The rather wide waxing crescent moon and the red planet Mars light up the constellation Virgo after sunset on August 1, 2014. What’s more, you can see the brightest star in the constellation Virgo – Spica – sparkling in between the moon and Mars this Friday evening.
You might be able to discern the varying colors of the planet Mars and the star Spica with the eye alone. However, if you have binoculars, it’ll be all the easier to contrast ruddy Mars with blue-white Spica.
The chart below shows a wider area of sky. We include it to show you Saturn, which is also easily visible at nightfall now. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll stand facing southwest to see both Mars and Saturn. If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, look overhead or high in the northern sky as darkness falls. The ringed planet shines in front of the constellation Libra. A small telescope reveals Saturn’s glorious rings.
The moon, Spica, Mars and Saturn sink westward throughout the evening hours, to follow the sun beneath the horizon by mid-to-late evening. That’s because our planet Earth rotates from west-to-east on its rotational axis, making it appear as if the moon, stars and planets are moving westward while the Earth stays still.
Watch the moon as evening falls for the next several days. You’ll see that the moon always moves eastward relative to the stars and planets after one day’s time. Use Spica, Mars and Saturn as points of reference. The daily change in the moon’s position is due the moon revolving around the Earth in an eastward direction, going full circle through the constellations of the Zodiac in about four weeks.
Bottom line: Look for the celestial show in the west as darkness falls on this Friday evening, August 1, 2014. The moon and Mars appear on opposite sides of Virgo’s brightest star, Spica. Over the next few evenings, watch as the moon moves past Mars and toward Saturn.