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Star of the week: Spica

Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, is a whirling double star. How to see it in your sky.

The star Spica is also called Alpha Virginis, because it is the brightest star in Virgo. Its color is distinctly blue-white, even to the eye. Photo via Fred Espenak. Read more about Spica at Fred Espenak’s website.

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Spica looks like one star, but it is at least two stars, both larger and hotter than our sun, orbiting only 18 million kilometers (11 million miles) apart. That’s in contrast to 150 million kilometers (93.3 million miles) for Earth’s distance from our sun. Their mutual gravity distorts each star into an egg shape, with the pointed ends facing each other as they whirl around, completing a single orbit in only four days. Follow the links below to learn more about Spica, brightest star in the constellation Virgo the Maiden.

How to see Spica.

History and mythology of Spica.

Spica science.

Follow the arc to Arcturus, and speed on to Spica.

Follow the arc to Arcturus, and speed on to Spica.

Daniel McVey captured this image of planet Mars and star Spica on March 26, 2014.

Daniel McVey captured this image of the star Spica and the planet Mars on March 26, 2014. Spica is near Mars for much of 2014.

How to see Spica. The best evening views of Spica come from spring to late summer when this star arcs across the southern sky. Spica rises in the east-southeast as the sunset glow fades in mid-April. At that time, it is visible most of the night. Two months later it beams at its highest point to the south in early evening.

By the end of August, Spica can be viewed only briefly in the west-southwestern sky as darkness falls.

Here’s how you can speed on to find Spica. First look for the Big Dipper in the northern sky. The Dipper is highest in the sky in spring and summer. Notice that the Big Dipper has a bowl and a long, curved handle. Find the Dipper, and then follow the curve of its handle outward, away from the Dipper itself. The first bright star you come to is orange Arcturus, but if you continue past it in the curving path, the next bright star is Spica. Scouts and stargazers remember this trick with the saying: Follow the arc to Arcturus, and speed on to Spica.

Virgo? Here’s your constellation

Spica is the brightest light in the constellation Virgo the Maiden, and it is the 15th brightest star visible from anywhere on Earth. It’s virtually the same brightness as Antares in the constellation Scorpius, so sometimes Antares is listed as the 15th and Spica as the 16th brightest. No matter. Identify this beautiful blue-white star, and – with the Big Dipper’s help to spot it in the sky – it’ll be your friend for life.

Classical illustration of the constellation Virgo the Maiden, via constellationsofwords.com.

Classical illustration of the constellation Virgo the Maiden, via constellationsofwords.com.


History and mythology of Spica. Spica is from the Latin word for “ear,” and the general connotation is that it refers to an “ear of wheat.” Indeed, the star and the constellation Virgo itself were sometimes associated with the Greek goddess of the harvest, Ceres.

There are many names and stories for Spica’s constellation – Virgo – in mythology, and by association with Spica as well. Fewer stories refer to Spica independently. Many classical references refer to Virgo’s stars as a goddess or with some association with wheat or the harvest. In Greece and Rome she typically was Astraea, the very personification of Justice; or Persephone, daughter of Ceres. In Egypt, Virgo was identified with Isis, and Spica was considered her lute bearer. In ancient China, Spica was a special star of spring known as the Horn.

One Arabic name was Azimech, derived from words meaning Defenseless One or Solitary One. This title may be in reference to Spica’s solitary status with no other bright stars nearby. But Spica is not the most solitary star. That honor goes to Fomalhaut, sometimes called the Autumn Star.

Artist's concept of Spica from hypothetical planet

Artist’s concept of Spica from hypothetical planet. Image via Glyphweb.com

Spica science. Spica is about 262 light-years away, based on data from the Hipparcos Space Astrometry Mission of the 1990s.

Spica is a binary star, with two stars which are telescopically indistinguishable from a single point of light. The dual nature of this star was revealed only by analysis of its light with a spectroscope, an instrument that splits light into its component colors. Both stars in the Spica binary system are larger and hotter than the sun, with the larger of the two, in fact, a blue giant or subgiant. The surface temperatures are estimated at 22,400 K and 18,500 K for the larger and smaller components, respectively. This compares to about 5,800 K for the sun. (“K” stands for “kelvins”, a degree on the absolute scale. At high values, each kelvin is about 5/9ths the corresponding Fahrenheit degree, so these two stars are about 40,000 F and 33,000 F, compared to 10,000 F for the sun.)

Separated by just less than 18 million km (about 11 million miles), Spica’s two stars orbit a common center of gravity in only 4 days. The resulting forces on these stars are so great that they are probably distorted, more egg-shaped than spherical. Although this cannot be visually seen, even through a telescope, slight magnitude variations may be evidence for such a distortion. The magnitude changes could be the result of the stars showing more or less surface area as they move through different orientations in their orbits.

The light from these two stars taken together is, on average, more than 2200 times brighter than the sun. Their diameters are estimated to be 7.8 and 4 times the sun’s diameter.

Spica is one of several bright stars that the moon can occult (eclipse). Based on observations of how the star’s light is extinguished when the moon passes in front, some astronomers think that it may not just be a spectroscopic binary star. Instead, they feel that there may be as many as 3 other stars in the system. This would make Spica not a single or even a double, but a quintuple star!

Spica’s position is RA: 13h 25m 12s, dec: -11° 09′ 41″

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Deborah Byrd