Photograph by Alamy
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The bright star Spica hangs just below the moon as seen from Argentina in 2010.

Photograph by Alamy

This Week’s Night Sky: Watch a Parade of Planets

The moon will gather with a colorful ensemble of planets and stars, leading up to the year’s best view of the red planet Mars.

Planet Party. After darkness falls on May 18, look toward the high southern sky for the waxing gibbous moon posing next to the dazzling blue star Spica.  

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The blue star Spica will sit just below the moon, flanked by Mars and Jupiter, on May 18.

The two objects will be less than five degrees apart—about as wide as your three middle fingers held at arm’s length. Flanking the pair will be Mars to the left and Jupiter to the right. Meanwhile, the bright orange-hued star Arcturus will hang above the ensemble.

Despite being 250 light-years from Earth, Spica is the 15th brightest star in the entire night sky. That’s because the point of light is actually two hot blue stars orbiting each other. The larger star of the pair is about 13,000 times brighter than our own sun.

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On May 21, Saturn will move close to the full moon, with the red lights of Mars and the star Antares nearby.

Red and Rings. The full moon will slide next to Mars on the evening of May 21, making for a strikingly brilliant duo in the southeastern sky. As an added bonus, look for similarly red-hued Antares below the pair and the ringed planet Saturn to their left.

If you have binoculars and telescopes handy, definitely check out Saturn. The giant planet is only two weeks away from its best apparition of the year, when it will be the closest to Earth and the brightest for the year. Right now, the planet is easy to find shining distinctly in front of a fairly bland starfield in the constellation Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer.

Mars Prime Time. On May 22, the red planet will reach its peak visibility in Earth’s skies for 2016. Around this date Mars will be in opposition, when it lies opposite to the sun from Earth’s perspective. Mars will also be the closest to Earth since 2005 and so will appear its brightest and biggest for skywatchers around the globe.

People using backyard telescopes with high magnification will have especially good views of various surface features, such as white polar caps and dark plains. Stay tuned for more Mars viewing details later this week.

Clear skies!

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter, Facebook, and his website.