Follow the links below to learn more about the planets in February 2018:
Mercury. Mercury is behind the sun from Earth this month. It officially transitions out of the morning sky and into the evening sky on February 17 with its superior conjunction. You’ll probably see Mercury next in March 2018, when it’ll have its best evening apparition of the year for the Northern Hemisphere (yet the poorest for the Southern Hemisphere). Brilliant Venus will shine close to Mercury for several weeks in March. Intrepid sky watchers might catch Mercury as soon as late February or early March, at which time Mercury will be setting about 45 to 50 minutes after the sun (at mid-northern latitudes).
Venus. Brilliant Venus, though nominally an evening “star” in February 2018, hovers close to the sunset glare all month. NOTE ADDED FEBRUARY 17: Venus has been spotted after sunset; photos here. It is very tough to spot. You might have to wait until March 2018 to catch Venus in the west after sunset. It’ll become easy to spot with the eye alone by mid-March 2018. Moreover, Venus’ close proximity to Mercury on the sky’s dome in March will provide some lovely and photogenic views of the two planets in March. Circle March 18 on your calendar. Around that date, the young lunar crescent will join up with Venus and Mercury at evening dusk and nightfall.
Mars. 2018 will be a wonderful year to see Mars. Start watching it now! Look for Mars to rise in the east several hours before the first stirrings of morning twilight this month. Although Mars will attain 1st-magnitude brightness by mid-February, it’ll look pale next to Jupiter, the brightest starlike object in this month’s nighttime sky. Mars also shines near 1st-magnitude Antares all month. Compare and contrast the brilliance and color of red Mars and red Antares, and notice that – by the February’s end – Mars will probably outshine Antares. However, the precise magnitude of Mars isn’t altogether predictable because of the possibility of dust storms.
Let the waning crescent moon help guide your eye to Mars (and Jupiter) for several mornings, centered on February 9.
Mars lodges at the border of the constellations Libra and Scorpius in early February and then moves into the constellation Ophiuchus during the second week of February 2018.
By the end of the month, Mars will have moved closer to the ringed planet Saturn and farther away from Jupiter. Mars will finally catch up with Saturn in early April, to stage a close conjunction on April 2, 2018. By that time, Mars is expected to beam some three times brighter than Antares and twice as bright as Saturn. What’s more, Mars will be three times brighter in early April than its former fainter self in mid-February.
Exactly one year after Mars’s superior conjunction on July 27, 2017, Mars will swing to opposition on July 27, 2018. This will be Mars’ best opposition since its historically close one on August 28, 2003. In fact, Mars will become the fourth-brightest heavenly body to light up the sky in July 2018, after the sun, moon and the planet Venus.
It’s not often that Mars outshines Jupiter, normally the fourth-brightest celestial body. But it will in 2018.
Jupiter. Because Venus is mostly lost in the sun’s glare this month, the king planet Jupiter takes over as the brightest starlike object to grace the nighttime sky. Jupiter beams during the predawn hours (and morning dawn, too!) all month long.
This month, Jupiter shines in front of the constellation Libra the Scales and close to Libra’s alpha star, Zubenelgenubi. Use brilliant Jupiter to locate Zubenelgenubi, and then use binoculars to view this star as two stars!
Before dawn, look for modestly-bright Mars to the east of Jupiter. Shining at a magnitude of -2, Jupiter is some 16 times brighter than the red planet in middle February. But Mars will be brighter than Jupiter before this year ends. See Mars above.
From mid-northern latitudes, Jupiter rises better than an hour after midnight (approximately 1 to 2 a.m. local time) in early February. By the month’s end, Jupiter comes up around midnight local time.
From temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, Jupiter rises at or near the midnight hour local time in early February; and by the month’s end, Jupiter rises about two hours before local midnight (roughly 10 p.m.)
Saturn. The farthest world you can easily view with the eye alone, Saturn shines before dawn in February 2018. The waning crescent moon helps guide your eye to golden Saturn (plus Mars and Jupiter) for several mornings, starting on or around February 9. The moon passes some 2 degrees (four moon-diameters) north of Saturn on February 11.
From mid-northern latitudes (U.S .and Europe), Saturn rises about two hours before sunrise in early February (roughly 5 a.m. local time). By the month’s end, look for Saturn to rise about three hours before the sun (around 3 to 4 a.m. local time).
From temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere (South Africa, southern Australia), Saturn rises about three hours before sunrise in early February (approximately 3 a.m. local time); and by the month’s end, the ringed planet comes up about one hour after local midnight.
What do we mean by bright planet? By bright planet, we mean any solar system planet that is easily visible without an optical aid and that has been watched by our ancestors since time immemorial. In their outward order from the sun, the five bright planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets actually do appear bright in our sky. They are typically as bright as – or brighter than – the brightest stars. Plus, these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars. You can spot them, and come to know them as faithful friends, if you try.
Bottom line: In February 2018, three of the five bright planets – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – adorn the predawn sky. Meanwhile, Mercury and Venus are lost in the sun’s glare, but will be back in March! Click here for recommended almanacs; they can help you know when the planets rise, transit and set in your sky.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.