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Virgo, a constellation for May and June

Contributed by Paul Rodmell, Southland Astronomical Society.

VIRGO, pronounced VUR-go

Chart showing the constellation.

Virgo the Virgin is the second largest constellation in the sky. Many myths are associated with this constellation, which is usually seen as a beautiful or virtuous maiden. (There are only three female figures amongst the constellations). We know the maiden as Astraea, the Roman goddess of justice, but other legends have associated Virgo with successful harvests, and so she is pictured as holding an ear of wheat (the star Spica), in her left hand and a palm leaf in her right hand. In these legends she is identified with the Greek harvest goddess emeter (the Roman Ceres) or more usually with her daughter Persephone (the Roman Prosperpine).

Virgo contains a rich cluster of galaxies which is the nearest major galaxy cluster to us. The Virgo Galaxy Cluster lies about 65 million light years away and contains about 3000 members. Virgo also contains the brightest quasar 3C 273. In an 8" telescope or bigger 3C 273 appears as a 13th magnitude star. It is estimated to lie 2000 million light years away.

To find Virgo look north early evening and find Spica.

Chart showing the constellation as seen to the north soon after 9 pm at the start of June.

Virgo and surrounding constellations

Constellation Crater Constellation Corvus Constellation Hydra Constellation Libra Constellation Scorpius Constellation Serpens Constellation Bootes Coma Berenices Constellation Leo

Some stars and interesting objects in the Constellation

α Virginis (Spica) is a magnitude 1.0 blue-white star 262 light years away. It is an eclipsing binary varying in brightness by a very small amount every 4 days.

γ Vir (Porrima, named after a Roman goddess of prophecy) is a celebrated double star 39 light years away. Together the stars shine as magnitude 2.8, but small telescopes show γ Vir as a matching pair of yellow-white stars of magnitude 3.6.

δ Vir (Auva)is a magnitude 3.4 red giant star 202 light years away.

ε (epsilon) Vir (Vindmiatrix, grape gatherer), is a magnitude 2.8 yellow giant star 102 light years away.

τ Vir consists of two unrelated stars that appear close together. This is called an optical double star. The main magnitude 4.3 star is 218 light years away. The fainter star appearing close is of magnitude 9.5.

φ Vir is a magnitude 4.8 yellow giant star 135 light years away with a magnitude 9.2 orange companion star. This is not easy to see in small telescopes because of the magnitude contrast.

θ Vir is a double star visible in small telescopes, consisting of blue-white components of magnitudes 4.4 and 8.6. In 1976, the brighter star was found to be a very close pair, by speckle interferometry. This system is 415 light years away.

M 49 (NGC 4472) is a 9th magnitude elliptical giant galaxy visible in 75 mm telescopes or larger under low power. It is one of the brightest members of the Virgo cluster of galaxies.

M 58 (NGC 4579) is a 9th magnitude spiral galaxy with a noticeably brighter core.

M 60 (NGC 4649) appears as a symmetrical round haze, rising to a bright centre. It is a 9th magnitude giant elliptical galaxy.

M 84 (NGC 4374) is an elliptical galaxy discovered in 1781 by Messier, and appears as a round bright and conspicuous haze, rising to a small diffuse nucleus. It appears in the same telescopic field as M 86.

M 86 (NGC 4406) is a Seyfert galaxy showing as a narrow spindle. Seyfert galaxies are active galaxies with a bright nucleus and thought to be related to quasars.

M 87 (NGC 4486) is a fine large round object for small telescopes. Photographs reveal a giant elliptical galaxy with many globular clusters in its halo. A straight jet proceeds from the nucleus giving intense radio emission, making this known to radio astronomers as Virgo A.

The Sombrero galaxy M 104 (NGC4594) is a beautiful spiral galaxy with a large nucleus and a dense lane of dust. It lies about 35 million light years away.

Quasar 3C 273 is the brightest known quasar with a magnitude 12.8. It is about 3.5° NE of η Vir ( Zaniah) and 4.7° NW of γ (gamma) Vir (Porrima).  The position of the quasar is RA 12h 29.1m, Dec +2° 03'.

Detailed Chart showing the star field near 3C 273.

The circle round 3C 273 has a diameter of half a degree. Stars to magnitude 13.5 are shown, with those brighter than magnitude 11 labelled, plus a few fainter ones near 3C 273.

The brightest star on the chart, magnitude 7.32 is at RA 12h 26.0m, Dec +2° 03'.   The double star near the top of the chart has a separation about 50", and is at RA 12h 31.2m, Dec +1° 20'.  The chart gives a southern hemisphere view with south at the top and east to the right.

Quasar 3C 273

Visibility

Spica in Virgo is due north in early June at about 9 pm from New Zealand. The constellation first becomes visible at 9 pm in the evening early in April. It is close to setting at 9 pm early in August.


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