The Constellation Virgo

Today a look at Virgo, the second largest constellation in the sky. The sixth constellation of the zodiac, Virgo contains a few interesting foreground stars along with a gaggle of galaxies nestled in her celestial arms. The constellation affords some pleasant stargazing this time of year, for both northern and southern observers…

Unlike Orion, Virgo is not a bright constellation. But it’s big… the second largest in the sky by area. Only Hydra is larger.

The constellation is usually associated with Dike, the Greek goddess of justice, daughter of Zeus and Themis. She lived in the early days of the Olympian gods, when Zeus’s father Cronos ruled. It was a golden age of mankind, a time before sickness and war, winter and death.

When Zeus wrested power from Cronos, things went downhill. The seasons grew extreme, and mankind grew restless and warlike and failed to honour the gods. Dike warned mortals that things would get worse– wow, did they ever– and she turned her back on man and became a recluse in the hills of Greece. When she could stand no more of the world’s troubles, she cast herself into the sky in the zodiac next to Libra, the Scales (of justice).

Other ancient legends associate Virgo with Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Because the stars of Virgo appear before sunrise late in the northern summer, many other cultures, including the Babylonians link Virgo with crops and fertility. In India Virgo was called Kauni, mother of the great god Krishna.

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The layout and major stars of the constellation Virgo (click to enlarge).

The constellation Virgo lies in the direction of the north galactic pole, far from the starry band of the Milky Way, so there are only a few bright stars here. Spica, a blue-white beauty of a star, is the brightest in the constellation. From the northern hemisphere, you can easily find Spica by following the arc of the handle of the Big Dipper first to Arcturus, then on to Spica.

Other stars in Virgo include:

Zavijava – A white main sequence star not much larger than the Sun.

Vindemiatrix – The “grape gatherer, so-named because the first appearance of the star before sunrise in August marks the beginning of the vintage. It may be physically associated with the Hyades star cluster in Taurus.

Porrima – Also known as gamma Virginis, this is a lovely double star just 39 light years away. The pair revolve about each other in 169 years, which means you can see, in a good backyard telescope, the motion of the stars over the course of a decade or so. Until 1995, the stars split easily in a small scope. Since then, they’ve moved too close together to resolve. And this year, they’ve begun to separate once again. Tonight, and over the next few years, try to resolve them in your own telescope at high magnification.

While Virgo lacks bright stars, it hold no shortage of galaxies. Within the “arms” of the maiden, towards the constellation Leo, you can find dozens of galaxies with a small telescope. Most belong to the massive Virgo Cluster, the nearest large galaxy cluster to the Milky Way. You can learn more about the Virgo Cluster in this past article…

And remember… this year, the planet Saturn lies in Virgo, just south of Spica.  Take a look if you can…