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Virgo the Virgin, Large but Faint

Of all the constellations that we see through the year in our skies, Virgo the Virgin is the second largest. The only problem is that itís also one of the faintest. The only star youíre guaranteed to see with any kind of urban light pollution is Spica, Virgoís brightest shiner. Although this spring the bright planet Jupiter is renting out space in Virgo.

Virgo is also one of only three constellations seen around here that represents a woman, at least in Greek and Roman mythology. The other two are Andromeda the Princess seen in the autumn and winter, and Cassiopeia the Queen, seen all year round in the northern sky. Cassiopeia is one of the brighter constellations that basically looks like a bright ďWĒ. This time of year Cassiopeia is barely above the northern horizon at the start of evening, but is still easily seen since its stars are as bright as the stars that make up the Big Dipper. By the way, that ďWĒ allegedly outlines the throne that Queen Cassiopeia is tied into because she boasted that she was more beautiful than Hera, the Queen of all the gods. Hera tied her to the throne and tossed her into the sky so Cassiopeia could show her ďbeautyĒ to everyone on Earth. Itís never a good idea to tick off Hera!

Admittedly Virgo is not a constellation for beginners. In order to really see it you have to work at it and you really need to be away from city lights. Itís what I call a stargazerís challenge. This week you do have a better chance of spotting it, though, because with just a crescent moon the skies are extra dark in the countryside. Itís sure hard for me to figure out how this faint collection of stars about halfway up in the southwestern sky is supposed to be the goddess of fertility. But really, do we actually know what the mythological goddess of fertility looks like anyway? As far as I know she doesnít have a Facebook page!

The place to start your Virgo challenge is Spica and Jupiter and do your best. By the way Spica is a blue giant star about 263 light-years, or about 1519 trillion miles away from Earth. Itís 10 times as massive and over seven times larger than our sun with a girth of almost five million miles. In addition Spica is much hotter than our sun with a surface temperature well over 30,000 degrees F. Spica is moving away from us at a speed of 2000 miles an hour, although no farewell parties are planned for that shiner anytime soon. Despite its tremendous fleeing speed, Spica will still adorn our spring and summer heavens for many evenings to come.

Now if youíre lucky enough to have access to a larger telescope, and youíre really out in the boonies, you have a chance of seeing at least a few of the many galaxies that make up what is appropriately called the Virgo Cluster. Itís about 60 million light years from Earth. As you can see on the diagram these galaxies are located a little to the right of the main constellation. Since Virgo is such a faint constellation itís easier to use the star Jupiter as a bearing. The Virgo cluster will be twenty degrees or about two fist-widths at armís length above and a little to the right of Jupiter. To be completely above board with you, youíll probably be less than overwhelmed with how these galaxies appear in your scope, even a larger one. At best they will be mainly fuzzy patches, but those fuzzy patches are made up of whole islands of stars, each one of them with billions and billions of stars. By the way, even if you could fly in a spacecraft at the speed of light, which is theoretically impossible, it would still take you millions and millions of years to get there. Better cancel your newspaper delivery!

To many cultures, including the Greeks and Egyptians, Virgo the Virgin represents the goddess of fertility. She holds in her hand a shaft of wheat. In fact, farmers took the first sighting of Virgo with Spica as a cue to start their spring planting. When she leaves in the evening about five months later, the growing season is over. According to the mythology, thatís 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 hasnít found him yet, but after every growing season she resumes her search. The grand lady of the night sky doesnít give up easy!

The constellation has a visitor this summer. The planet Saturn is just to the lower left of Spica. The ringed wonder of our solar system is a little brighter than Spica. Most of the light that you see with the naked eye when you gaze at Saturn is sunlight reflecting off its ring system made of ice and rock. Through even a small telescope Saturn is fantastic as you can ďsplitĒ the planet and the ring system that stretches over 130,000 miles in diameter. This week Saturn is just under 850 million miles from your backyard.