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If you look up into the sky on a clear summer night in the Northern hemisphere, you’ll probably see the Virgo Constellation. It’s most visible in the United States around mid-May and will disappear from our view by early autumn as it travels to the Southern hemisphere. Here are some facts that might surprise you about one of the biggest constellations in the sky.
Virgo is the biggest constellation in the Zodiac and is second overall only to Hydra. Except for Spica, most of its stars are fairly dim and not easily distinguishable.
From our viewpoint, it seems that Spica is one really bright star. However, it’s actually a double star that completes an orbit around each other every four days. It’s only 226 light years away from Earth.
One reason most of the stars in Virgo don’t seem very noticeable is that Jupiter is positioned in the middle of the constellation, outshining many of the stars.
Other constellations depict masculine hunters such as Orion, or animals such as the Canis minor which looks like a dog.
She’s known as the Virgo Maiden almost universally, although each culture has created their own interpretation. During the medieval age, churches recognized her as depicting Virgin Mary. The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians saw her as the goddess of procreation, and several cultures saw her as a goddess of the harvest since her last visible days in the Northern hemisphere take place during late summer and early autumn.
Beginning in March, Virgo climbs over the horizon and is able to be seen by viewers in North America. The constellation peaks around May 9th, but remains in a prominent place in the sky until late August when it starts to slip away to the south where it spends autumn and winter.
August 23-September 22 marks the period for people who are born Virgos. It’s rumored that these people tend to be analytical thinkers and get along well with Taurus and Cancer.
The light leaving Spica at time the Sombrero Galaxy was discovered has now reached Earth. Yet, scientists know very little for certain about this hat-shaped elliptical galaxy. The Sombrero Galaxy is known as M104, and was discovered in 1781 by Pierre Méchain, one of Charles Messier’s colleagues.
There’s a theory that a swirling black hole exists in the middle, suggested by pictures from the Hubble Telescope in 1996. Scientists speculate that the Sombrero Galaxy is approximately 28 million light years away. Although the Sombrero Galaxy is invisible to the human eye, you might be able to spot it with a telescope in May.
The largest galaxy nestled inside Virgo is called by its namesake constellation and is also known as M87. This elliptical galaxy most likely has a black hole at its center. Using a telescope, you can see the Virgo Cluster during the times its constellation is visible.
To find the Virgo constellation, you first have to locate Ursa Major. Ursa Major, or the “Big Dipper” as it’s commonly called, is one of the most recognizable constellations in the Northern hemisphere. Once you find it, follow the dipper’s ladle around the bend to Arcturus, a bright orange star, and continue to draw a line to Spica. This blazing blue star is the 16th brightest star visible from Earth. It’s part of Virgo, forming the left hand of the woman holding the grain of wheat.
The Virgo constellation is most often depicted as a lady holding an ear of grain where Spica is located, although different cultures say she’s holding other objects instead, such as a palm frond or a staff. Some stories combine Virgo’s legend with the mythology of Astraea, calling her the “Goddess of Justice” who balances scales instead of ears of grain.
Virgo only possesses one strikingly beautiful star, Spica, but cultures have been enthralled with this uniquely feminine constellation since ancient times due to her immense size and prominent place in the sky. Different people groups have attributed their own stories to the Virgo Maiden, interpreting the constellation as a fertility goddess all the way to a depiction of the Virgin Mary.
Astrologists figure that Virgos are born in the late summer right as the harvest begins, and the constellation creeps below the horizon for Northern viewers. Modern scientists are intrigued by the rich material located within its borders, notably the Virgo Cluster and the Sombrero Galaxy. All you need is a telescope and a cloudless night in May or June to see Virgo for yourself.
Featured Image Credit: Tatyana Vyc, Shutterstock
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Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.
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