When it comes to constellations, only one other occupies a larger area of our field of vision in the sky than that of the virgin goddess, Virgo (and that’s Hydra – the water snake). Let’s take a closer look then at this fertile patch of our sky and unearth what it has to discover.
Virgo is associated with the Greek goddess of Demeter, the corn goddess. The brightest star in the constellation is Spica (‘the ear of grain’) and this constellation is very much associated with spring and farming prosperity. In the image below, you can see the constellation take shape (click to embiggen and animate).
Virgo lies along the ecliptic plane – the apparent daily path that the Sun, planets and their associated moons take across the sky – and was listed amongst 48 constellations by the Greek philospher Ptolemy in his book, The Almagest, published in the 2nd century and which forms the basis of the 88 modern constellations as we describe them.
Spica (α Virginis – the ‘α’ denotes the ‘alpha’ or brightest star in a constellation) is often regarded as the first indication of spring as it appears prominantely to the East in the evening sky as we move into the season. This blue giant star is around 260 light years from Earth and is the 15th brightest in the night sky. It even makes an appearance on the flag of Brazil!
Spica lies above the white band across the globe on the Brazilian flag, and it symbolizes the part of Brazilian territory that lies in the northern hemisphere and the State of Pará (why not see if you can spot the other stars on the flag!?).
One way to remember how to find Spica is shown in the image below… use the handle of The Plough (or Big Dipper if you’re North American) to ‘arc’ around to Arcturus, and ‘spring’ on to Spica.
Other cool things to find within the constellation are some other galaxies. Actually, the Virgo Cluster (as it’s known) contains some 1300+ galaxies, including Messier 87 (NGC 4486) and Messier 86 (NGC 4406).
M87 is a giant elliptical galaxy (unlike our home – the spiral Milky Way galaxy) that lies some 53 million light-years from Earth and may be some 200 times as massive as the Milky Way making it the largest galazy in the Virgo Cluster. At its centre is a super-massive black hole out of which streams an extraordinary flow of sub-atomic particles at nearly the speed of light as you can see in the colourised Hubble Space Telscope image below. Wow!
M86 is racing towards us at 244 kilometers per second! Don’t panic (yet) though – it’s still some 52 million light-years distant from us. M86 is a lenticular galaxy – in-between an elliptical and spiral shape – and contains mostly aging stars and very little new star formation.
If you’ve enjoyed this short insight to Virgo, why not check out some other constellations: