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May's Star of the Month: Spica

Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, the virgin, is readily found by using the Big Dipper. After dark, the upside down dipper reigns high over Polaris, the north star -- the handle shining to the right of its inverted bowl. Extend the arc of the handle past the brilliant yellow-orange star Arcturus to find a bright -- though somewhat dimmer -- blue-white star, which is Spica. (See star chart.)

Spica serves as your guide star to the Omega Centauri globular star cluster, probably the most celebrated star cluster in all the heavens. Unlike another southern treaure, the Southern Cross, Omega Centauri is far more accessible from temperate northern latitudes, if you know when and where to look. Technically, it's visible from as far north as Canada, with Canadian stargazers traveling to Pelee Point in southern Canada to watch it skimming the surface of Lake Erie.

Whenever Spica shines due south, at its highest point for the night, the Omega Centauri star cluster does likewise. It's directly below Spica at this time, at a distance of three to four fists when holding your fist an arm length away. Spica and Omega Centauri are highest around midnight in early May and ten o'clock at the month's end. With an unobstructed horizon and clear skies, it's visible for a couple hours from Philadelphia or Denver, and up to five to six hours from the Deep South.

Without optics, Omega Centauri looks like a faint fuzzy star, and binoculars give it more of a moth ball-type appearance. Through a telescope, however, it's easy to picture the globular cluster as a dandelion flower gone to seed -- though it's really a sphere-shaped stellar city teeming with more than a million stars.

copyright by Bruce McClure

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