Now the waning moon has swept past Jupiter, and – on the mornings of February 9 to 11, 2018 – it’ll pass Mars and Saturn. You’ll find the planets in the southeast as viewed from the Northern Hemisphere (closer to due east from the Southern Hemisphere).
The king planet Jupiter is not shown on the chart at top, but you can see it in the photos below, or click back to this chart. And – in the early morning sky – you’ll find bright Jupiter to the west of Mars and Saturn.
Both Jupiter and Saturn outshine Mars at present. Jupiter, the brightest morning planet, shines about 17 times more brightly than Mars; and Saturn, the most distant world that you can easily see with the eye alone, shines a bit more than one and one-half times brighter than the red planet Mars in early February 2018. The moon will be closest to Saturn Sunday morning, February 11, by the way.
A bright red star – Antares, brightest star in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion – is also nearby.
The name Antares is derived from the ancient Greek term which roughly translates to like Ares, because the ruddy color of this red supergiant star mimics that of the red planet Mars (the Greek Ares or Roman Mars).
You’ll have an excellent chance to contrast the red star Antares with the red planet Mars in the February 2018 morning sky. It’s often said that stars tend to twinkle while planets shine more steadily. Look to see if this general rule holds true.
Also, notice the brightness of these two objects. They’re about equally bright now, but Mars might look brighter than Antares by February’s end. Mars is going to have a spectacular year in 2018. Start watching it now, and see it get brighter than Antares, or Saturn – or even Jupiter – by late July.
Keep an eye on Mars. It’s going to have a spectacular year in 2018, coming closer to us around late July 2018 than since 2003 … when it was closer than it had been for 60,000 years! Read more about Mars in 2018.
Mars will brighten considerably over the months ahead. It’ll match Saturn in brightness in a little over a month from now. Mars will go on to have a conjunction with Saturn on April 2, 2018.
By July 2018, Mars will exceed Jupiter in brightness!
The moon and the planets of the solar system are always found on or near the ecliptic – Earth’s orbital plane projected onto the celestial sphere. That’s because the moon orbits the Earth, and the planets orbit the sun, on nearly the same plane that Earth circles the sun.
The change of the moon’s position from day to day is due to the moon’s orbital motion around Earth. The moon revolves around Earth in the same direction that Earth rotates on its axis: from west to east. On the average, the moon travels some 13 degrees per day in front of the constellations of the zodiac. For reference, the moon’s diameter spans 1/2 degree and your fist at an arm’s length approximates 10 degrees.
The moon always moves eastward (in the direction of sunrise) in front of the backdrop stars. Unlike the planets, the moon never goes in a retrograde (westward) direction in front of the stars of the zodiac.
Unlike the moon, the superior planets do move in a retrograde fashion (westward in front of the stars) for a few months each year, as Earth sweeps between them and the sun. You can watch the three planets now in the morning sky – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – travel in retrograde later this year.
As Earth passes by these outer planets in our smaller and faster orbit, these worlds will appear to go westward in front of the stars. Around the middle of retrograde, a superior planet reaches opposition and shines at its brightest best in Earth’s sky.
We list the retrograde dates for you below. Note that the farther distant the planet, the longer the retrograde
Superior naked-eye planet retrogrades for 2018:
Jupiter (5th planet outward from sun)
Retrograde begins: March 9, 2018
Opposition: May 9, 2018
Retrograde ends: July 11, 2018
Saturn (6th planet outward from sun)
Retrograde begins: April 18, 2018
Opposition: June 27, 2018
Retrograde ends: September 6, 2018
Mars (4th planet outward from sun)
Retrograde begins: June 28, 2018
Opposition: July 27, 2018
Retrograde ends: August 28, 2018
Bottom line: Now the moon has moved past Jupiter in the predawn sky. You’ll find it moving past the planet Mars – toward Saturn – on the mornings of February 9 to 11, 2018.
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.