Star Constellation Facts: Virgo the Virgin

Star Constellation Facts: Virgo the Virgin
Alexander Jamieson’s Celestial Atlas (1822)

Virgo (“the virgin”) is the largest of the zodiac constellations, and the second-largest constellation overall in the night sky, after Hydra. It contains the beautiful blue giant star, Spica, that is the 15th brightest star in the sky, and together with Denebola in Leo, and Arcturus in Bootes forms the asterism of stars called the Spring Triangle. The ancient constellation of Virgo has roots dating back to Sumer during the third millenia BC, and in 1000 BC was recorded in the Babylonian Mul.Apin astronomical tablets as “The Furrow”, in honor of the goddess of grain. The constellation has continued to be associated with fertility and agriculture, and its brightest star, Spica, means “ear of grain” in Latin.

Represents: Harvest Goddess

As the only female figure of the zodiac, Virgo is associated with many goddesses from the ancient world. In Greece, for instance, Virgo was Dike, the goddess of justice, while another legend connects the constellations to Erigone, the virgin daughter of Icarius.Virgo is also linked with the tale of Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of crops. When Persephone was abducted to the underworld by an amorous Hades, Demeter ruined the harvest in retaliation, until Zeus intervened so that Persephone could spend half the year with her mother on Earth, and the other half in the underworld. Hence, the summer and winter seasons.

Shape: Depicts a Winged Maiden

Virgo takes up an area of 1294 square degrees, and is pictured as a winged, angel-like being holding an ear of corn. The almost-human like figure is depicted lying on its back, with the brightest star in the constellation, Spica, forming the left “hand”, the star Porrima forming the “chest and shoulders”, and Vindemiatrix forming the right “hand.” Seen from the northern hemisphere, the “head” is to the right of the outstretched arms.

Location: Southern Constellation

Virgo Arcturus DipperVirgo is a southern constellation that can be seen by observers located between latitudes of +80° and -80°. To locate Virgo, remember the mnemonic ‘Arc to Arcturus and Spike to Spica.’ In other words, an imaginary arc drawn from the handle of the Big Dipper will lead first to the orange star Arcturus in Boötes, and then onto Virgo’s brightest star Spica. Virgo can be seen directly south of the constellation Coma Berenices, and immediately north of the constellations Libra, Corvus, and Crater.

Best Seen: Spring/Summer

For observers in the northern hemisphere, Virgo is seen during spring and summer, with its best viewing month being May. Conversely, Virgo is seen from the southern hemisphere during the autumn and winter time.

Notable Stars: Spica (1st magnitude)

– Spica (Alpha Virginis), the most luminous star in Virgo, is a binary system located 260 light years from Earth that shines with an apparent magnitude of 1.04. Its primary component is a blue-white giant (B1 III-IV) around 7 times bigger than the Sun, with 10 times its mass, and 12,100 times its luminosity. A mere 11 million miles away is its smaller companion, a blue main-sequence star (B2 V) that is around 3.6 times bigger and 7 times more massive than our sun. The pair have an orbital period of just four days, and when viewed with the naked-eye appear as one particularly brilliant star, further enhanced by having few other bright rivals in its neighborhood.

Star Constellation Facts: Virgo the Virgin

– Porrima (Gamma Virginis), located 38 light years away, has an apparent magnitude of 2.74, making it the constellation’s second brightest star. However, the blue-white star is actually part of a binary system whose components are almost identical white dwarf stars (F0) that are around twice as big as the Sun, and 1.5 times more massive. The components are 43 AU apart on average, and have an orbital period of 169 years. To the ancient Romans, Porrima was a goddesses of the future and prophecy

– Vindemiatrix (Epsilon Virginis), the constellation’s third brightest star, is a yellow giant (G8 III) situated 102 light-years from our solar system with an apparent visual magnitude of 2.826. It is around 11 times bigger than the Sun, 2.6 times more massive, and 77 times brighter. Vindemiatrix comes from the Latin phrase meaning “the grape gatherer”.

Notable Objects: Rich in Galaxies

Contained within the constellation are a number of notable deep-sky objects (DSOs), including the Virgo Cluster, a collection of around 2,000 individual galaxies that’s 15 million light years across, and situated 65 million light years from our solar system. In turn, it forms the central part of the Virgo Supercluster, which is 110 million light years across, and contains a large cluster of more than a million galaxies, including The Local Group, which comprises the Milky Way, Andromeda, Triangulum Galaxy, plus some dwarf galaxies.

Sombrero Galaxy
Image Credit: Jean-Claude Merlin using a 27 inch (70cm) Reflector

Naturally, the constellation is an especially rich target for deep-sky stargazing, and includes an impressive 11 galaxy-related Messier objects, of which roughly 60% are spirals, 30% ellipticals, and the rest irregular galaxies. The largest of these is the supergiant elliptical galaxy M87 which contains around 12,000 globular clusters; while the brightest is the Sombrero Galaxy (M104) with an apparent magnitude of +8.98, whose wide-brimmed appearance together with central bulge resembles the iconic Mexican hat.

In total, Virgo contains the Messier objects M104, M61, M49, M58, M59, M60, M84, M86, M87, M89, M90, while the northern part of the Virgo Cluster (Coma–Virgo Cluster) is found in the neighboring constellation of Coma Berenices, together with 5 other galaxy-related Messier objects, namely M85, M88, M91, M98, M99, and M100.

Meteor Showers: Virginids, Mu Virginids

Two meteor showers, the Virginids, and the Mu Virginids, have their radiants in Virgo:

– The Virginids is only one of a complex of about 12 showers that emanate from the vicinity of Virgo, and persist from late February to early May. Overall activity from the complex of showers can sometimes exceed 10 meteors per hour, particularly during the first half of April.

– The Mu Virginids shower is a minor stream that hardly ever produces more than 7 to 10 meteors per hour, even during its peak on April 24/25. Its radiant is found close to its border with neighboring Libra.

Planets: 29 Stars with 35 Planets

Virgo has more stars with known planets than any other constellation, with a total of 35 planets orbiting 29 stars. The most notable of these stars is 61 Virginis, which is almost identical to the Sun in composition and has 3 planets orbiting it, one of which is a super-earth. Virgo also hold the record for the most planets ever discovered in a single year, namely nine in 2009.

Astrology: Aug 23 to Sept 22

Although under the zodiacal calendar, the Sun passes through Virgo roughly between August 23rd and September 22nd, with precession over time the Sun currently passes in front of this constellation from around September 16th to October 30th.

Date of Birth: Aug 23 to Sept 22
Sign Ruler: Mercury
Element: Earth
Birth Stone: Sapphire, amber
Metal: Mercury
Color: Grey
Characteristics: Helpful, elegant, modest, practical, clear-headed
Compatibility: Sagittarius, Taurus, Gemini

Mythology

Virgo has been associated with many goddesses throughout history. For the Egyptians it represented Isis, while the Romans knew it as Ceres. All traditions in which Virgo features, however, agree that the constellation represents maidens, fertility, and purity. So pure, in fact, that in India, Virgo was known as Kauni, the mother of the god Krishna. In Ancient Babylonia, Virgo was associated with the goddess Ishtar, who descended into the Underworld to rescue her husband Tammuz, the god of all harvests, in order for the Earth to again produce crops.

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