Tonight – July 7, 2016 – that bright star shining close to the waxing crescent moon is Regulus, brightest star in the constellation of Leo the Lion. The much brighter starlike object in front of Leo isn’t a star, but the dazzling planet Jupiter.
You’ll see the moon closer to Jupiter tomorrow night, on July 8.
If you look carefully, you might make out a backwards question mark pattern in the stars around Regulus. This asterism (or recognizable pattern within a constellation) is called The Sickle in Leo.
The moon moves eastward in front of the constellations of the Zodiac from night to night. Once it has moved onward away from Leo, you can always use the bowl of the Big Dipper to find your way to Regulus.
Four to five thousand years ago, the Royal Stars defined the approximate positions of equinoxes and solstices in the sky. Regulus reigned as the summer solstice star, Antares as the autumn equinox star, Fomalhaut as the winter solstice star, and Aldebaran as the spring equinox star. Regulus is often portrayed as the most significant Royal Star, possibly because it symbolized the height and glory of the summer solstice sun. Although the Royal Stars as seasonal signposts change over the long coarse of time, they still mark the four quadrants of the heavens.
Regulus is the only bright star to reside almost squarely on the ecliptic – the Earth’s orbital plane projected onto the sphere of stars. Regulus coincided with the summer solstice point some 4,300 years ago. In our time, the sun has its annual conjunction with Regulus on or near August 23, or about two months after the summer solstice – or alternatively, one month before the autumn equinox. Regulus will mark the autumn equinox point some 2,100 years into the future.
Four years ago, in 2012, Regulus reached a place on the Zodiac where it was precisely 150o east of the March equinox point (and 30o west of the September equinox point). Before that juncture, Regulus and the March equinox point were a little less than 150o apart, and Regulus and the September equinox point were a little more than 30o apart. For some astrologers, this instant at which Regulus was precisely 30o west of the September equinox point marked the end of the Age of Pisces and the beginning of the Age of Aquarius. Click here to find out why.
Whether you enjoy the arcane speculation on the Royal Star Regulus and the Age of Aquarius – or not – that star near tonight’s moon has visually given definition to the ecliptic and the Zodiac since time immemorial!
Bottom line: Regulus is the brightest star in the constellation Leo the Lion. The moon can help you find it – and maybe the planets Jupiter and Venus – on the night of July 7, 2016.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.