The Virgo constellation contains the star Spica, which is one of the brightest stars in our night sky. It also contains the autumn equinox point, which lies close to the star Beta Virginis. This is one of the two points in the sky where the celestial equator intersects with the ecliptic.
Virgo contains many deep sky objects, including eleven Messier objects — Messier 49 (M49, NGC 4472), Messier 58 (M58, NGC 4579), Messier 59 (M59, NGC 4621), Messier 60 (M60, NGC 4649), Messier 61 (M61, NGC 4303), Messier 84 (M84, NGC 4374), Messier 86 (M86, NGC 4406), Messier 87 (M87, NGC 4486), Messier 89 (M89, NGC 4552), Messier 90 (M90, NGC 4569) and Messier 104 (M104, NGC 4594, Sombrero Galaxy).
It also has 20 stars with known planets, which is more than any other constellation, and 14 other named stars, alongside Spica — Elgafar, Flegetonte, Heze, Kang, Khambalia, Lich, Malmok, Minelauva, Mönch, Porrima, Syrma, Vindemiatrix, Zaniah and Zavijava. There are two meteor showers associated with the constellation of Virgo — the Virginids and the Mu Virginids.
History and Mythology Of The Virgo Constellation
Virgo is usually associated with the Greek goddess Dike, who was the daughter of Zeus and Greek Titaness Themis. The constellation was first catalogued by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century.
In Greek mythology, Dike lived in the Golden Age of mankind. She was born a mortal and placed on Earth to rule over human justice. The Golden Age brought prosperity and peace. But, when Zeus fulfilled the old prophecy and overthrew his father, this marked the beginning of the Silver Age. This was not as prosperous and Dike gave a speech, warning everyone about the dangers of leaving behind the ideals of their predecessors. Afterwards, she flew to the mountains and by the Bronze and Iron Ages, she left the Earth altogether.
There are other variations of the story of the constellation of Virgo in mythology. One version is identified with Demeter, the corn goddess Atargatis, Syrian goddess of fertility, and Erigone, the daughter of Icarius. Icarius is associated with the constellation Boötes and the star Procyon in Canis Minor represents Icarius’ loyal dog Maera.
Location Of The Virgo Constellation
As we mentioned above, Virgo is the second largest constellation in the sky, occupying around 1294 square degrees. The only constellation larger in size is Hydra. Virgo lies in the third quadrant of the southern hemisphere (SQ3) and can be seen at latitudes between +80° and -80°.
It’s right ascension is 13h and it’s declination is -4°. It is best visible at 9pm in the month of May. As the largest zodiac constellation, the Sun takes 44 days to pass through it, longer than any other. From 1990 and until 2062, this will take place from September 16 to October 30.
Virgo belongs to the Zodiac family of constellations. Along with Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius and Pisces. Its neighboring constellations are Boötes, Coma Berenices, Corvus, Crater, Hydra, Leo, Libra and Serpens.
There are a number of notable stars in the constellation of Virgo. These include Spica which is not only the brightest star in the constellation, but one of the brightest stars in our night sky.
Spica, also known as Alpha Virginis, is the brightest star in Virgo and the 15th brightest star in the sky. It is a rotating ellipsoidal variable star, which means it is a binary star in which the two components do not eclipse each other, but are mutually distorted through their gravitational interaction. The name “Spica” derives from the Latin spīca virginis, which means “Virgo’s ear of grain”.
Spica is a blue giant of the spectral types B1 III-IV and B2 V and has an apparent magnitude of 1.04. It is located around 260 light years away from our Solar System and is one of the nearest massive double stars to the Solar System. The primary star is of the spectral class B1 III-IV and is around 12,100 times brighter than the Sun. It is located 260 light years away from us and is one of the nearest stars sufficiently evolved and massive enough to explode as a Type II supernova.
The secondary star is of the spectral class B2 V. It is a rare example of the Struve-Sahade effect, which is when the spectral lines in double-lined spectroscopic binary stars become weaker and shift toward the red end of the spectrum as the stars move away from the observer. However, when they approach the observer, the lines are shifted toward the blue end of the spectrum. The effect was first observed in 1937 by the Russian astronomer Otto Struve.
Spica is a Beta Cephei type variable star, meaning that it is a main sequence star that exhibits changes in brightness as a result of pulsations of its surface. It is thought to be the star that helped the Greek astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus discover precession of the equinoxes in 127 BC, which is the gradual change in the orientation of Earth’s axis of rotation.
Spica can be found by following the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle to Arcturus in the constellation Boötes and continuing along the same line to Spica.
Zavijava, also known as Beta Virginis, is the fifth brightest star in the constellation and it belongs to the spectral class F9 V. It is located 35.65 light years away from the Sun. The name “Zavijava” is derived from the Arabic zāwiyat al-cawwa’, which means “the corner of the barking dog”. It was also sometimes known as Alaraph.
Porrima, also known as Gamma Virginis, is a binary star. With Beta, Eta, Delta and Epsilon Virginis, Porrima formed as asterism known as Barker. Porrima has a visual magnitude of 2.74 and is approximately 38.1 light years away from us. Both stars in Gamma Virginis are of the spectral type F0V and have similar visual magnitudes, 3.65 and 3.56
Porrima is also known as Postvarta, Arich and Laouiyet al Aoua. Porrima is the name of two goddesses of prophecy, the Carmenae.
Auva, also known as Delta Virginis, is a red giant star belonging to the spectral class M3 III. It is classified as a semiregular variable, meaning its brightness varies between 3.32 and 3.40, and has an apparent magnitude of 3.4.
Delta Virginis is a suspected binary star with an 11th magnitude star – a K-type dwarf – located around 80 arc seconds away. The dwarf is believed to orbit the star with a period of over 200,000 years, although this has not been confirmed.
Auva can be seen without binoculars. It has a mass that is 1.4 times that of the Sun and a radius 48 times that of the Sun, and is also about 468 times more luminous. It is also a high-velocity star, moving at the speed of more than 30 km s–1 relative to the motion of the neighbouring stars.
The name Auva is derived from the Arabic عوى cawwa’, which means “barking (dog)” or simply “the barker”.
Vindemiatrix, also known as Epsilon Virginis, is the third brightest star in Virgo, with a visual magnitude of 2.826. It is a giant star that belongs to the spectral class G8 III and is 109.6 light years away from us. Vindemiatrix is 77 times more luminous than the Sun. Its name is derived from Latin vindēmiātrix, which means “the grape gatherer” or “the grape harvestress.”
Heze, also known as Zeta Virginis, is a main sequence star of the spectral type A3 V. It has an apparent magnitude of 3.376 and is 74.1 light years away from us. Heze has two times the mass and radius of the Sun and it can be seen with the naked eye.
Zaniah, also known as Eta Virginis, is a triple star system that belongs to the spectral class A2 V. It can be seen with the naked eye and has a visual magnitude of 3.890. It is located around 265 light years away from us. The name Zaniah comes from the Arabic zāwiyah, which means “the corner”.
The three stars in Zaniah form a very close system, with the inner two stars only 0.5 astronomical units apart, orbiting each other with a period of 72 days. The third star is a little further apart and orbits the inner pair with a period of 13.1 years.
Syrma, also known as Iota Virginis, belongs to the spectral class F6 II and has an apparent magnitude of 2.44. It is located around 69.8 light years away from us. The name Syrma comes from the Arabic word sirmā, which means “train (of a garment)”.
Rijl al Awwa
Rijl al Awwa, also known as Mu Virginis, is a yellow star that belongs to the spectral class F2III. It has an apparent magnitude of 3.87 and is around 60.9 light years away from us. The name Rijl al Awwa means “the foot of the barking dog”.
70 Virginis is a is a yellow dwarf star of the spectral type G2.5Va. It is located around 58.7 light years away from us and has a visual magnitude of 5.00. It is thought to be evolving into a subgiant because it is brighter than most stars of its spectral type. In 1996, an extrasolar planet was discovered in the star’s orbit.
Chi Virginis is a binary star that is an orange giant, belonging to the spectral class K2 III. It has a magnitude of 4.652, meaning it is visible to the naked eye, and it is located 294 light years away from us.
This star has a mass that is double the mass of the Sun and a radius that is 23 times that of the Sun. It is also 182 times more luminous than the Sun.
The primary star in Chi Virginis three visual companions — a K0-type star with a visual magnitude of 9.1, located about 173.1 arc seconds away, a 10th magnitude star located around 221.2 arc seconds away, and a K2-type star with a magnitude of 9.1, located 321.2 arc seconds away. In July 2009, a massive planet was discovered in the star’s orbit. It has a mass at least 11 times that of Jupiter and it orbits the star with a period of 835 days.
61 Virginis is believed to be a disk star. It is a yellow main sequence dwarf belonging to the spectral class G5V and has a visual magnitude of 4.74. It is almost identical in composition to the Sun and rotates at the equator every 29 days. 61 Virginis is slightly less massive than the Sun and is thought to be more than six billion years old.
61 Virginis has a visual magnitude of 4.74. It is actually the first well established yellow dwarf that is almost identical to the Sun with a potential Super Earth in its orbit. A Super Earth is an extrasolar planet more massive than Earth, but considerably below the mass of the smaller gas giants, Uranus and Neptune.
109 Virginis is a white main sequence dwarf star of the spectral type A0V. It is the seventh brightest star in the constellation and has a visual magnitude of 3.73. It is around 129 light years away from the Solar System and is 23 times more luminous than the Sun.
Nu Virginis is a red giant star and also a semiregular variable star. It belongs to the spectral class M1IIIab and has a mean apparent magnitude of 4.04, with it’s brightness varying by 0.06 magnitudes. It is located around 313 light years away from Earth.
Deep Sky Objects
There are a number of deep sky objects in Virgo, including multiple Messier objects. Take a look below.
The Virgo cluster is found in the constellations of Virgo and Coma Berenices. The center of the cluster is located around 53.8 million light years away from our Solar System and it contains about 1300 galaxies, possibly even up to 2000. The brightest ones were mostly discovered in the late 18th and early 19th century and could be found in Messier’s catalogue, described as nebulae without stars.
There are many Messier objects located in the Virgo cluster, which we will go into more detail about below. Aside from these Messier objects, in the Virgo cluster there are also Messier 85, M88, M91, M98, M99 and M100, which are in the Coma Berenices constellation.
Messier 49, also known as M49 or NGC 4472, is the brightest galaxy in the Virgo Cluster and the first galaxy to be discovered in the cluster. It was discovered by Charles Messier in February 1771 and is an elliptical galaxy, currently gravitationally interacting with the small dwarf irregular galaxy UGC 7636. M49 is 4.1° west-southwest of the bright star Epsilon Virginis.
Messier 49 has a visual magnitude of 9.4 and is around 55.9 million light years away from us. It contains around 5,900 globular clusters and is 10 billion years old on average. It is said to have a supermassive black hole with 565 million solar masses at its core. One supernova has been spotted in the galaxy, SN 1969Q, in June 1969.
Messier 58, also known as M58 or NGC 4579, is a barred spiral galaxy and one of the brightest galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. It was discovered along with the elliptical galaxies M59 and M60 by Charles Messier in April 1779. It has an apparent magnitude of 10.5 and is about 62 million light years away from us.
There have been two supernovae discovered in the galaxy — SN 1988A in January 1988 and SN 1989M in June 1989.
Messier 59, also known as M59 and NGC 4621, is an elliptical galaxy located in the Virgo Cluster, This galaxy is about 60 million light years away from our Solar System and has a visual magnitude of 10.6. M59 was discovered alongside M58 and M60 by Charles Messier in April 1779.
Messier 60, also known as M60 and NGC 4649, is an elliptical galaxy and the third brightest giant elliptical galaxy in the Virgo Cluster. It has an apparent magnitude of 9.8 and is about 55 million light years away from us. In 2004, a supernova was discovered in Messier 60.
Messier 61, also known as M61 or NGC 4303, is a spiral galaxy belongs to the Virgo Cluster and is one of its larger member galaxies. It is located around 52.5 million light years away from us and has an apparent magnitude of 10.18.
M61 was discovered in May 1779 by the Italian astronomer Barnabus Oriani. There have been six supernovae discovered in the galaxy in the last hundred years.
Messier 84, also known as M84 or NGC 4374, is a lenticular galaxy located in the inner core of the Virgo cluster. It was first discovered by Charles Messier in March 1781. M84 has a visual magnitude of 10.1 and is around 60 million light years away from us.
M84 has a disk of fast rotating gas and stars, which means that it likely contains a supermassive black hole at its center. There have also been two supernovae discovered in the galaxy — SN 1957 and SN 1991bg.
Messier 86, also known as M86 or NGC 4406, is a lenticular galaxy near the center of the Virgo Cluster, also discovered by Charles Messier. It has a visual magnitude of 9.8 and is about 52 million light years away from us.
Because it is falling towards the the heart of the Virgo Cluster from the opposite side, M86 is approaching our galaxy at the speed of 244 kilometres per second.
Messier 87, also known as M87 or NGC 4486, is a supergiant elliptical galaxy that is located near the center of the Virgo cluster, near the border between Virgo and Coma Berenices. It has a visual magnitude of 9.59 and is therefore the second brightest galaxy in the cluster. This galaxy is one of the brightest radio sources known and can be observed with a small telescope. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1781.
M87 is located around 53.5 million light years away and can be found by following the line from Epsilon Virginis to the bright star Denebola in the constellation Leo. M87 has a supermassive black hole at its center, classifying it as a type-cD galaxy or a supergiant D class galaxy that has a large halo of stars and an elliptical nucleus with a large diffuse envelope that contains no dust.
Messier 89, also known as M89 or NGC 4552, is an elliptical galaxy in the Virgo cluster that was discovered by Messier in March 1781. It has a visual magnitude of 10.73 and is approximately 50 million light years away from us.
M89 is thought to have once been a radio galaxy or active quasar, because of the fact it has a surrounding disk of gas and dust that extends about 150,000 light years from the galaxy and jets of hot particles extending about 100,000 light years outward.
Messier 90, also known as M90 or NGC 4569, is a spiral galaxy that is a member of the Virgo cluster and was discovered by Messier in 1781. It has a visual magnitude of 10.26 and is located 58.7 million light years away from us, about a degree and a half from the M87 subgroup.
M90 has been classified as an anemic galaxy, a spiral characterized by a low contrast between the disk and the galaxy’s spiral arms.
Sombrero Galaxy, also known as Messier 104, M104 and NGC 4594, is an unbarred spiral galaxy that can be seen with an amateur telescope. It is around 29.3 million light years away from us and has a visual magnitude of 8.98.
The Sombrero Galaxy is located in the southern part of the Virgo Cluster, about 11.5° west of Spica and has between 1,200 and 2,000 globular clusters. It is believed to be a giant elliptical galaxy with a supermassive black hole at its center.
Messier 104 was discovered by Pierre Méchain in March 1767 ,It got its name as the Sombrero Galaxy because its unusually large central bulge and the dust lane in its disk make it look like a sombrero.
NGC 4435 and NGC 4438, also known as Eyes Galaxies and Arp 120, are a pair of interacting galaxies located in the Virgo cluster. They are about 52 million light years away from us.
NGC 4435 is a barred lenticular galaxy that contains a number of young stars in its central regions. The stars are thought to be a result of the interaction with the neighbouring galaxy NGC 4438.
The NGC 4438 galaxy is difficult to classify as either a spiral or lenticular galaxy as it has a distorted disk and tidal tails as a result of interacting with other galaxies.
NGC 4216 is an intermediate spiral galaxy in the Virgo cluster with a magnitude of 11. It is located around 40 million light years away from us. This is one of the largest and brightest galaxies in the cluster, because it has an estimated absolute magnitude of -22.
Siamese Twins (Butterfly Galaxies)
NGC 4567 and NGC 4568, known together as Siamese Twins or Butterfly Galaxies, are a pair of spiral galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. They are located approximately 59.4 million light years from our Solar System.
They were first discovered by William Herschel in 1784 and, in 2004, a supernova was found in the galaxies. The apparent magnitude of these two galaxies is 10.9. They are in the process of colliding with each other.
NGC 4526 is a lenticular galaxy that belongs to the Virgo cluster. It has a visual magnitude of 10.7 and is about 55 million light years away from us. In 1994, two supernovae were discovered in the galaxy — SN 1969E in 1969 and SN 1994D.
NGC 4261 is an elliptical galaxy that lies behind the Virgo cluster. It has a visual magnitude of 11.4 and is located 96 million light years away from us. The galaxy spans around 60,000 light years. At the center there is a supermassive black hole with 400 solar masses.
3C 273 is a quasar. This means it is an energetic and distant active galactic nucleus. It was the first one to ever be identified and is the brightest and most luminous quasar in the sky. It is also classified as a blazar, which is a very compact quasar associated with a suspected supermassive black hole at the center of an active giant elliptical galaxy.
3C 273 located around 2.443 gigalight years away and lies at the heart of a large elliptical galaxy. It was one of the first extragalactic X-ray sources discovered in 1970.
- Some Images created with the NightVision app – https://www.nvastro.com/nvj.html
- Some Images created with the Stelvision Sky Map https://www.stelvision.com/en/sky-map/
- Virgo 1 – https://starregistration.net/constellations/virgo-constellation.html
- Spica – https://www.star-facts.com/spica/
- Virgo 2 – https://www.thoughtco.com/virgo-constellation-4171529
- Virgo 3 – https://www.thehoroscope.co/sign-articles/virgo-Virgo-Constellation-Facts-33.html
- Zavijava – https://theskylive.com/sky/stars/zavijava-beta-virginis-star
- Porrima – https://theskylive.com/sky/stars/porrima-gamma-virginis-star
- Virgo Cluster – https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap150804.html
- Sombrero Galaxy – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sombrero_Galaxy
- Siamese Twins – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NGC_4567_and_NGC_4568