Virgo the Virgin, a loaded constellation
Virgo the Virgin is the second largest constellation in the night skies but it’s also one of the faintest. Its only bright star is Spica. The rest of Virgo’s stars are barely visible to the naked eye, and to locate the whole thing takes a lot of work, patience, and dark skies. To be frank, it’s nearly impossible to trace it out if you have any kind of light pollution. If you’re up to the stargazing challenge, Virgo is the constellation for you.
This time of year in the early evening Virgo is stretched out across the low southern sky. Its brightest star, Spica, is located on the southern edge of the constellation. A good star map will help you, but I think a smart phone app like Star Rover or Sky Guide will be your most effective tool. Make sure you go into the settings and set your screen to night vision so that when you extend the phone toward the night sky the screen will have a red tint to it, allowing you to keep your night vision. Your best strategy will be to start at Spica and work your way to the upper right and left of the bright star.
Spica itself is a fascinating star, but it’s not just one star as it appears to the naked eye and amateur telescopes. It’s actually two twin blue giant stars, only 11 million miles apart and whirling around each every four days or so. They lie about 263 light-years, or about 1,519 trillion miles, away from Earth. The stars are both about three-and-a- half million miles in diameter. Our own sun isn’t even a million miles in girth. They are 10 times as massive and over five times larger than our sun with a girth of almost 5 million miles. The two stars are a lot hotter than our sun with a surface temperature around 40,000 degrees F. The surface temperature of our sun is about 10,000 degrees.
On the northwest side of Virgo, to the upper right of Spica, there’s a huge cluster of possibly up to 2,000 galaxies, many of which are much larger than our home Milky Way Galaxy. If you have a larger telescope, and you’re really out in the dark countryside, you have a chance of seeing at least a few of these many galaxies that are around 50 to 60 million light-years from Earth! Just one light-year is almost 6 trillion miles. Since Virgo is such a faint constellation it’s easier to use the star Spica as a bearing. The Virgo cluster will be 20 degrees, or about two fist-widths at arm’s length, to the upper right of Spica. You might be less than overwhelmed if you do see any of the galaxies. At best they will mainly be fuzzy patches, but those fuzzy patches are made up of whole islands of stars, each one of them with billions and billions of stars.
One of the Virgo Cluster galaxies has the not-so-romantic name of Messier Object 87, or M87 for short. It’s a gigantic, nearly circular galaxy almost a million light-years in diameter. M87 has become historic because several weeks ago we all had the opportunity to see an actual picture of the galactic black hole in the center of M87 achieved by a radio telescope network. It’s the first direct image ever taken of any black hole!
Virgo is one of only three constellations representing women that we can see in our Marshall skies over the course of the year. Andromeda the Princess and Cassiopeia the Queen are the only other ladies of the sky.
I know you’ve seen Cassiopeia before, although you may not have known what you were stargazing at. Cassiopeia is that bright “W” that you see in the northern sky every single night as it makes a tight circle around Polaris the North Star every 24 hours. This time of year look for the “W” in the very low northern sky. You can’t miss it. It’s as bright as the Big Dipper. The “W” outlines the throne that Queen Cassiopeia is tied into because she boasted that she was more beautiful than Hera, the Queen of all the gods. Hera possessed a horrible jealous temper. In her rage she bound Cassiopeia to her throne and tossed the occupied throne into the heavens so Cassiopeia could show off her bragged-about beauty to everyone on Earth. As she spins around the North Star there are times when she’s lying on her back as she is now, but in the early winter when the “W” is upside down she’s hanging by the ropes! It’s not a good idea to tick off the queen of the gods!
To many cultures, including the Greeks and Egyptians, Virgo the Virgin represents the goddess of fertility. She holds in her hand a shaft of wheat. In fact, farmers took the first sighting of Virgo with Spica as a cue to start their spring planting. When she leaves the evening sky four to five months later, the growing season is over. According to the mythology, that’s when Virgo leaves the land of the living and starts her annual search in the underworld for her slain husband Tammuz. At last report she hasn’t found him yet, but after every growing season she resumes her search. The grand lady of the night sky is truly a loyal lover!
Celestial hugging this week: This coming week on Friday, May 31, around 45 minutes before sunrise look for a very thin waning crescent moon just above the eastern horizon. A little to the left of the moon and just above it you can see a bright “star” which is actually the planet Venus.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at adventurepublications.net.