The sun is one of the top 10 space objects to see during the day. Image via EarthSky Facebook friend Janet Furlong.
What are the top 10 space objects to see during the day? Some are easy, others are more challenging. Here is our list of the top 10 space objects to look for in the daytime sky.
Seeing space objects during the day
If you think nature-watching in the daytime sky is limited to clouds and birds, you are missing out. There are several space objects visible in the daytime but catching them has its limitations and difficulties. And, as with all skywatching, it also has its rewards. So here is a list of 10 space objects to see in the daytime sky. Aside from the first three, some daylight observations are relatively difficult, but possible if you’re prepared. On the other hand, the last few objects are impossible to plan for or predict.
That said, here they are, in increasing order of difficulty: your top 10 space objects to see during the day.
In addition to the 10 items listed here, there are atmospheric phenomena such as this beautiful solar halo and sun dogs. While not quite space related, they are sky related and well worth coming to know. Image via Rima Biswas in Baltimore, Maryland, December 2016.
1. The sun
Obviously, you see the sun during the day. But paradoxically, we should never look at it, because direct observation damages our eyes. So never look right at the sun. Gazing at the sun directly can damage your eyes.
If you take precautions – and rig up a simple indirect viewing method for sun-watching – what do you look for? Most people look for sunspots, which can be quite large. You can also use a telescope equipped with a safe solar filter. It’s easy and fun to count the number of sunspots you see from day to day. Counting sunspots doesn’t take long, and, if you record what you see, you notice profound changes over time.
The sun has an 11-year cycle, during which the dark sunspots on the sun’s surface wax and wane. We’re in the beginning phase of a solar cycle now, with frequent and some impressive sunspots. And, in the coming years, the number of spots on the sun should continue increasing until the solar cycle peaks.
Some sun resources
Also, we recommend this website Spaceweather.com, they track sunspots, solar activity and offer mobile phone alerts.
Additionally, the sun gives us a whole range of atmospheric effects. Search here at EarthSky for words like “halo around the sun,” “rainbows,” “iridescent clouds” and “the glory.” Or browse Les Cowley’s great website Atmospheric Optics.
2. The moon during the day
Possibly 75% of the public is unaware the moon is visible in the daytime sky. That’s not hard to understand, since many people nowadays spend most of their time indoors. Hence, they don’t pay much attention to the sky.
In addition, the moon is not in the daytime sky every day. Like the sun, it is below the horizon half the time. Plus, even when the moon is visible during the day, it’s often a thin crescent and not easy to see. So some people are surprised to notice the moon in the daytime sky. But voila. If you look up frequently, you’ll see it often.
The moon is visible during the day. Here’s an almost full moon, ascending in the east in evening twilight. Beautiful! Photo via Jenney Disimon in Sabah, North Borneo.
3. The planet Venus
Under the right conditions, the planet Venus is visible when the sun is also in the sky.
The image above shows Venus as a crescent, like a tiny crescent moon. But Venus only appears as a crescent at certain times in its orbit, and you need some optical aid to see it.
Anyone who sees Venus in a reasonably dark sky knows it is usually dazzlingly brilliant. Observations in the daytime sky are more difficult simply because the surrounding sky is so bright during the day. The contrast between a planet and the sky is much lower during the day, making the planet harder to see. Venus appears as a tiny white dot that often seems to “pop” out at you in a daylight sky. It helps to know where to look, especially locating it near the moon or following it from dark through twilight.
In June 2022, Venus can be found easily in the sunrise direction in the morning sky. It’s exceedingly bright, but will sink lower each day until disappearing from the morning sky in October. Venus reappears in the evening sky in December 2022.
Some Venus resources:
Daylight occultation of Venus by the moon, via John Ashley. He said it’s “… a composite of 6 photos taken at 1-minute intervals, photographed in August 2000 from Glacier National Park, Montana. It’s one of 100+ photos from my book, Glacier National Park After Dark.”
4. Earth-orbiting satellites during the day
Many people are surprised satellites are easy to see, but they are quite common in dark, nighttime skies. Seasoned observers see them frequently as nighttime falls. They look like steadily moving “stars” – silent – and very high up. So, at night, it’s very easy to see satellites. But how about during the day?
You can see the International Space Station (ISS) during the day. The ISS is sometimes the third-brightest object visible in the sky, after the sun and moon. Why only sometimes? The position and brightness of ISS in your sky is variable, depending on where the space station is with respect to you. Also, the brightness of Venus – which is usually the sky’s third-brighest object – varies. Sometimes ISS is brighter than Venus, and sometimes Venus is brighter than ISS.
Still, ISS is a very bright satellite. If conditions are optimum, you might see it in daylight. Spotting a visible pass of ISS in the daytime sky is a fun pastime. Eventually, you’ll be an expert at daylight ISS sightings and you’ll know when they occur over your location. Here’s an article to help you get started.
ISS is sometimes (and sometimes not) brighter than Venus. Here it is in a daytime sky. Image via Spaceweather.com/ UniverseToday.com.
5. The planet Jupiter
Even some seasoned astronomers are surprised to hear mighty Jupiter is visible with the unaided eye in a sunlit sky. A word of caution here, this isn’t an easy observation. Jupiter is significantly dimmer than Venus, and finding it takes a bit more effort. Not to mention, it helps to have exceptionally good eyesight and excellent atmospheric conditions.
The best time to see Jupiter in daylight is when it’s near a “quadrature.” In other words, when Jupiter is about 90 degrees away from the sun in the sky. Plus, the sky is slightly darker there, due to a phenomenon known as polarization. This is similar to the arrangement of first quarter and last quarter moons. In fact, it is very helpful to have a quarter moon nearby, using it as a sky landmark guiding you to Jupiter. For example, notice the quarter moon in the image above.
When is Jupiter at quadrature next? Pretty soon, it happens on June 29, 2022.
Jupiter captured in 2012, during a close pass near the moon. Image by Dave Dickinson (@Astroguyz on Twitter) via Universe Today.
6. The planet Mars
Although only a few observers catch Jupiter in the daytime with the unaided eye, even fewer score a glimpse of Mars. However, it is possible. Mars reaches -1.9 magnitude at opposition on December 8, 2022. The best time to see Mars during the day is around a very close opposition when Mars shines brightly at -2.9 magnitude.
Okay, it’s not quite daylight in this image, but close. See the bright triangle? Brightest is Venus. Mars just below it. Jupiter – second-brightest – above Venus. Bryan Goff took this photo on October 30, 2015 from the USCGC Stratton, deployed in the Pacific Ocean.
7. Stars during eclipses
This is cheating, but stars and the brighter planets are visible in the daytime sky with the unaided eye. However, this is normally only during a total solar eclipse. Such observations are of historical significance. And in fact played a crucial role in one of the first confirmations of Einstein’s theories of relativity.
A few observers report seeing some bright stars, such as Sirius, with the unaided eye in the daytime sky. These sightings require exceptional eyesight and exceptional sky conditions.
Positions of stars and planets during the August 21, 2017, total solar eclipse, 1st total solar eclipse visible from the contiguous U.S. since 1979. Illustration via Eddie Irizarry using Stellarium. Read more about this chart.
8. Comets during the day
Like the meteors with which comets are sometimes confused, many bright comets have been observed in the daytime sky. In fact, although not necessarily always easy to observe, they are not all that rare. Comet McNaught was visible in daylight skies in 2007, and a very bright daytime comet preceded Halley’s Comet in 1910.
Daytime comets are more frequently observed because their orbits are predicted ahead of time and people know where to look.
Stefan Seip, in Stuttgart, Germany, captured Comet McNaught in broad daylight, with a blue sky and white puffy clouds on January 13, 2007, one day after the comet’s closest point to the sun (perihelion). He used an Astro-Physics 155mm aperture f/7 refractor working at f/14 with a 2x barlow lens and a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II DSLR and 1/500th of a second exposure (!) at ISO 100. 24 frames were stacked for the final image. Image via AstroPix.com.
9. Daytime meteors
Rare and unpredictable, very bright meteors sometimes streak across the daylight sky. Meteors are bits of space debris vaporizing as they encounter Earth’s atmosphere. Although they occur in the high atmosphere, they are caused by small space objects. This space debris comes from comets or the asteroid belt.
One of the most famous daytime meteors occurred over the western part of North America in 1972. It was visible and recorded by observers from Utah to Alberta, Canada. Another daylight meteor was reported over California and Nevada on April 22, 2012. This meteor streaked across the daylight sky, creating a sonic boom and rattling windows. It was seen by thousands. Later, astronomers reported the meteor began as a mini-van-sized asteroid. And they located a debris field containing fragments of the meteorite, which is known as the Sutter’s Mill meteorite.
The 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor was bright enough to cast shadows in daylight. It created an exceedingly bright flash and powerful shock wave, while breaking windows in six Russian cities. Needless to say, the meteor caused a panic, and with good reason. Around 1,500 people required medical treatment, mostly from flying glass.
The Sutter’s Mill meteor – a daylight meteor – caught from near Reno, Nevada on April 22, 2012. Photo via Lisa Warren.
10. Daytime supernovae
Last on our list of space objects (sometimes) visible in the daytime sky are supernovae, or exploding stars. Estimates vary on the expected frequency of supernova explosions in our Milky Way galaxy. They range from as many as once every 20 years to once every 300 years. We don’t have enough records of this infrequent phenomena to give us much of an average. Many of these supernova are not even visible from Earth due to intervening gas and dust. In any event, the last supernova bright enough to see in the daytime sky was in 1572.
Betelgeuse is a likely candidate
The most likely candidate for a supernova explosion becoming visible during daytime is the star Betelgeuse. Unquestionably, it will be visible in the daylight sky when it explodes, but when that will be is still unknown. Maybe tonight, or in a few thousand, or tens of thousands, or maybe a million years from now. Many were teased in late 2019, when Betelgeuse dimmed for months leading to some speculating – or hoping – a supernova was imminent.
The supernova of 1006 was likely the brightest observed stellar event in recorded history, reaching an estimated -7.5 magnitude, and exceeding the brightness of Venus by roughly 16 times. Observers across China, Japan, Iraq, Egypt and Europe saw and described it. Astronomer Tunç Tezel offers this suggestion of how it might have looked (at night), based on a photograph he took in 1998 from a site overlooking the Mediterranean south of Antalya, Turkey. The image is described further in the Astronomy Picture of the Day for March 28, 2003.
Bottom line: A rundown of the top 10 space objects you can see – under the right conditions – with the unaided human eye during the day.