Located some 262 light-years from Earth, Spica looks like a single star. But it’s at least two stars. Both are larger and hotter than our sun, and they’re separated by only 11 million miles (less than 18 million km), orbiting their common center of gravity in only four days. That’s in contrast to 93.3 million miles (150 million km) for Earth’s distance from our sun, and one year for the length of Earth’s orbit.
The two stars in the Spica system are individually indistinguishable from a single point of light, even with a telescope. 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.
The two stars are so close, and they orbit so quickly around each other, that their mutual gravity distorts each star into an egg shape. It’s thought that the pointed ends of these egg-shaped stars face each other as they whirl around. 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 2,200 times brighter than our sun’s light. Their diameters are estimated to be 7.8 and 4 times the sun’s diameter.
The best evening views of Spica come from spring to late summer when this star arcs across the southern sky. In the month of May, as seen from the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll find Spica in the southeast in early evening. From the Southern Hemisphere, Spica is closer to due east. From all of Earth in May, as night passes, Spica appears to move westward. From all of Earth, Spica rises earlier each evening so that – by the end of August – Spica can be viewed only briefly in the west to west-southwest sky as darkness falls.
Here’s how you can find Spica. First look for the Big Dipper in the northern sky. The Dipper is highest in the sky in northern 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 (or drive a spike) to Spica.
Spica is the brightest light in the constellation Virgo the Maiden, and it’s 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 with the Big Dipper’s help to spot it in the sky. If you do, this star will be your friend for life.
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.
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 three 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″
Bottom line: The brilliant blue-white star Spica is really two large stars in orbit around each other.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.