Reclining on her side, Virgo the virgin stretches across the southern sky, the second largest constellation in the heavens. In Greek myth the constellation Virgo is associated with Persephone, daughter of Zeus (Jupiter), king of the gods, and Demeter (Ceres), the goddess of agriculture. The story tells of Hades (Pluto) being so captivated by the virginal beauty of Persephone that he abducted her, and carried her off to the underworld to be his wife. Her mother, Demeter was so upset by this, she completely neglected her duties as goddess of agriculture, and famine spread over the entire world. Naturally, Zeus could not let this stand, and decreed that Persephone should leave the underworld and be with her mother for half the year, from March until August. This is the time of year her image appears in the sky, and Demeter does her duty, and crops are sown, cultivated, and harvested. When Virgo leaves the sky in the fall, and descends back into the underworld, Demeter again abandons her duties, and the earth lies fallow until the virgin reappears again in the spring. The figure of Virgo is often depicted with a stalk of wheat in her hand, representing, as she does, the coming and going of the growing season.
The bright blue/white star Spica is the alpha star in the constellation Virgo. With a magnitude of 1.04 it is the fifteenth brightest star in the sky, and impossible to miss. Spica comes from the Latin and means ear of wheat, an historical symbol of agriculture. Spica is a close binary, two stars that orbit each other so closely they are impossible to visually resolve in a telescope. Both stars are massive, many times larger than the Sun. The primary, larger star is a B1 blue giant, ten times more massive than the Sun, and large enough to end its life as a supernova. Spica is over 12,000 times brighter than the Sun, and the only reason it doesn't light up the entire night sky is because it is far away, at a nice, safe distance of 260 light years.
Beta Virginis is the star Savijah. The name comes from the ancient Arabic for barking dog, or kennel. Before they adopted the Greek figure of a maiden, the Arabs saw a lion and a kennel of dogs barking at the lion in the stars of Virgo, and the ancient names have endured. Although it is the Beta star, Savijah is only the fifth brightest star in the constellation. Classified as an F9 yellow dwarf, it has many similarities with our own Sun. Savijah is 35 light years away with a magnitude of 3.6.
Gamma Virginis is the second brightest star in Virgo, named Porrima, after an ancient goddess of prophesy. It is a binary system, consisting of two stars with similar properties. They have a combined magnitude of 2.74, and are 38 light years away. Porrima is classified as an F0 white main sequence star.
Delta Virginis has the name Auva, from the Arabic al awwa, referring to the barking dogs, of ancient Arabic lore. It is an M3 red giant, with a magnitude of 3.4. It is one of the more distant bright stars in the constellation, 198 light years away.
Epsilon Virginis has the ancient Latin name of Vindemiatrix, the grape gatherer, suggesting that it was once associated with the harvest of the vineyard. With a magnitude of 2.8 it is the third brightest star in the constellation, a G8 yellow giant, 110 light years away.
Zeta Virginis is traditionally named Heze, although the meaning of the name seems to have been lost in antiquity. It is an A3 white main sequence star, 74 light years away with a magnitude of 3.4.
Eta Virginis is named Zaniah, another of the ancient Arab "kennel" stars. It is a triple star system with all three stars classified as A2 white main sequence stars. The system is very far away at a distance of 265 light years with a combined magnitude of 3.89.
Iota Virginis has the Arabic name Syrma, denoting the train of the virgin's garment. It is an F6 yellow main sequence star, similar to our Sun. It has a magnitude of 4.1 and is 70 light years away.
The last of the named stars in Virgo is Mu Virginis. It is called Rijl Al Awwa, which means foot of the barker, another of the old Arabic "kennel" stars. It is an F2 yellow main sequence star with a magnitude of 3.9, 60 light years away.
So far, 36 planets have been discovered in Virgo, orbiting 28 stars. Three of these stars are visible to the naked eye. The brightest of these stars is HD 110014, with a magnitude of 4.66. A massive gas giant 11 times the mass of Jupiter has been found orbiting this star. The system is very far away at a distance of 318 light years.
Just slightly dimmer, with a magnitude of 4.74, 61 Virginis, has been found to have three planets in orbit around it, and it is quite close (in astronomical terms), only 27 light years away.
The star 70 Virginis, with a magnitude of 4.98 is faint, but still visible to the naked eye on a dark night. It is 59 light years away, and has one planet six times larger than Jupiter.
Virgo also contains possibly the most unique planetary system found so far. The star at the centre of this system is designated PSR B1257+12, and it emits no light in the visible spectrum. It is a pulsar, the rapidly spinning, impossibly dense remnant of a supernova - the explosion of a giant star. Pulsars are highly magnetized and emit powerful radio signals. Abnormalities in the signals from a pulsar in Virgo were first noticed in 1990, and after sixteen years of observations, in 2006 scientists were able to confirm the abnormalities were caused by three planets in orbit around the pulsar. Three small, rocky, possibly Earth-like planets. There's no telling what kind of spectacular auroras would be created by the powerful electromagnetic waves emitted by the pulsar. The skies of these planets could be a spectacular kalaidescope of shifting colours. The bad news is that all this is happening very far away from us, at a distance of 1000 light years.
Virgo is a galaxy hunter's dream. She holds in her arms a large group of galaxies known as the Virgo Cluster, and many of the brightest of these galaxies are visible in backyard telescopes.
M104 (NGC 4594), also known as The Sombrero Galaxy, is 28 million light years away. Seen almost edge on, the galaxy is 50,000 light years across (half the size of our Milky Way galaxy), and is unique for the brightness of its central core. Its magnitude of 8.5 makes it a good target for a small telescope.
NGC 5584 is a spiral galaxy 72 million light years from Earth. Although its magnitude of 11.5 puts it well out of the range of naked eye observation, seen through the eyes of the Hubble Space Telescope, the galaxy's true beauty can be fully appreciated. NGC 5584 is also home to 250 special stars known as Cepheid Variables. These types of stars, first discovered in the constellation Cepheus, have predictable properties that make them very useful in measuring distance. The Cephieds in NGC 5584 have been particularly helpful in measuring the expansion rate of the Universe, also known as Hubble's Constant.
M58 is a large face-on spiral galaxy. It is about 62 million light years away, and has a magnitude of 10.5.
M61 is a large face-on spiral galaxy. It is about 50 million light years away, and has a magnitude of 10.18.
|Winter: Orion Canis Major Canis Minor Monoceros Lepus Eridanus Taurus Auriga Camelopardalis Lynx Gemini Cancer|
|Spring: Hydra Sextans Crater Corvus Leo Leo Minor Ursa Major Ursa Minor Canes Venatici Coma Berenices Virgo Bootes|
|Summer: Draco Corona Borealis Hercules Ophiuchus Serpens Libra Scorpius Sagittarius Scutum Aquila Sagitta Vulpecula Lyra Cygnus|
|Autumn: Andromeda Perseus Pegasus Cassiopeia Cephus Cetus Lacerta Delphinus Equuleus Capricornus Aquarius Pisces Aries Triangulum|
|Southern Skies: Centaurus Crux Lupus Corona Australis Piscis Australis Sculptor Tucana Fornax Dorado Columba Puppis Carina Vela|