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Star Spica guides you to Omega Centauri star cluster


Tonight for April 16, 2015

The sparkling blue-white star Spica can act as your guide to the Omega Centauri globular star cluster on these springtime nights. You can actually see this cluster with the unaided eye. Omega Centauri looks like a fairly faint (and possibly fuzzy) star. It’s a beautiful and very special star cluster, and Spica can help you find it.

To find Omega Centauri, first find Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden. How can you find it? Keep reading …

Omega Centauri star cluster, the finest globular star cluster visible in Earth's skies. Image Credit: Jean-Paul Longchamp via Meade.com

After the moon moves away, you can use the Big Dipper in the northern sky to find Mars and Spica.  Just follow the curve of the Dipper's handle all the way into the southern sky.

In 2014, the star Spica is near the planet Mars. You can use the Big Dipper in the northern sky to find both Mars and Spica. Just follow the curve of the Dipper’s handle all the way into the southern sky.

You can spot the Spica by extending the curve of the Big Dipper handle, as illustrated on our chart above.

Spica transits – climbs to its highest point in the sky – around 12 midnight local standard time (1:00 a.m. daylight saving time) in mid-April for all locations around the globe. You can find Spica’s precise transit time for your sky at the US Naval Observatory.

As seen from the Northern Hemisphere, Spica and Omega Centauri transit due south at the same time. That means that – when Spica is highest in the south – Omega Centauri is, too. Look for Omega Centauri about 35o directly below Spica. A fist at an arm-length approximates 10o.

Omega Centauri is special in part because you can see it with your eye alone, assuming you have a dark-enough sky. Very few of the Milky Way galaxy’s 250 or so globular star clusters are readily visible without optics. Globular clusters are large, symmetrically shaped groupings of stars, fairly evenly distributed around the core of our Milky Way galaxy. Omega Centauri is the largest globular and finest globular star cluster visible to the eye alone.

People living south of 35o north latitude have a realistic chance of spotting Omega Centauri, though it’s been seen as far north as Point Pelee, Canada (42o north latitude). Best appreciated with a telescope, Omega Centauri, the largest and brightest of all globular star clusters, is a globe-shaped stellar city, teeming with millions of stars!

As darkness falls in late April and May, look for the upside-down Big Dipper high up in your northern sky. Then follow the arc of the Big Dipper handle to Spica, and Omega Centauri.

Bottom line: Use the star Spica in the constellation Virgo to locate Omega Centauri on these springtime nights!

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