How To See The Brightest Planets In The Sky In February 2017
If you're searching for a way to distract yourself from all the nonsense Earthlings are currently putting each other through, try directing your gaze toward the brightest planets in the sky in February 2017. Unless Planet X really does turn out to be barreling toward Earth at top speed (which, let's face it, is unlikely), planet-watching is rarely as spectacular as catching a meteor shower or a solar eclipse— but honestly, things are busy enough here on Earth. Grabbing a blanket and some binoculars and enjoying the starry sky sounds like a fabulously soothing time.
Despite what you may think, you don't need a telescope to see most planets in our solar system. The five brightest planets — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — can often be seen with the naked eye as long as you know where to look, but they're rarely visible all at the same time. According to Naked Eye Planets, each planet's brightness depends on its position relative to Earth, apparent size, and of course, proximity to the Sun. Their own reflected light is always outshone by the Sun, which can't be good for their planetary self-esteem. A number of planets will be shining particularly brightly his month, though, so at least they've got that going for them.
If you're worried about being able to tell the difference between stars and planets, there are some general characteristics to keep in mind. If you're a long-time skywatcher, you'll be able to notice that while stars seem fixed in their positions in the sky, planets move around up there. But that's something you'll only notice if you an eye on the heavens more nights than not — a more obvious difference lies in the quality of light given off. Stars appear to twinkle, while planets shine with a steady light.
Now that you have some pointers in mind, here are the brightest planets to watch in February.
Brightest point: Feb. 17
According to EarthSky.org, Venus is the brightest planet by far this month. Its light will be strongest on Feb. 17, but if you want to figure out what it looks like beforehand, you can catch it near the waxing crescent moon on Feb. 1. Either way, look to the southwest around dusk or early nightfall.
Brightest point: Evenings and nights
Although Mars was incredibly bright in 2016, it's starting to dim as we travel away from the red planet. However, that doesn't mean you can't catch it in the sky. Mars will appear in the west, above the brighter Venus, where it will set between nine and ten p.m. all month. On Feb. 1, it's set to pass near the moon.
Brightest point: Predawn, early mornings
Jupiter is one of the brighter planets this spring, rising in the east about an hour before midnight in the early month. As the days go by, it'll rise around 10 p.m. If you don't feel like staying awake that long, look for it in the mornings, when Space.com writes that the planet will be "quite brilliant, with a silver-white luster." It'll pass near the moon on Feb. 15.
Brightest point: Predawn
Saturn will be shining with a steady, golden light throughout the month. Look for it in the eastern sky; it's easiest to see before dawn. In the early part of the month, the planet rises around three hours before the Sun, and by the end of Feb., that extends to four hours before sunrise. If you need help finding it, Saturn will be near the moon on Feb. 20. To see the rings, you'll have to break out a telescope.
Brightest point: Mornings before Feb. 14
According to Space.com, you'll be able to see Mercury in the mornings this Feb. Head somewhere with an unobstructed view of the horizon and look for a yellowish bright point low in the eastern sky, where it rises about an hour before the Sun. EarthSky.org recommends viewing the planet in the early part of the month, before its rise starts to coincide with the Sun's. Remember that it's a fairly small planet, so don't forget binoculars.