Popular Astronomy

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Virgo, the Virgin

Virgo isn't a particularly bright constellation, but there are not many really bright stars around when Virgo is in the sky so it is fairly easy to spot south of the bright star Arcturus. Once you have spotted Spica, look for a sort of lazy Y shape of stars leading off to the upper right.

So who was this virgin, then? There's a story here, surely, knowing those Greek gods. Actually, she  is either the goddess of justice, holding the scales of Libra (the constellation to her left), or the corn goddess. Her brightest star, Spica, often represents an ear of wheat. Virgo appears in spring, when the crops are sown, and the Sun moves in front of Virgo in September and October, when it's harvest time.

In the old constellation figures, Virgo is usually shown with wings. As befits the goddess of justice, she obviously intends to keep herself uncorrupted – any monkey business and she's off.

Also shown on the map below are Corvus, the Crow, and Libra, the Scales. There are no bright objects to spot in either of these constellations.
 
Map of Virgo
For hints on understanding the star map, please click here

Things to look for in Virgo

The good news is that Virgo is absolutely packed with galaxies, as it is the site of a huge cluster of galaxies, of which our own paltry local group (us and the Andromeda Galaxy) is just a tiny offshoot. But the bad news is that most of them are too faint to be seen easily.

The map shows the location of a few of them. But you are going to need more help than just that to find them, as they don't exactly jump out at you. You will need a fairly dark sky, plus binoculars magnifying 10 times or more, or a telescope. If you just cast around, hoping to find one, you will probably be unlucky.

The secret is the start with the star Denebola, at the tail end of the neighbouring constellation of  Leo, the Lion. It's shown at the top right hand corner of the map. Move east from this and you come to a faintish star, 6 Comae. Now look to the southeast for a pair of stars, 27 and 30 Virginis. The enlarged view below shows these stars at opposite corners of the map. They are about 8º apart, which is about 1½ binocular fields of view.

Between the stars 6 and 30 you should find a small triangle of stars, as shown on the map. If you can't see these stars, give up and try again on a darker night or get away from the city lights.

The giant galaxy M87 is just below a faint star above and to the left of the triangle, while M84 and M86 are above it and to the right. Don't expect anything bright or large.

Map of Virgo cluster

Below is a photo of the central part of the map, at a larger scale and showing fainter stars. See if you can spot the triangle, then look for the galaxies.  Hint – they are smaller and fainter then the map above suggests.

Photo of Virgo cluster, credit Robin Scagell/Galaxy
Photo by Robin Scagell/Galaxy Picture Library

The ecliptic runs through Virgo. This is the track of the Sun, and the Moon and planets can also be found fairly close to it, so from time to time there might be an extra bright planet in the constellation.

Text by Robin Scagell