For the next few days, the sky offers a cool and easy spectacle that requires no astronomy knowledge whatsoever. The dark night’s two brightest objects float together. Each is fascinating in its own right.
A Beautiful Conjunction of Jupiter and the Moon
Absolutely everyone can identify the Moon. So it’s easy to spot that bright object next to the Moon—giant Jupiter! And the two join together all night long. They come closest on Sunday, May 7. So at your leisure, just step outside and look around. If you have a small telescope, Jupiter will reveal several of its planet sized moons as well as its famous belts and stripes and maybe even more complex detail if the air is steady and the stars are not twinkling.
Look for the Blue Star Spica, Too
Jupiter arrived at its closest to earth a month ago, so it’s still very favorably placed. The Moon and Jupiter are in the constellation of Virgo, which rides about halfway up the sky, so this isn’t one of those events that require an unblocked horizon. Whether you live in a light-filled city or out in the dark boonies, this will be equally well seen, one of those in your face happenings. In fact, Virgo’s famous, blue, main star Spica floats beneath the Moon and Jupiter as a bonus.
The Gibbous Moon
The Moon will not be full, nor half, and it’s not a crescent, either; it’s that other phase, the one that’s least well known. Whenever the Moon is fatter than half but thinner than full it has a kind of football shape. That’s the gibbous Moon. The word comes from an old English one that means protruding like a beer belly. So happens, the sun’s lighting on the gibbous Moon is just about optimum for showing off mountain ranges and craters through any telescope or even high power binoculars. So once again, if you own a small telescope, this is a great night to drag it out.
But even if you don’t, check out springtime’s best conjunction.