Virgo – the constellation that signals the spring and fertility

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).

The constellation of Virgo (animated)

The constellation of Virgo (animated). Made using Stellarium

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!

The location of Spica on the flag of Brazil

The location of Spica on the flag of Brazil (animated).

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.

How to find Spica using the Plough and Arcturus

How to find Spica using the Plough and Arcturus. Made using Stellarium

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).

The brightest stars of Virgo and position of Virgo Cluster

The brightest stars of Virgo and position of the Virgo Cluster. Made using Stellarium

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!

M87

Streaming out from the centre of the galaxy M87 like a cosmic searchlight is one of nature's most amazing phenomena, a black-hole-powered jet of electrons and other sub-atomic particles traveling at nearly the speed of light. In this Hubble telescope image, the blue jet contrasts with the yellow glow from the combined light of billions of unseen stars and the yellow, point-like clusters of stars that make up this galaxy. Lying at the centre of M87, the monstrous black hole has swallowed up matter equal to 2 billion times our Sun's mass. Image: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

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.

M86

Messier object 86 by Hubble Space Telescope. Image: NASA / STSci

If you’ve enjoyed this short insight to Virgo, why not check out some other constellations:

About Derek Shirlaw

I'm passionate about science communication, social media, and my home country, Scotland. In particular, I have a real interest in astronomy, digital marketing, and the great outdoors.
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