Virgo the Maiden in northern spring skies
The constellation of Virgo the Maiden
From the Northern Hemisphere, Virgo the Maiden appears high above the southern horizon on May evenings. This is the best time of year to view this constellation, which is the largest of the zodiac. Virgo is also the 2nd-largest constellation overall, after Hydra. Thanks to its brightest star, Spica, there’s an easy trick to finding this constellation.
To find Virgo, remember this handy mnemonic device: Arc to Arcturus and spike to Spica. What does that mean? Using the readily identifiable Big Dipper, you can follow the curve of its handle as you arc to a bright orangish star named Arcturus in the constellation Boötes. Then “drive a spike” (or sometimes the saying is “speed on down”) to Spica.
Spica is a blue-white, 1st-magnitude star near the center of Virgo.
The stars of the Maiden
The next brightest star in Virgo is the binary star Gamma Virginis, or Porrima. Porrima is magnitude 2.74 and lies near the center of the constellation, above (northwest of) Spica. It lies 38 light-years away. The third brightest star is at the northern reaches of the constellation. Vindemiatrix is a magnitude 2.85 star located 102 light-years away.
The Virgo Cluster
Virgo is famous for its thousands of galaxies. One grouping – the Virgo Cluster – is near the border with Coma Berenices, west of Vindemiatrix. The Virgo Cluster is the nearest large group of galaxies to the Milky Way. The Virgo Cluster lies at the center of the Local Supercluster, a massive group of clusters of galaxies. The Local Group of galaxies, which includes the Milky Way, is also part of the Local Supercluster.
The gravitational pull from the Virgo Cluster in the Local Supercluster is slowing the escape velocity of the Milky Way and our Local Group. The Virgo cluster is one of the few places in the universe we are speeding toward. Therefore, the galaxies of the Virgo Cluster are some of the few we see with a blueshift instead of a redshift. One day, these many galaxies will merge into one huge conglomeration.
The galaxy with one of the highest blueshifts lies right on the border of Virgo and Coma Berenices. This galaxy, M90, is moving rapidly among the other objects in the Virgo Cluster. It is also being stripped of gas and dust because of its close quarters with the other galaxies. At magnitude 9.5, you can see this galaxy in a telescope across the 60 million light-year span.
Other galaxies between 8th and 9th magnitude in this location are M49, M58, M59, M60, M84, M86, M87, and M89. Scanning along the line between Virgo and Coma Berenices brings a whole stream of galaxies into view.
M87, or Virgo A
M87 is a special galaxy that deserves to be singled out from the Virgo Cluster. It shines at magnitude 8.6 and is therefore fairly easy to detect in any telescope and even in some binoculars. M87 lies about 60 million light-years away. Its spherical clump of stars extends approximately a half million light-years across, about five times the size of the Milky Way’s diameter. The diameter of the galaxy’s halo, however, is about a million light-years, and while that is large, astronomers expected it to be even larger. They believe something cut the halo off early on in its formation.
M87 is home to the largest known number of globular clusters. For comparison, the Milky Way has about 200 globulars, while M87 has thousands. These clusters may be dwarf galaxies that M87’s gravitation sucked in.
M87 has a jet that extends outward from the core for thousands of light-years. A monster black hole at the galaxy’s core is the source of the jet. In fact, M87’s black hole was the first ever imaged, in 2019.
The Sombrero Galaxy
One other bright and notable galaxy apart from the large cluster is M104, or the Sombrero Galaxy. It’s located on the southeastern border of the constellation with Corvus the Crow. M104 is a stunning galaxy in photographs. At magnitude 8.3, you can see it in small telescopes. It’s an edge-on, dusty spiral with a bright core. M104 lies approximately 55 million light-years away.
Virgo in mythology
Virgo personifies Persephone, daughter of Demeter, the harvest goddess. According to a Greek myth, it once was always springtime on Earth. But then the god of the underworld, Hades, kidnapped Persephone.
Demeter, overcome with grief, abandoned her role as an Earth goddess. The world’s fruitfulness and fertility suffered. According to the myth, Earth wouldn’t become fruitful again until Persephone returned home. Zeus insisted that Hades return Persephone to Demeter. Zeus also said that Persephone must eat nothing until her return. Alas, Hades purposely gave Persephone a pomegranate.
Thus, Persephone was given back to her mother, but Persephone – because of the pomegranate – has to return to the underworld for four months every year. To this day, spring returns to the Northern Hemisphere when Persephone is reunited with Demeter. The winter season reigns when Persephone dwells in the underworld.
From the perspective of the Northern Hemisphere, Virgo is absent from early evening sky in late autumn, winter and early spring. Virgo’s return to the sky at nightfall – in the months of April and May – coincides with the season of spring.
Bottom line: Virgo the Maiden is the largest of the zodiac constellations. A handy mnemonic device and its bright star Spica make it easy to find.