On Dec.19th and Dec.20th at least a half hour before your local sunrise you can check out the the waning crescent moon tuck underneath the planet Saturn low in the southern sky. On the 20th the pair will be closest together, separated by about 7 degrees – which is equal to about 14 full moon disks.
This may sound like a lot but to the naked eye it will be a pretty sight. Only a few days ago the Moon was hanging out with planet Mars – which BTW you can still see clearly to the far upper right of Saturn in the early mornings, shining with an orange hue.
The Saturn/moon pair will be within the Virgo constellation and in between the two there is another star – called Spica – the brightest member of Virgo and is located 263 light years from Earth. and in case you are wondering, Saturn is about 1.5 billion km distant while the moon is a mere 400,000 km from us.
If you have even the smallest telescope on hand then it’s worth your while to train it on Saturn and observe those magnificent rings that are titled just right so as to give a beautiful view of it’s flattened disk-like nature. The entire ring system spans about 260,000 km across – which would make the entire planet and its rings fit easily between the Earth and Moon. Look carefully and you may also see the ringed giant’s largest moons in its vicinity – buzzing around the planet like bees around a hive.
Titan is the largest moon of Saturn and the second largest in the entire Solar System – it will to the planet’s far upper right in a low magnification eyepiece view. Much closer in to Saturn (from left to right) will be icy moons Rhea, Tethys, and Dione – all of which are about the same brightness at around 10th magnitude – making them quite a bit fainter than Titan but still relatively easy to spot in 3 inch telescopes and up.
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Early bird skywatchers Friday morning (Nov.11) can check out the spectacular waning crescent Moon pair up with the lead star of the constellation Virgo. The pair will be appear to be separated by about 4.5 degrees, which is equal to 9 full moon disks. Spica is a brilliant blue-white giant star about 260 light years away from Earth. Remember, that means that we see Spica as it was 260 years ago – the length of time it takes for its light to arrive at our planet.
This region of the sky is a pretty busy place with planets, the moon and even the Sun racing across Virgo at one point in the year. An imaginary line called the ecliptic – the pathway which the planets , the Sun and even the Moon follow, runs right through Virgo, and the other eleven zodiac constellations. In fact on October 16 every year the Sun has a close encounter, what is known in astronomical jargon – a conjunction – with Spica.
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned tomorrow for a viewer’s guide to the upcoming Geminid meteor shower. This sky show promises to be a real beauty!
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Tuesday morning at dawn look for Venus close in on Spica, the lead star of the constellation Virgo. The pair will be about 7 full Moon disks apart making it quite an impressive sight in the low eastern sky. There isn’t even a need for binoculars – the unaided eye is the best way to enjoy this celestial show. Kinda cool to think about is that Venus is 240 million km away.
That means the reflected sunlight off the planet’s cloud-tops takes about 13 minutes to reach us here on Earth . Meanwhile Spica sits at a whopping 263 light years away, meaning we see it as it as it was over 2 and half centuries ago.
So when you look at Spica tomorrow morning its light left on its journey in 1746, the year when College of New Jersey was founded – later became known as Princeton University. something cool to think about when looking up!
Space News Extra: Looks like the little Spirit rover which has now been wheeling around on Mars for nearly 6 year is having a lot of problems. First off it has been stuck in a sand bank for many months and now its computer brain seems to be suffering from recurring bouts of amnesia. Could the intrepid rover’s life be near its end? Check out the full story on the latest tribulations of this plucky little martian robot here.
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Over the next two nights watch the gibbous Moon glide by the bright star Spica in the southwest horizon after dusk. The pair promises to be quite eye-catching. While the Moon makes it easy to find this 16th brightest star in the sky the next couple of evenings, there is another way you can hunt down Spica when it’s by its lonesome. A good stargazing trick is to start off at the Big Dipper – which is upside down, high overhead in the evenings. Draw an imaginary line through the Dipper’s handle, out its end and down to the next brightest star – named Arcturus. Then continue following that imaginary line to the next brightest star, which is Spica. So you Arc to Arcturus, and Spike to Spica. It’s as easy as that.
By tomorrow night the Moon will have moved again towards the southern sky, and will have shifted to the left of Spica. Look carefully and you might notice that the two are much closer together than the night before, making it more interesting sight.
By the end of the week the Moon will slowly continue its daily motion and will pair up with sparkling orange coloured star Antares, the lead star in the constellation Scorpius – another cool cosmic event. More details on that coming later this week, so stay tuned.
Tags: Spica, Virgo
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For many watching the Moon is a romantic affair but the next two nights our closest celestial neighbour will put on an extra special show when it has a brief encounter with the bright diamond-like star Spica. Step outside tonight around 10 pm and face towards the southwest and find the waxing gibbous Moon.
Look carefully to its upper left and you will notice a white coloured star shining through the Moon’s glare. Tomorrow night, Wednesday, the moon will have jumped to the left of the star. Spica is the brightest star in the familiar zodiac constellation Virgo – the virgin.
Despite it being the second largest constellation in the entire sky its member stars, except for Spica, are all quite faint and are hard ot make out with the naked eye from city limits. Located about 260 light years from Earth Spica is the 15th brightest star in the heavens and is a blue giant that is about 14 times the mass of our own Sun.
Ancient astronomers took note of its brilliance as far back as 5000 years ago with ancient Egyptians bulding a temple referencing it. Famous astronomers like Hipparchus and Copernicus made observations of Spica in their studies of the night sky too.
Tags: Spica, Virgo
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