On July 19, 2018 – as the setting sun closes the curtains on the day, and the darkening skies bring out a myriad of far-off suns – let the moon introduce you to a very special star. The bright star to the west of the July 19 first quarter moon is none other than Spica, the sole 1st-magnitude star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden.
The much-brighter object to the east of the moon on July 19 is the giant planet Jupiter. Jupiter, the fifth planet outward from the sun, is in front of Virgo’s neighbor on the zodiac – the constellation Libra the Scales – and will remain in front of Libra until November 2018. Jupiter is near Libra’s alpha star – called Zubenelgenubi – right now. In fact, if you have binoculars, you can see Jupiter and Zubenelgenubi in the same binocular field. Look closely at Zubenelgenubi. Through binoculars, you can view this star as double: two stars in one!
The sky chart at the top of this post is set for North America. If you live in the Earth’s Eastern Hemisphere, the moon will still appear in between Jupiter and Spica, but offset somewhat toward Jupiter. If you live in Hawaii, the moon will be offset somewhat in the direction of Jupiter. The moon on the sky chart appears larger than it does in the real sky.
No matter where you live, the moon continually moves eastward in front of the backdrop stars of the zodiac at the rate of about one-half degree per hour. For a convenient measuring stick, the moon’s angular diameter approximates one-half degree of sky. So the moon moves its own diameter eastward per hour away from Spica and in the direction of Jupiter. Look for the moon to snuggle up more closely with Jupiter as darkness falls on July 20.
When the moon is no longer close to Spica, you might find it helpful to “star-hop” to Spica instead, as shown on the sky chart below:
Bottom line: Let the moon guide you to Spica on July 19, 2018, and then use the Big Dipper to locate Virgo’s brightest star, after the moon’s flirtation with Spica ends.
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.