Virgo is a congested constellation with dozens of known exoplanets and at least a dozen Messier objects. It is the largest constellation of the Zodiac and the second-largest constellation overall, behind Hydra.
Virgo covers 1,294 square degrees. Most of the constellation’s stars are dim, but Virgo’s bright blue-white star, Spica, is fairly easy to locate. Stargazers can use the Big Dipper as a guide. Follow the curve of the handle down to the southeast until you come to the bright star Arcturus, in the Boötes constellation. Continue the arc to the next bright star, which is Spica. There’s even a mnemonic phrase to help you remember: “Follow the arc to Arcturus, then speed on to Spica .”
Tied to fertility and agriculture, Virgo appears to stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere during the spring and summer months and to those in the Southern Hemisphere in autumn and winter.
- Right Ascension: 13 hours
- Declination: 0 degrees
- Visible between latitudes 80 and minus 80 degrees
- Best seen in May at 9 p.m.
Stars, exoplanets and deep-sky objects
Spica , also known as Alpha Virginis, is the brightest star in the constellation. Spica ranks as the 16th brightest star in the night sky and can be regarded as a nearly perfect example of a star of the first magnitude. It is a blue giant about 260 light-years from Earth. The star is about twice as big as the sun and its luminosity is 2,300 times that of the sun. It is known as the “ear of wheat” being held by Virgo.
The second brightest star is Gamma Virginis, also known as Porrima and Arich, is a binary star. The third-brightest star, Epsilon Virginis, is a yellow giant that is also known as Vindemiatrix, or the Grape Gatherer.
Zeta Virginis, or Heze, is a white dwarf notable for its exceptionally short rotation period of less than 0.5 days.
Notable exoplanets in Virgo include:
- The first exoplanets ever found, around a pulsar star called PSR B1257+12. (The discovery was in 1994). A pulsar is a kind of neutron star, which is formed after a massive star explodes and collapses during a supernova. Pulsars are known for rotating extremely rapidly.
- 70 Virginis b, which was also an early exoplanet find as it was announced in 1996. Scientists initially announced this planet was in the habitable zone of its star, where water could exist on the planet’s surface. However, later analysis showed that this planet has an eccentric orbit and is likely much closer to the parent star.
- Three planets orbiting the star 61 Virginis, and announced in 2009. At the time of discovery, the planets were classified as having five times the mass of Earth, six times and 18 times. (The smaller planets are considered “super-Earths ” because they fall within the mass range between Earth and Neptune.)
- The pink planet GJ 504b, which at the time of the announcement in 2013 was the smallest planet ever photographed around a sun-like star . However, the planet itself is still relatively large, at four times the mass of Jupiter.
Virgo is typically linked to Dike, the Greek goddess of justice, and Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the harvest goddess. According to Greek mythology, the earth experienced eternal spring until the god of the underworld abducted the spring maiden Persephone.
In astrology, which is not a science , Virgo is the fifth sign in the Zodiac and represents those born between Aug. 23 and Sept. 22.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Howell, Space.com Contributor