Starwatch: Fertile but faint, Virgo is rising in the night sky

Diagram 2 for Starwatch column June 7, 2013

Of all the constellations that we see through the year, Virgo the Virgin is the second largest.

The only problem is that it's also one of the faintest. The only star you're guaranteed to see with any kind of urban light pollution is Spica, Virgo's brightest shiner.

Virgo also is one of only three constellations seen around here that represents a woman, at least in Greek and Roman mythology. The other two are Andromeda the Princess, seen in the autumn and winter, and Cassiopeia the Queen, seen all year round in the northern sky.

Cassiopeia is one of the brighter constellations that basically looks like a bright "W." This time of year, Cassiopeia is barely above the northern horizon at the start of evening, but is still easily seen, since its stars are as bright as the stars that make up the Big Dipper.

By the way, that "W" allegedly outlines the throne that Queen Cassiopeia is tied into because she boasted she was more beautiful than Hera, the Queen of all the gods. Hera tied her to the throne and tossed her into the sky so Cassiopeia could show her "beauty" to everyone on Earth. It's never a good idea to tick off Hera!


Admittedly, Virgo is not a constellation for beginners. In order to really see it, you have to work at it, and you really need to be away from city lights. It's what I call a stargazer's challenge.

This week you do have a better chance of spotting it, though, because with just a crescent moon the skies are extra dark in the countryside.It's sure hard for me to figure out how this faint collection of stars about halfway up in the southwestern sky is supposed to be the goddess of fertility. But really, do we actually know what the mythological goddess of fertility looks like anyway?

The place to start your Virgo challenge is to find Spica, and that's easy. Look in the high northwestern sky for the Big Dipper hanging by its handle. Follow the curve of the Big Dipper's handle beyond the handle and you'll run right into the bright orange star Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Bootes the Farmer and the brightest star in the sky right now. Continue the arc beyond Arcturus and the next brightest star you'll run into will be Spica, which marks the left hand of Virgo the Virgin.

Spica is a blue giant star about 263 light-years, or about 1,519 trillion miles away from Earth. It's 10 times as massive and more than seven times larger than our sun, with a girth of almost 5 million miles.

In addition, Spica is much hotter than our sun, with a surface temperature well over 30,000 degrees. Spica is moving away from us at a speed of 2,000 miles an hour, although no farewell parties are planned for that shiner anytime soon. Despite its tremendous fleeing speed, Spica will still adorn our spring and summer heavens for many evenings to come.

Now, if you're lucky enough to have access to a larger telescope, and you're really out in the boonies, you have a chance of seeing at least a few of the many galaxies that make up what is appropriately called the Virgo Cluster. It's about 60 million light years from Earth.

As you can see in the diagram, these galaxies are located a little to the right of the main constellation. 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.

To be completely aboveboard with you, you'll probably be less than overwhelmed with how these galaxies appear in your scope, even a larger one. At best, they will be mainly fuzzy patches, but those fuzzy patches are made up of whole islands of stars, each one of them with billions and billions of stars. By the way, even if you could fly in a spacecraft at the speed of light, which is theoretically impossible, it would still take you millions and millions of years to get there.


To many cultures, including the Greeks and Egyptians, Virgo the Virgin represented 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 in the evening about 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 doesn't give up easy.

The constellation has a visitor this summer. The planet Saturn is just to the lower left of Spica. The ringed wonder of our solar system is a little brighter than Spica. Most of the light that you see with the naked eye when you gaze at Saturn is sunlight reflecting off its ring system, made of ice and rock.

Celestial 'Hugging'

On Monday and Tuesday, the new crescent moon will be up close and personal with Venus and Mercury that have been in their own heavenly embrace for the last couple of weeks. Look in the low west-northwest sky in the very early evening on Monday and Tuesday. Start looking toward the end of evening twilight and make sure you get your looks in early, because all three will set a little after 10 p.m.

Diagram 1 for Starwatch column June 7, 2013

What To Read Next
Get Local