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Moon and Spica close, Jupiter nearby

Tonight – May 8, 2017 – get an eyeful of a gorgeous threesome, the almost-full bright waxing gibbous moon, the dazzling planet Jupiter and the bright star Spica, a key star of the zodiac.

Spica, the faintest of tonight’s threesome, may appear puny in the glare of tonight’s moon and in contrast to Jupiter. In fact, Jupiter appears some 20 times brighter than Spica on May 8. But Jupiter’s brightness, of course, stems from its location in our own solar system, while Spica is a distant star, some 262 light-years away. Spica appears as a first-magnitude star, ranking as the 15th or 16th brightest star to illuminate our nighttime sky.

Spica’s magnitude is virtually the same as that of Antares, another key star of the zodiac. Want to compare them, but don’t know how to recognize Antares? The moon will travel past Antares on May 11 and May 12, as shown on the sky chart below.

Soon to come, the bright waning gibbous moon will travel by the ruddy star Antares and the golden planet Saturn. The green line depicts the ecliptic – the sun’s annual pathway in front of the constellations of the zodiac.

Because Spica and Antares both vary somewhat in magnitude, chances are that Spica and Antares occasionally trade places as the 15th and 16th brightest stars.

You might have difficulty seeing the blue-white color of Spica or the red color of Antares in the moonlit sky over the next several days. But once the moon drops out of the evening sky – around mid-month – the color difference between these two stars will be obvious in a dark sky. It’s said that the human eye tends to see red stars as brighter than blue or white-colored stars of the same magnitude. Red stars appear to grow brighter as you stare at them, and they also appear brighter than their blue and white-colored counterparts in a light-polluted sky, due to something called the purkinje effect.

A blue-white star such as Spica is in the heyday of youth and has a high surface temperature of 22,400 degrees Kelvin (22,127oCelsius or 39,860o Fahrenheit). In contrast, red-colored Antares is in the autumn of its years, having a low surface temperature of 3,600 degrees Kelvin (3,327oC or 6020oF).

Artist's concept of Spica from hypothetical planet

Artist’s concept of Spica from hypothetical planet. Image via Glyphweb.com

Bottom line: On May 8, 2017, let the moon and Jupiter guide your eye to blue-white Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden.

Read more: Spica is a whirling double star

Bruce McClure