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Virgo the Virgin is a loaded constellation


Virgo the Virgin is the second largest constellation in the Butler night skies, but it's also one of the faintest. Its only bright star is Spica.

The rest of Virgo's stars are barely visible to the naked eye, and locating the whole thing takes a lot of work, patience and dark skies. Frankly, it's nearly impossible to trace it out if you have any kind of light pollution. If you're up to the stargazing challenge, Virgo is the constellation for you.

Virgo is stretched out across the low south-southeastern sky in the early evening this time of year. Its brightest star, Spica, is located on the southern edge of the constellation. A good star map will help you find it, but I think a smartphone app like Sky Guide will be your most effective tool.

Make sure you go into the settings and set your screen to night vision so that when you extend the phone toward the night sky, the screen will have a red tint, allowing you to keep your night vision.

Your best strategy will be to start at Spica and work your way to the upper right and left of the bright star.

Spica is a fascinating star, but it's not just one star as it appears to the naked eye and amateur telescopes. It's actually two twin blue giant stars, only eleven million miles apart, whirling around each every four days or so. They lie about 263 light years, or about 1,519 trillion miles, away from Earth. One of the stars is over about 3 million miles in diameter and the other is over 6 million miles in diameter. Our own sun isn't even a million miles!

The two stars are also much hotter than our sun, well over 35,000 degrees at the surface. Our sun is only 10,000 degrees.

On the northwest side of Virgo, to the upper right of Spica, there's a massive cluster of possibly up to 2000 galaxies, many of which are much larger than our home Milky Way Galaxy.

If you have a larger telescope and are far out in the dark countryside, it's possible to see at least a few of these many galaxies that are around 50 to 60 million light-years from Earth. Just one light year is almost 6 trillion miles.

Since Virgo is such a faint constellation, using the star Spica as a bearing is easier. The Virgo cluster will be 20 degrees, or about two fist-widths at arm's length, to the upper right of Spica.

You might be less than overwhelmed if you see any of the galaxies. At best, they will mainly be fuzzy patches, but those patches are made up of whole islands of stars, each containing billions and billions of stars.

One of the Virgo Cluster galaxies has the not-so-romantic name of Messier Object 87, or M87 for short. It's a gigantic, nearly circular galaxy, almost a million light-years in diameter.

M87 has become historic because several weeks ago, we all had the opportunity to see an actual picture of the galactic black hole in the center of M87. A radio telescope network achieved the photo, and it's the first direct image ever taken of any black hole!

Virgo is one of only three constellations representing women that we can see during the year. Andromeda the Princess and Cassiopeia the Queen are the only other ladies of the sky.

Virgo the Virgin represents the goddess of fertility to many cultures, including the Greeks and Egyptians. She holds in her hand a shaft of wheat. Farmers took the first sighting of Spica as a cue to start their spring planting.

When she leaves the evening sky four to five months later, the growing season is over. According to mythology, that's when Virgo leaves the land of the living and starts her annual search in the underworld for her slain husband Tammuz. At last report, she hasn't found him yet, but after every growing season, she resumes her search. The grand lady of the night sky is truly a loyal lover!

Celestial Happening this week: The bright planets Jupiter and Saturn are now available to early risers. They're both shining in the low eastern sky around the start of morning twilight around 5 a.m. You can't miss them as they are the brightest star-like objects in that part of the sky. Jupiter is the brighter of the two, close to the horizon. This coming Wednesday morning, May 17, the waning crescent moon will be to the right of Jupiter in a tight celestial hug. It's worth getting up early to enjoy!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of "Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations," published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and Contact him at

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