of the five visible planets, we show you whether it is visible in the evening (E) or morning (M). During opposition months, the planet will be visible all night. Where there is ‘—‘ in the table, the planet is not visible during this month.
|Mar||mGE 24th||eGE 24th||M||M||M|
|Jul||mGE 22nd||M||M||Opp 14th||Opp 20th|
|Oct||eGE 01st||M||Opp 14th||E||E|
mGE = Greatest Elongation visible morning, eGE = Greatest Elongation visible evening, Opp = Opposition, M = Morning, i.e. rises after midnight, E = Evening, i.e. rises before midnight, — = Not Visible. For Mercury, only Greatest Elongation dates are shown but the planet will be visible for 1-2 weeks either side of that date.
Planets Visible Today – The Details
Now you know which planets are visible in the sky tonight, let’s look at them individually for more detail on where to see them throughout 2020.
Is Mercury Visible Tonight?
For the smallest planet in the solar system, you may be wondering can we see Mercury from Earth, and the answer is a resounding yes! You can see Mercury without a telescope if you know when and where to look. However, of the five brightest planets, Mercury is definitely the trickiest one to glimpse.
For the best chance of success find an elevated position, e.g. a hill, that overlooks an open horizon. Mercury skirts so close to the ground – even at its best – that trees and buildings can prevent you from seeing it.
Where Can You Find Mercury?
The challenge to seeing Mercury comes from the short distance between it and the Sun, and the rapid orbit the planet has. Mercury orbits the sun in only 88 days, so it completes well over four laps of the sun for every one of ours.
Mercury is so close to the sun that we can never see it in true darkness. It’s proximity to the sun also means that the little planet is never very high above the horizon. Mercury rarely rises more than 10° above the horizon when the sun is set in mid-latitude states. That’s about the width of your fist at the end of your outstretched arm, i.e. it’s not very high.
Our time to see it is also limited. Even at its best seeing, Mercury is usually only visible for up to an hour before sunrise in the morning or after sunset in the evening.
Because Mercury is near the sun, it’s visible in the west straight after sunset and in the east immediately before sunrise.
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)
When Can We See Mercury from Earth?
Mercury has a speedy orbit, so it does not hang around long and we have to grab opportunities to see it. Thankfully, Mercury has six greatest elongation events this year, three each in the evening and morning.
Mercury’s greatest elongations of 2020 occur on:
- February 10th, best viewed after sunset
- March 24th, before sunrise
- June 04th, after sunset
- July 22nd, before sunrise
- October 01st, after sunset
- November 10th, before sunrise
Seeing stays favorable only for a few days either side of these dates. For the rest of the time, Mercury is lost in the sun’s blinding glare.
For more details click this link for our dedicated guide to seeing Mercury with a telescope.
2020 Mercury Viewing Calendar
Always be careful when searching for and viewing Mercury, especially if using binoculars or a telescope. The sun is never far away and will severely damage your eyes if you look at it – even a glimpse of it with binoculars or a telescope can blind.
January: Mercury is in Sagittarius at the beginning of 2020. Mercury is so close to the sun that it won’t visible until the end of the month. It is visible as an evening “star” about an hour after sunset from Jan 26 to Jan 31.
February: Maximum eastern elongation occurs on Feb 10 with Mercury shining at magnitude -0.6 in Aquarius. Look west just after sunset.
March: Mercury reaches greatest elongation on March 24th but too close to the horizon to be visible.
April: Visible at the beginning of the month in the morning.
May: Mercury comes to visibility in the evening for the last week of the month.
June: The innermost planet hits greatest eastern elongation on June 4. Look for Mercury in the western sky after sunset.
If you’re looking for more detail than this, take a look at the Virtual Astronomy Club. Each month we issue detailed guides and imagery for observing Mercury.
July: Mercury reaches inferior conjunction on July 1 and isn’t visible for several days. However, on Jul 22, Mercury reaches greatest western elongation with a magnitude of 0.3, look east before sunrise.
August: Before sunrise on Aug 2 look for Mercury 6.6o south of Pollux in the northeast. Mercury is close to the Sun and passes superior conjunction on August 17.
September: For the first half of the month Mercury will not be visible. Just after sunset on Sept 18 it will be 6.4o south of the Moon in the western sky.
October: Mercury comes to greatest eastern elongation on Oct 1, but it is too low to the horizon to be easily seen. The tiny planet may be glimpsed after sunset from good viewing locations for the first half of October, but is not visible at month’s end.
November: On Nov 10 Mercury comes to greatest western elongation with a magnitude of -0.6. Look east before sunrise.
December: Not visible from the second week of December to the year’s end.
Is Venus Visible Tonight?
One planet out from Mercury we find Venus. After the moon, Venus is the brightest object in our night sky.
Like Mercury, Venus orbits relatively close to the sun and is known as either a morning or evening ‘star’ because it either rises in the morning before the sun or sets after it in the evening.
Unlike Mercury, Venus is far enough from the sun that we can see it in the darkness of nighttime and not just in the glow of dawn or dusk.
Venus also has crescent phases, like our own moon, which can be seen through a small telescope. This is the only feature to observe on Venus because it has no moons or visible surface features.
Where Can You Find Venus?
Like all planets, Venus is found on the ecliptic but never strays too far from the western horizon when it’s an evening star or the eastern horizon in the morning.
The planet is unmistakably bright, shining much brighter than any other object in the night sky which makes it easy to view, even with a pair of binoculars.
At its furthest from the sun, Venus can spend a few nights ‘up’ all night. From central latitudes of the US, it can climb about 30° above the horizon.
For more details click this link for our dedicated guide to seeing Venus with a telescope.
Venus Seeing Challenges:
Crescent Venus. Looking at the planet through a telescope, you’ll be able to see the phase of this planet, from crescent to gibbous. See its disc size change as Venus moves closer to and further from Earth.
- See Venus in the day! Yes, it is bright enough to be seen when the sun is in the sky, but you need to know where to look and have keen eyes
- See a shadow cast by Venus’s light. On a moonless night, it is the brightest object in the sky and, at a dark site, it is possible to see shadows cast by the planet
When Can We See Venus from Earth?
Venus’s greatest elongations of 2020, when it will be in the night sky for the longest time occur on:
- March 24th, best viewed after sunset
- August 12th, before sunrise
2020 Venus Viewing Calendar
January: Venus is in the evening sky and moving from away from the sun. It’s traveling from Capricornus into Aquarius and brightening slightly from magnitude -4.0 to -4.1. Venus and the crescent moon will be 4.1° apart in the southwestern sky just after sunset on Jan 27 and 28.
February: Venus shines brilliantly in the evening sky above Mercury early in the month, with a magnitude of -4.1 to -4.3.
March: Venus is in Pisces. At mid-month it’s in our skies until around 11pm. On March 24, Venus reaches greatest eastern elongation and shines with a magnitude of -4.5 in the evening sky. It has an apparent size of 21.5”.
April: Venus is in Taurus and brightens to -4.7 over the month. At mid-month its apparent size has increased to 31.0” and it will be in the evening sky until just before midnight.
May: Venus fades from magnitude -4.7 to -4.1 over the month. At mid-month it sets by 11pm and has an apparent size of 49.4”. Visibility wanes quickly over the second half of the month.
June: On June 3 Venus reaches inferior conjunction and won’t be visible. You may glimpse it on June 19 when it rises 0.7o south of the Moon in the early morning sky.
If you’re looking for more detail than this, take a look at the Virtual Astronomy Club. Each month we issue detailed guides and imagery for observing Venus.
July: Venus is still in Taurus and shines at magnitude of -4.7 to -4.6. Venus begins its morning elongation on July 9 and will be visible as a morning “star” until Dec 10.
August: This month Venus passes from Taurus into Gemini as it approaches the Sun. It reaches greatest elongation on Aug 13 with a magnitude of -4.4 and an apparent size of 22.8”. It rises at 3am.
September: This month Venus shines prominently in the morning with a magnitude of -4.3 to -4.1. At mid-month Venus has an apparent size of 17.3” and rises around 3:30am.
October: Venus is in Leo at the beginning of October then moves toward the Sun. It rises mid-month at around 4:30 am, with an apparent magnitude of 14.2”.
November: Venus is in Virgo this month. At mid-month it rises at 4:30am and has an apparent size of 12.3”.
December: Find Venus in Libra for most of the month shining in the morning from 5:30am as a -3.9 magnitude object. A telescope will show it has decreased in apparent size to 11.1”.
Is Mars Visible Tonight?
Passing past our home planet, we begin the journey through the superior planets with Mars.
Famous to everyone, astronomer or not, the ease with which it can be picked out in the night sky varies. But, if you’ve ever wondered ‘can you see Mars without a telescope?’ the answer is a definite Yes!
Mars begins the year as a tiny shadow of its best, but it will steadily transform for the better. As 2020 progresses, we will move closer to it and it will get much larger in our night sky until October, when it reaches opposition. At that time, the Martian disc will be large enough for us to make out surface features with a telescope.
It will slowly shrink back as the end of the year approaches, but we will have visibility all year long.
Where Can You Find Mars?
- Scorpius (Jan)
- Ophiuchus (Jan-Feb)
- Sagittarius (Feb-Mar)
- Capricornus (Apr-May)
- Aquarius (May-Jun)
- Pisces (Jun-Jul)
- Cetus (Jul)
- Pisces (Aug-Dec)
Mars Seeing Challenges:
There are lots of features we backyard astronomers can look for on the Martian surface but many of them are not available to us this year given the distance of the planet.
- Redness of the disc. It is 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. Winter solstice at the southern ice is on Sep 02, 2020.
- Shades of Color. Unless you have a truly enormous telescope you’re unfortunately not going to see detail in Mars’ 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) putting them beyond the reach of smaller scopes. You’ll need at least an 8” – 10″ aperture with decent seeing conditions to find them.
- Dust Clouds. Mars experiences dust storms and you may be fortunate enough to see one of those through your scope. They don’t run to a schedule, so it’s all in the luck of your timing.
For more details click this link for our dedicated guide to seeing Mars with a telescope.
When Can We See Mars from Earth in 2020?
January: Mars is a morning object in Libra then moves into Scorpius. At mid-month it will rise around 4am, shine with a magnitude of 1.5 and have an apparent size of 4.5”.
February: Mars moves from Scorpius into Sagittarius and brightens from magnitude 1.4 to 1.1. The planet is starting to slowly grow and, at mid-month, reaches an apparent size of 5.5”. It still rises about 4am.
March: Mars is in Sagittarius and brightens as it moves closer to us, reaching magnitude 0.8 this month and an apparent size of 5.9” mid-month.
April: The red planet moves to Capricornus and brightens significantly to magnitude 0.4. Mars rise is around 3:30am in the middle of April.
May: Size gains make the planet 7.0″ across with magnitude -0.0. As we move closer to opposition, so Mars rises earlier in the morning, from before 3am this month.
June: Mars moves from Aquarius into Pisces and reaches magnitude -0.5, making it one of the brightest objects in the night sky now. Mars rise is around 1:30am and it has an apparent size of 10.3”.
If you’re looking for more detail than this, take a look at the Virtual Astronomy Club. Each month we issue detailed guides and imagery for observing Mars.
July: Mars is in Pisces and brightens from magnitude -0.5 to -1.1. Mars rises in the east around 12:30am at mid-month. The disc is really growing now, reaching an apparent size of 12.8”.
August: Our red neighbor remains in Pisces until the end of the year, other than a glancing blow into the territory of Cetus this month. Mars brightens again to magnitude -1.8 and an apparent size of 16.5”. It rises before midnight for the first time this year.
September: This is a great month for viewing Mars as it heads towards opposition in October. The planet brightens dramatically to mag -2.5, attains an apparent size of 21.0” and rises at 9pm.
October: October 2020 will provide the year’s best views of Mars. On October 6, Mars will be at its closest approach and have a diameter of 22.6” (its largest angular size of 2020). It reaches opposition on Oct 13, when it rises at 7pm, sets at 7:30am and has a magnitude of -2.6.
November: With the glory days past, Mars fades from mag -2.1 to -1.2 over this month. It now looks best in late evening and sets around 3am. Its apparent size has already shrunk back to 17.4”.
December Mars ends 2020 by moving eastwards in Pisces and fading from magnitude -1.1 to -0.3. At mid-month it’s apparent size will have decreased to 12.4” and it’ll set by 1:30am.
Is Jupiter Visible Tonight?
The fourth of our five visible planets is the solar system’s giant: Jupiter.
Even though it is much further from us than Mars, the fact it’s well over a thousand times larger than the red planet means Jupiter shines more brightly in our skies. At its brightest, Jupiter is the third brightest object in the night sky, beaten only by Venus and the moon.
So, if you’re wondering can you see Jupiter without a telescope, you absolutely can. It’s a bright planet and can be found shining in the constellation of Sagittarius practically all year long, only moving to Capricornus for the last days of 2020.
Whilst you can see Jupiter without a telescope, it is a great planet to look at with one. There is so much to see on its surface and you can see the brightest moons of Jupiter too. If you don’t own one yet, take a look at our reviews of the best telescopes.
Even 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.
Where Can You Find Jupiter?
Is Jupiter in the sky tonight? Well, happily, for most of 2020 the answer to that question is… Yes!
Jupiter is visible for practically the whole year. Opposition is on 14th July, so the first half of the year builds up to that in the morning and the second half pulls away from it in the evening skies. More detail follows below.
If you want to know where to find Jupiter’s moons tonight, then we recommend this simple tool from Sky & Telescope (link opens a new tab). Put in the date and time of your observing and discover where the Galilean moons will be.
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 from Sky & Telescope 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, which is why we have a dedicated guide to seeing the Great Red Spot. 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.
For more details click this link for our dedicated guide to seeing Jupiter with a telescope.
When Can We See Jupiter from Earth in 2020?
January: Not visible until mid-month when it rises after 6:30 am, shining with a magnitude of -1.8 and an apparent size of 32.0”.
February: Jupiter increases in apparent size to 33.2” by mid-month and rises around 5 am.
March: By mid-month Jupiter has reached an apparent size of 35.4”. It will rise around 4:30 am.
April: Jupiter stays in Sagittarius and its magnitude brightens from -2.1 to -2.3. By mid-month Jupiter will rise before 3am and increase its angular size to 38.8”.
May: As we head towards opposition, Jupiter brightens again to magnitude -2.6. It rises before 1am now and has a big disc over 42” across.
June: Opposition is next month and the Jovian disc grows to 46″ across, making it shine at magnitude -2.7. It will rise before midnight for the first time this year by the middle of the month.
If you’re looking for more detail than this, take a look at the Virtual Astronomy Club. Each month we issue detailed guides and imagery for observing Jupiter.
July: On July 14 Jupiter reaches opposition. It will be in Sagittarius, shine with a dazzling magnitude of -2.8 and have an apparent size of 47.6”. It rises around 8:30 pm, sets at 6am and is highest in the sky at the middle of the night.
August: Jupiter will be slowly retrograding in Sagittarius and only fades marginally to magnitude -2.6. At mid-month the giant planet rises before sunset and sets by 4am. Its apparent size will shrink to 46.1”.
September: Jupiter fades again to magnitude -2.4 and decreases in apparent size from to 40.6”. At mid-month it will set before 2 am, giving us great evening viewing.
October: No significant change in magnitude this month, but Jupiter’s apparent size decreases to 38.7” by mid-month. It will set before midnight now, so best to be setup as darkness fall to observe it.
November: By mid-month Jupiter has dimmed to magnitude -2.1 and decreased to an apparent size of 35.6”. Jupiter sets at 9pm now, giving us a shorter window of opportunity to see it.
December: Jupiter is in Sagittarius until the last few days of the year, when it crosses into Capricornus. Decreasing to magnitude -2.0, by mid-month its apparent size will also decrease to 33.5”. It will set by 7:30pm, but we’re given an end of year treat when Jupiter and Saturn have a close approach of just 0.1° on Dec 21.
Is Saturn Visible Tonight?
Next, we come to the last of the five planets visible from Earth with the naked eye. And, for many, the most spectacular to look at with a telescope.
If you’re wondering “can I see Saturn without a telescope?” you absolutely can! At its brightest Saturn’s light outshines every star – only the moon and four closer planets beat it, so it’s easy to pick out.
For many astronomers, nothing beats their first view of Saturn and its awe-inspiring rings through the eyepiece of a telescope. It’s a pleasing and surreal sight that keeps many of us coming back to the ringed planet time and again.
Where Can You Find Saturn?
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.
Saturn’s distance from the sun means it takes a leisurely 30 years to orbit the sun so, over the course of 2020, it doesn’t move much against the background of stars. The planet swaps back and forth (as part of its retrograde motion) between Sagittarius and Capricornus throughout this year.
Saturn Seeing Challenges:
- Saturn’s rings. Of course, this is where we start! In 2018 the rings appeared wider (more angled towards Earth) than since 2003. In 2020 things won’t be much different than they were then, so they are there for the enjoying! Binoculars won’t show them, but even the most modest telescope will reveal their glory.
- Individual rings. With a larger telescope and more magnification, it’s a good challenge break the rings down into their component parts: rings A, B, C and D and the Cassini Division.
- 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 almanack to help you find them.
When Can We See Saturn from Earth in 2020?
January: Saturn is at superior conjunction on Jan 13 and will not be visible this month.
February: Saturn remains not visible until mid-month. On February 15, it will shine with a magnitude of +0.6, have a of an apparent size of 15.3” and rise in the southeast before 6am.
March: Saturn has a magnitude of +0.7 and increases in apparent size to 16.1” by the end of the month. At mid-month it rises just before 5am.
April: Saturn is just within Capricornus. It has a magnitude of -0.6 and an angular size of 16.5”. By mid-month it rises at 3am.
May: The ringed planet brightens to magnitude 0.4 in Capricornus and rises by 1am in the middle of May.
June: Still in Capricornus, Saturn brightens slightly magnitude 0.2 with an apparent diameter of 18.1″. For the first time this year, Saturn rises before midnight.
If you’re looking for more detail than this, take a look at the Virtual Astronomy Club. Each month we issue detailed guides and imagery for observing Saturn.
July: Saturn reaches opposition on July 20 and is above the horizon from around 8:30pm to 6:30am. See it shining with a magnitude 0.1 and an apparent disc of 18.5”. Saturn is angled to show its northern hemisphere and its rings are well presented at an inclination of 21°.
August: Back in Sagittarius, Saturn dims slightly to magnitude 0.3. It rises before 7pm and sets a little after 4am respectively. Its disc is almost the same size as last month at 18.3”.
September: At mid-month Saturn sets around 2am, putting its best viewing firmly in evening skies. Its magnitude fades to 0.4 and its apparent size decreases to 17.6”.
October: Saturn begins to move eastward in Sagittarius. At mid-month it has a magnitude of 0.5, an apparent size of 16.8” and sets around midnight.
November: Our favorite planet to observe dims marginally to magnitude 0.6 as its disc shrinks a little to 16.0”. Now setting before 10pm, make sure to observe it as soon as the sky darkens in the evening.
December: Saturn is moving eastwards. It remains at magnitude 0.6 and shrinks to an apparent size of 15.4” by mid-month. It will set around 7:30pm but closes the year with a Jupiter conjunction on Dec 21, the two giants will appear just 0.1° apart in our skies.
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.
It can be hard to know if you’ve found what you’re looking for, but they both shine with a blue/green light and, of course, they move over successive nights with respect to the background stars.
The five visible planets all put on a spectacular show at various points in 2020.
Each offers its own unique challenges from the simple to the moderately difficult.
Make a reminder to look for Mercury and Venus when they are at greatest elongation. For Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, you’ll see the most detail when they are at opposition.
2020 Opposition Dates for the Planets
- Mars – October 14th
- Jupiter – July 14th
- Saturn – July 20th
- Uranus – October 31st
- Neptune – September 11th
These are some useful resources to help you further with your planet observing.
- Sky & Telescope Magazine subscription (see our review article)
- EarthSky guide to the planets in the month ahead
- NASA’s planetary factsheets
- Maps of planets against constellation background
Calendar research, thanks to Tanya C. Forde