The Big Dipper – or Plough, as it’s known to our friends in Europe – may well be the most famous star pattern in the Northern Hemisphere sky. It’s bright and easy-to-see, and, unlike some other patterns on the sky’s dome, it looks like what its name implies. Look for the Big Dipper in the northwest sky at nightfall on these July evenings. In 2014, you can use the Big Dipper to find the planet Mars.
Here’s a useful phrase for any time of year. Follow the arc to Arcturus, and drive a spike to Spica. In other words, follow the arc in the handle of the Big Dipper until you come to the star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes. Arcturus is the brightest star north of the celestial equator. Then drive a spike – a straight line across the sky – to Spica, brightest star in the constellation Virgo. The planet Mars resides in the vicinity of Spica on the sky’s dome in July 2014.
Mars and Spica are currently close enough together that you could easily mistake one for the other. Here’s how to distinguish them. Mars exhibits a ruddy color while Spica sparkles blue-white. If you have binoculars, they’ll help you more vividly discern their colors, especially on a moonlit night.
Keep an eye on the star Spica and planet Mars, as they pop out in the southwestern sky as darkness falls. Day by day, Mars will move eastward toward the star Spica, to meet up with this star on July 12, 2014. Mars and Spica will easily fit within a single binocular field for at least a week, centered on July 12.
Afterwards, Mars will keep moving eastward of Spica. It’ll leave the constellation Virgo and enter the constellation Libra on August 9, 2014. The planet Saturn is in Libra now, too, and Mars and Saturn will be noticeably close by late August.
Bottom line: In July 2014, you can use the Big Dipper to follow the arc to Arcturus and drive a spike to Spica and – in July 2014 – see Mars.