Minnesota Starwatch 2018

Minnesota Starwatch by Deane Morrison, designed to inform the broadest possible community of the appearance of the nightly sky and current activities in newspapers, continues to be published in several newspapers throughout the state.

Deane Morrison
University Relations
(612) 624-2346


Minnesota Starwatch star map for December 2018

December’s skies start to fill with ornaments, as planets rise ahead of the morning sun, the moon conducts its monthly tour of the sky, and the bright winter stars make their annual grand entrance.

Early risers will see Venus in the southeast. Look an hour before sunrise on the 3rd and 4th to see a waning crescent moon hanging near the planet. On the 5th, a scrawny old moon appears well below Venus, close to the east-southeast horizon. On the 31st, you may catch another waning moon, Venus and Jupiter lined up top-to-bottom in that order.

Mercury makes a brief foray into the morning sky. Look close above the southeast horizon about 45 minutes before sunrise between the 10th and 12th. On the 21st, Mercury and Jupiter pass each other as the little planet drops out of the sky and the big one climbs into it.

Above all this lunar and planetary action shines Arcturus, the anchor of kite-shaped Bootes, the herdsman. In the evening, Mars holds its own in the south to southwest, floating through the water constellations Aquarius and Pisces. Watch it glide below the Circlet of Pisces during the fourth week of the month. The Circlet is right beneath the Great Square of Pegasus, a dominating presence in the autumn and early-winter sky.

If you’re out in the evening, Mars still dominates the southern sky. A first quarter moon visits the red planet on the 15th, then hurries eastward to join the winter constellations as they begin their annual return. November’s full beaver moon rises the evening of the 22nd—Thanksgiving. The next night, it rises close to Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the bull. It then travels the night sky with Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster, which outlines the face of Taurus. In astronomy news, University of Minnesota astrophysicists were part of an international team that solved a centuries-old mystery. In 1670, a star suddenly flared up in the middle of the Summer Triangle of bright stars, which is now up in the southwest after nightfall. The star faded away, though, and nobody knew what it was.

December’s full moon arrives on the 22nd. It rises after sunset and travels the night sky among the stars of Gemini. Its berth that night is about midway between Capella and Sirius, the brightest of all stars (excluding the sun, of course). Winter begins with the solstice at 4:23 p.m. on the 21st, when the sun reaches a point over the Tropic of Capricorn. At that moment, an observer in space would see the Earth lighted from the Arctic Circle down to the South Pole and up to the Antarctic Circle on the dark side of the planet. The day of the winter solstice is always short and usually cold, but remember that by then the sun will have begun setting later each day.


Minnesota Starwatch star map for November 2018

In November the skies get seriously dark. That makes it all the easier to watch Venus stage a reappearance in the predawn sky. Venus recently fell into the sunset as it began its latest trip between Earth and the sun. Now, having completed that trip, it’s climbing in the morning sky as it swings away from the sun’s foreglow.

Starting in mid-month, look for the queen of planets low in the east-southeast an hour to 90 minutes before sunrise. As it climbs it comes close to Spica, the one bright star in Virgo, the maiden. Virgo is home to the Virgo Cluster, an assemblage of more than a thousand galaxies spread over a wide expanse of sky. It’s also the closest large cluster of galaxies to the “local group,” which includes our Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy.

Just west of Spica, look for the relatively obscure constellation Corvus, the crow. The crow’s four main stars form a lopsided quadrangle, making Corvus, in a way, a rather comical constellation.

Above and east of Venus and Spica shines Arcturus, the brightest star in the northern hemisphere of sky. It anchors the kite-shaped constellation Bootes, the herdsman. The Leonid meteor shower peaks on the mornings of the 17th and 18th. It probably won’t be spectacular, but if skies are dark and you can manage to be out well past midnight, you may see 10 to 15 meteors an hour.

If you’re out in the evening, Mars still dominates the southern sky. A first quarter moon visits the red planet on the 15th, then hurries eastward to join the winter constellations as they begin their annual return. November’s full beaver moon rises the evening of the 22nd—Thanksgiving. The next night, it rises close to Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the bull. It then travels the night sky with Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster, which outlines the face of Taurus. In astronomy news, University of Minnesota astrophysicists were part of an international team that solved a centuries-old mystery. In 1670, a star suddenly flared up in the middle of the Summer Triangle of bright stars, which is now up in the southwest after nightfall. The star faded away, though, and nobody knew what it was.

As it turned out, the spectacle was the collision of a white dwarf star and a brown dwarf star. A white dwarf is what the sun will become at the end of its life: a small, dense star with powerful gravity. A brown dwarf is what astronomers call a failed star. Brown dwarfs have between 10 and 80 times the mass of Jupiter, but not enough to ignite the thermonuclear fusion that makes stars shine. The two stars once orbited each other, but they got too close, then merged and spewed out debris—mostly the shredded remains of the brown dwarf. The team is the first to detect a collision between these two types of stars.


Minnesota Starwatch star map for October 2018

In the first few days of August, the moon wanes itself out of the evening sky and leaves us with a rare spread of bright planets and stars.

October’s dark and often clear skies are perfect for enjoying the fall constellations. Some of them are fairly dim, but if you like a challenge, grab a star chart and go outside soon after nightfall.

One good target is Pegasus, the winged horse, easily recognizable by its sizable Great Square high in the southeast. Close by is Andromeda, a double string of stars extending from the Great Square’s northeast corner. Its most famous feature is a fuzzy patch of light: the Andromeda Galaxy. At 2.5 million light-years away, Andromeda is our Milky Way’s nearest large neighbor and the most distant object visible to the naked eye. .

Close above the southern horizon shines Fomalhaut, the only remarkable feature of Piscis Austrinus, the southern fish. Fomalhaut’s name derives from the Arabic for “mouth of the fish.” A fixture of science fiction, Fomalhaut is about 25 light-years away, twice as massive as the sun, and 16 times brighter. It also has a wide disk of dust and debris. It’s known as “the loneliest star” due to the expanse of nearly empty sky around it. But now Fomalhaut has a companion in Mars, the bright light just off to the northwest.

Mars spends October in chevron-shaped Capricornus, the sea goat. Watch the stars of Capricornus stream past Mars from night to night as Earth’s orbital motion sweeps them westward. We’re actually sweeping Mars westward too, but much more slowly because the red planet’s own orbital motion helps it resist being left behind.

Meanwhile, above and east of Mars, scraggly Aquarius, the water bearer, pours down its water from the Y-shaped Water Jar. Next to the Water Jar and right below the Great Square, look for the ring-shaped Circlet of Pisces.

The Draconid meteor shower peaks in the evenings of October 7-9. Usually, we get just a handful of these slow-moving meteors per hour, but occasionally they put on a real show. If you decide to take a chance on it, go out right after nightfall, lie back in a lawn chair and look to the northwest. Any Draconids you see will radiate from a spot high in the northwest, in the constellation Draco, the dragon.

On the 10th, see if you can spot a young moon close to the west-southwest horizon right after sunset. The next night, a three-day-old crescent pairs up with Jupiter. Look an hour after sunset but no later, or Jupiter may have set. October’s full hunter’s moon arrives on the morning of the 24th, but sets before reaching complete fullness. To see it at its roundest, try to get outside about 45 minutes before sunrise that morning, or watch it rise that evening.


Minnesota Starwatch star map for September 2018

In the first few days of August, the moon wanes itself out of the evening sky and leaves us with a rare spread of bright planets and stars.

Venus takes a tumble into the sunset this month, but that still leaves three bright planets to adorn the evening sky. Mars shines in the south after nightfall, with Saturn to the west and Jupiter an even farther west. Jupiter also exits the evening sky soon, but in a few months it will join Venus in the morning sky.

Also in the west, the brilliant star Arcturus is dragging its kite-shaped constellation, Bootes, the herdsman, down toward the horizon. Arcturus is about 25 times the diameter of the sun and probably much older. But its main claim to fame is that it doesn’t circulate horizontally around in the disk of the Milky Way like the sun; instead, it is slicing its way down through the galactic disk. And a group of at least four dozen stars, called the Arcturus Stream, is moving along with it.

The Summer Triangle of bright stars sails high above Saturn and Mars after nightfall. Lowest is Altair, in Aquila, the eagle. Brightest is Vega, in Lyra, the lyre of Orpheus. Note the parallelogram of stars below Vega; they outline the lyre and look beautiful through binoculars. East of Vega, Deneb completes the Triangle. It also marks the “top” of the Northern Cross, a feature of Cygnus, the swan.

The Summer Triangle abounds with small wonders. Look above Altair for thin Sagitta, the arrow. Then grab your binoculars and look immediately northwest of Sagitta’s feathers to see the dim but astonishingly realistic Coathanger hanging upside-down. And check out little Delphinus, the dolphin, just northeast of Altair. Fall arrives with the autumn equinox at 8:54 p.m. on the 22nd. At that moment a space traveler would see Earth lighted from pole to pole. On the evening of the 24th, we’re treated to a lovely full harvest moon rising in twilight. In astronomy news, on August 12 NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft, which will fly closer to the sun than any spacecraft has gone before. Aboard are instruments designed by University of Minnesota space physicists to study electric and magnetic fields in the solar corona. Scientists believe these fields heat charged particles escaping from the sun’s surface to millions of degrees and accelerate them to form a constant torrent of particles traveling at up to a million miles per hour. Known as the solar wind, this flow of particles bathes the solar system. Its interactions with Earth’s magnetic field often lead to spectacular auroras, but its strongest gales can leave damaged power grids in their wake. Data from the Parker Solar Probe is expected to settle a debate about just how the sun’s electric and magnetic fields generate the solar wind. That knowledge will make it easier to predict its fiercest outbursts and take precautions to protect power grids—as well as satellites and astronauts on future missions far from Earth. Also, because our sun is the one star we can study up close, what we learn from it will tell us much about how stars everywhere in the universe live their lives.


Minnesota Starwatch star map for August 2018

In the first few days of August, the moon wanes itself out of the evening sky and leaves us with a rare spread of bright planets and stars.

Look low in the south after nightfall to see four beacons. From east to west we have reddish Mars; Saturn; reddish Antares, the heart of Scorpius; and Jupiter. Saturn appears above the pleasing Teapot of Sagittarius and just west of the hooklike line of stars known as the Teaspoon.

If your eyes are good, you may be able to distinguish the subtly different colors of all these objects. Saturn and Jupiter often appear pale yellow, while Jupiter may also have tones of white, brown, red and orange. Mars, of course, shines a soft ruddy color, as does Antares, whose brightness and tone earned it the nickname "rival of Mars." These days, however, it gives Mars no competition.

With binoculars or a small telescope (and a star chart if necessary), try finding the star cluster above and left of the scorpion's stinger. Known as Messier 7 or the Ptolemy cluster, it's an open cluster like the Pleiades, where the stars were all born from the same cloud of interstellar gas and are loosely bound by gravity.

The annual Perseid meteor shower is predicted to peak the night of August 12th-13th. It should be good because no moon will be around to interfere. Under ideal conditions we could see 40 to 50 meteors an hour. The meteors radiate from a point—called the radiant—near the helmet of Perseus, which will be low in the northeast at nightfall. If the radiant is still low and you're lucky, you may see what's called an earth-grazer, a meteor that bounces along Earth's upper atmosphere like a stone skipping over water and shoots overhead rather than down.

Meteors represent the fiery demise of debris left behind by comets. The Perseids arise when pebbles the size of sand grains hit Earth's upper atmosphere going about 37 miles per second. As they streak through the atmosphere, the pebbles get very hot and heat the air around them. The glowing air creates the trails we see. Some may look as though they could hit somebody, but most are close to 60 miles above us.

The Perseid debris was left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. With a nucleus 16 miles in diameter, this comet is bigger than the object believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs. Swift-Tuttle comes around every 133 years and last visited in 1992.

August's full moon arrives the morning of the 26th. However, the moon sets in the southwest close to sunrise, before the instant of perfect fullness. Therefore, you may want to catch this moon on the evening of the 25th or before the start of morning twilight on the 26th.

JULY 2018

Minnesota Starwatch star map for July 2018

Earth reaches aphelion, its farthest point from the sun, on July 6, when we'll be 94.5 million miles from our parent star. But while giving the sun a wide berth, Earth cozies up to Mars in spectacular fashion. And, like a series of opening acts, other solar system bodies present a parade of celestial pairings.

As the spring constellation Leo dives toward the sunset, the lion's bright heart, Regulus, slips by Venus. On the 9th, the star passes just one degree (two moon widths) from the planet. The morning of the 10th, a waning moon rises close to Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, the bull. The evening of the 15th, a young crescent moon of the next cycle makes a lovely companion to Venus. The moon goes on to visit Jupiter on the 20th, Saturn on the 24th, and Mars on the 26th and 27th.

At 12:07 a.m. Friday, the 27th, Earth laps Mars in the orbital race. Mars is then at opposition, or opposite the sun in the sky, so it will be up all night. However, that night the moon will be near Mars and almost full, plenty bright enough to steal some of Mars' luster. The evening of the 27th, July's full moon rises even closer to Mars, but as the most distant full moon of 2018, it won't look especially big.

Three nights later—at 2:50 a.m. Tuesday, the 31st—Earth sweeps to just 35,785,000 miles from Mars. This will make Mars the closest and brightest it has been since summer 2003, when our two worlds made their closest approach in nearly 60,000 years. By then the moon will have waned and moved eastward far enough to give Mars a decent head start getting into the sky.

Look for Mars in the southeast after the sky has darkened. If you are on a calm body of water, enjoy its shimmering reflection.

Shining above Mars, the Summer Triangle of bright stars is now well up in the east after nightfall. Brightest is Vega, in Lyra, the lyre, at the northwest corner of the Triangle. Below Vega is Altair, in Aquila, the eagle, the southern point of the Triangle. And in the northeast corner, Deneb anchors the Northern Cross, which outlines the graceful form of Cygnus, the swan.

West of the Triangle, brilliant Arcturus, in kite-shaped Bootes, the herdsman, outshines even Vega. Immediately east of Bootes hangs Corona Borealis, the northern crown. Its neighbor to the east is an hourglass of stars marking the upside-down body of Hercules.

With all these bright stars and planets up at the same time, this July's evening sky promises to be one of the most memorable.

JUNE 2018

Minnesota Starwatch star map for June 2018

Neither the Big nor the Little Dipper holds much water after nightfall in June; the Little Dipper stands on its handle while the Big Dipper hangs down by its. But the Big Dipper's handle makes a handy guide to stars and planets.

Follow its curve to Arcturus, the brightest star in the evening sky this month. Arcturus shines high in the south, anchoring the kite-shaped constellation Bootes, the herdsman. Continue the curve to Spica, in Virgo, then turn to the east, where Jupiter reigns over dim Libra, the scales, a constellation that resembles a jellyfish. Next to Jupiter is Zubenelgenubi. Its ancient, Arabic-derived name refers to the southern claw of Scorpius and recalls a time when stars of Libra were considered part of Scorpius. The scorpion and its red heart, Antares, rise low in the southeast and trail Jupiter into the sky.

Rising even later, Saturn glows above the Teapot of Sagittarius, the archer. On the 27th, Earth laps Saturn in the orbital race, and the planet will be up all night. Its glorious rings will be tipped to show a near-maximal amount of surface area, so if you have access to a telescope, this is a perfect time to have a look.

Trailing Saturn into the night sky, Mars brightens dramatically this month as Earth gains on it. Earth laps the red planet in the last week of July—an event not to be missed.

In the west, Venus continues to outshine everything else. On the 14th, a young crescent moon begins working its way up toward, and then past, Venus. After nightfall on the 16th, grab your binoculars and look for the lovely but subtle Beehive star cluster midway between Venus and the moon. You will see two stars bracketing the Beehive to the upper left; these are the Aselli, or asses. In Latin the Beehive is called Praesepe, the manger, and the Aselli are feeding at it. On the 19th, the Beehive will appear immediately southeast of Venus, but by then a nearly first-quarter moon will wash out the stars somewhat.

As Earth's orbit carries it farther from Jupiter, the giant planet drifts westward toward Venus. Watch the gap between the two beacons narrow over the summer. Speaking of which, the summer solstice occurs at 5:07 a.m. on the 21st, as the sun reaches a point over the Tropic of Cancer.

June's full strawberry moon arrives at 11:53 p.m. on the 27th. It won't look very big because it will go through apogee, its farthest point from Earth in a lunar orbit, just two days later. However, since it reaches fullness in the evening, it will be very round as it peeks over the horizon. It glides across the night sky in company with another famous orb—Saturn.

MAY 2018

Minnesota Starwatch star map for May 2018

All during May, Venus and Jupiter dominate the early evening from opposite sides of the sky.

Earth laps Jupiter in the orbital race on the night of the 8th-9th, an event called opposition because it puts Jupiter opposite the sun in the sky. At that time, Jupiter rises around sunset and stays up all night. On the 10th, our two planets make their closest approach—about 409 million miles—before Earth leaves the giant planet behind.

The closest approach comes slightly later than opposition because during that short interval, Earth moves a little farther from the sun while Jupiter moves a little closer to it. Jupiter is brightest when iti s nearest, but it could be hard to see much difference. Because its orbit is so far beyond Earth's, its distance from us does not vary by a big percentage.

If you have a good pair of binoculars and can stabilize them, you may see up to four bright dots on either side of Jupiter. These are Jupiter's largest moons—the Galilean moons, discovered by Galileo in January 1610. He deduced that they orbited Jupiter, a finding that dealt a blow to the old idea that everything in the heavens revolved around Earth. Look for Jupiter's high-wattage orb in the east after nightfall and in the west an hour or two before sunrise.

Jupiter may be up all night, but Venus makes the most of its limited time above the horizon. Our sister planet comes out in the west shortly after sunset and brightens as it sinks toward the horizon. Try looking for Venus 60 or 90 minutes after sunset to catch it when it's bright but not yet too low. On the 17th a young crescent moon joins Venus. Shining to the upper right of the pair that evening is multicolored Capella, the brightest star in Auriga, the charioteer.

If you want to compare Venus and Jupiter as they face each other across the sky, try the second week of May, when both planets will be fairly high and the moon won't interfere.

The evening of the 21st, the bright star Regulus, in Leo, comes out right below a first-quarter moon. The morning of the 29th, the moon sets just a few hours short of fullness. But that follows a night when it crosses the sky between Jupiter and Saturn, with Mars taking up the rear. A morning planet, Mars is best seen about 90 minutes before sunrise, when it will be low in the south-southeast. Watch for Mars to brighten as its late-July opposition draws nearer.

APRIL 2018

Minnesota Starwatch star map for April 2018

April opens with Mars and Saturn paired in the predawn sky. On the move eastward, Mars passes a mere 1.3 degrees below Saturn on the 2nd. Just 25 days later, the gap has widened to 13 degrees, and Mars keeps right on going. The red planet also brightens dramatically as Earth closes in on it in the race around the sun. The distance between our worlds shortens from 103 million miles on the 1st to 79 million miles by month's end.

Meanwhile, Earth is about to catch up to Jupiter. As we draw nearer, Jupiter rises in the east earlier and earlier—from about three hours after sunset on the 1st to only half an hour after sunset on the 30th. At that point Jupiter will be up nearly all night, sweeping from east to west and clearly dominating the night sky. No wonder Jupiter was named for the king of the gods. Saturn and Mars follow Jupiter's beacon; look to the south an hour or two before dawn to see all three planets.

Now an "evening star" Venus comes out in the sun's afterglow. Late in the month, you may catch Venus and Jupiter shining from opposite horizons, bracketing the early-evening sky with brilliance.

The moon's travels bring it into pairings with all four planets, starting on the 3rd, when a waning moon visits Jupiter. Between the 4th and 5th the moon passes over the brilliant red star Antares, the heart of Scorpius; and on the 7th it hangs close above Saturn and Mars. On the 17th, a young crescent moon of the next cycle makes a pretty pairing with Venus.

On Sunday the 29th, April's full moon arrives at 7:58 p.m. This is so close to the time the moon clears the horizon that it will appear perfectly full at that moment. And that night it's Jupiter's turn to follow a brighter orb across the sky.

With the winter stars heading into the sunset, April evenings belong to the spring constellations. Leo, the lion, prances high in the south after nightfall this month. A backward question mark of stars called the Sickle outlines Leo's head, while a triangle of stars just to the east outlines the hindquarters and tail. The bright star Regulus, marking Leo's heart, shines from the base of the Sickle. About 77 light-years away, Regulus is a multiple star system. Most of its light comes from its biggest star, which is more than 100 times brighter than the sun. It's also one of the fastest-rotating stars; a recent study indicated that it is spinning so fast it is close to flying apart.

MARCH 2018

Minnesota Starwatch star map for March 2018

With two full moons and the spring equinox, what's not to love about March?

The first full moon arrives at 6:51 p.m. on the 1st, barely an hour after moonrise and just a couple of days after perigee, its closest approach to Earth in a lunar cycle. This means it'll rise about as round and luminous as any full moon gets.

The second arrives at 7:37 a.m. on the 31st. As the second full moon in a calendar month, it qualifies as a blue moon. However, it sets that morning shortly before the instant of fullness, so you may want to check your local time of moonset before deciding whether to get up to see it or to enjoy it the evening of the 30th.

Venus and Mercury appear very low in the west after sunset, bathed in the sun's afterglow. The planets are closest on the 3rd, but easy to tell apart because Venus outshines Mercury. After the 15th, Mercury plummets toward the horizon and is soon lost. On the 18th, a very young, thin moon appears with the two planets.

In the predawn sky, look south to see brilliant Jupiter. East of Jupiter, Mars is brightening as it moves swiftly eastward. Its motion carries it away from Jupiter and Scorpius, with its red heart, Antares (the "rival of Mars"), and toward Saturn, a shiny dot above the Teapot of Sagittarius. Mars waxes brighter every morning because Earth is gaining on it in the orbital race. This summer, we'll lap the red planet and it will be a treat for the eye.

On evenings between the 3rd and 18th, look for the elusive zodiacal light, a faint glow extending up from the western horizon along the sun's path shortly after nightfall. It comes from sunlight reflecting off dust in the plane of the solar system.

Spring arrives with the vernal equinox at 11:15 a.m. on the 20th. At that moment, the sun crosses the equator into the northern sky and Earth will be lighted from pole to pole.

With the sun's crossing comes a turning point in day length. During fall and winter, travelers in the Northern Hemisphere who are heading north see the day length shorten. But after the March equinox, going farther north means a longer day length. Also, the day length increases fastest around the time of the spring equinox because this is when the sun is moving most rapidly north.


Minnesota Starwatch star map for February 2018

With a new moon on the 15th, February's darkest skies come in mid-month. Use the moonless evenings to enjoy the bright winter constellations, which dominate the southern sky after nightfall.

Grab a star chart and look low in the south for lovely Sirius, the brightest of stars. It radiates from Canis Major, the big dog, and can be imagined as a jewel in the dog's collar. Sirius—also called the Dog Star—owes its status to its proximity; not quite nine light-years away, it is one of our closest neighbors.

Above Sirius and east of Orion is bright Procyon, in Canis Minor, the little dog. Procyon is another of our neighbors, only about 11.5 light-years away. In mid- evening look for Leo, rearing up in the east like a lion rampant. Its brightest star, Regulus, is at the base of a group of stars called the Sickle. The Sickle outlines the lion's head; following it is a triangle of stars marking the hindquarters and tail. A spring constellation, Leo appears to be chasing the winter stars westward.

In the morning sky, Saturn is low but climbing in the southeast. The ringed planet joins Scorpius, with Antares, its bright red heart; Mars, which glides over Antares in mid-month; and Jupiter, the beacon just northwest of Scorpius. Antares' name means rival of Mars, so now is a great time to compare the red planet to its stellar competitor.

About four times every century, February gets no full moon, and 2018 is one of those years. Only February can lack a phase of the moon, because it's the sole month shorter than the time it takes the moon to cycle between, say, one full moon and the next, which is 29.5 days. And when February lacks a full moon, January and March are almost certain to get two apiece, as they do this year.

But February always has Groundhog Day, an astronomically based holiday. It is one of four "cross-quarter days" celebrated by the ancient Celts midway between a solstice and an equinox. It was believed that if the day was sunny it augured continued cold and winter, but cloudy, shadowless days presaged spring rains. The Celts called the day Imbolc, meaning lamb's milk, because it fell at the start of lambing season.


Minnesota Starwatch star map for January 2018

January starts and ends with full "supermoons"—one on New Year's Day and one on the 31st.

On New Year's Day we get the closest full moon of the year–a mere 221,700 miles away. Perfect fullness comes at 8:24 p.m.–less than five hours after both moonrise and perigee, the moon's closest approach to Earth in a lunar cycle. In other words, 2018 starts with a rising moon that scores way up on the size, brightness and roundness scales. During the night of the 1st-2nd it travels the sky in Gemini.

On the 31st, the moon reaches fullness at 7:27 a.m. It also undergoes a total lunar eclipse. Totality begins at 6:52 a.m., followed by the moment of deepest eclipse at 7:30 a.m. and the end of totality at 8:08 a.m. Unfortunately, over the eastern part of the state this supermoon sets before or very shortly after the deepest eclipse. Still, the eclipse will deliver more than enough for a great early-morning show. This full moon also meets one definition of a "blue moon": the second full moon in a calendar month.

The morning sky continues to outdo its evening counterpart in terms of planet watching. Early in the month, Saturn slips over the southeastern horizon and climbs higher every day. Jupiter begins the month high in the southeastern predawn sky, just to the lower left of Mars. But the king of planets is about to overtake the god of war. On the 6th and 7th, watch brighter Jupiter climb past Mars, coming barely half a moon width from the red planet. On the 11th, a waning crescent moon visits the planets, which will then be about two degrees apart. Southeast of both planets, Scorpius and its gigantic red heart, Antares, are rising.

Another bright red star shines in the east after nightfall. That is Betelgeuse, at Orion's northeast shoulder. Grab your binoculars and find the sword hanging from the three stars of Orion's belt. The sword's middle "star" is the Orion Nebula, an immense region of multicolored gas and dust clouds where young stars are forming at a breakneck pace.

Also turn those binocs on the V-shaped Hyades star cluster, which forms the face of Taurus, the bull. It's just northeast of Orion and marked by orangeish Aldebaran, the eye of the bull. Aldebaran isn't part of the Hyades cluster, however. The Hyades are about 150 light-years away, while Aldebaran is a foreground star some 65 light-years from Earth.

Moving northeast again, the lovely Pleiades star cluster—also known as the Seven Sisters—is another delight for the eye. Like the Hyades, the Pleiades are an open star cluster. In open clusters, the stars were all born around the same time and are traveling through space together.