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Drive a spike to Spica – and find Mars – in May 2014

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Tonight for May 17, 2014

Drive a spike to the star Spica – and the planet Mars – on these May 2014 evenings. Although you’ll always find the star Spica in the same place in the sky on May evenings every year, Mars’ proximity to Spica is special to this year. At present, Mars shines in front of the constellation Virgo, just west of the Libra/Virgo border.

Use the Big Dipper to locate the stars Arcturus and Spica, plus the red planet Mars. Saturn will be on the other side of Spica from Mars.

Use the Big Dipper to locate the stars Arcturus and Spica, plus the red planet Mars. Saturn will be on the other side of Spica from Mars.

Yesterday we talked about learning to “follow the arc” to the star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes. You just follow the curve in the Big Dipper’s handle until you see this orange star.

Tonight, let the Big Dipper introduce you Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden. You can follow the arc to Arcturus AND drive a spike or, as some say, speed on to Spica.

The above charts show a wide sweep of sky, from northeast to southeast around nightfall. First follow the curve made by these stars in the Big Dipper’s handle to the star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes: follow the arc to Arcturus. Now extend the curve in the handle into the southeastern sky: drive a spike to Spica. Or: speed on to Spica. Moreover, for the next several months – May, June, July and August 2014 – you can also locate Mars close to Spica. Spica and Mars will be especially close together in July 2014.

By the way, keep watching the moon, too. The moon will pair up with Mars on June 7, and the star Spica on June 8.

Spica in the constellation Virgo looks like one star, but this single point of light is really a multiple star system – with two hot stars orbiting very close together – located an estimated distance of 262 light-years away from Earth. Spica’s constellation, Virgo, is large and rambling and difficult to see. But you can look for a little squarish figure to the right of Spica. This is the constellation Corvus the Crow, which we show on our chart for May 18.

Virgo? Here’s your constellation

Bottom line: Mars is still nearly at its best for 2014. On these May evenings, drive a spike to the sparkling blue-white star Spica – and find the golden planet Saturn as well.