Virgo - Constellation of the Month
Image Adapted by Celestial Events SA from Stellarium
In terms of area, Virgo is the second largest constellation in the sky after Hydra. Virgo is often seen as representing a maiden or virgin, but in Greek mythology, has no such connotations. There are various versions of mythology, but the most popular cites Virgo as Demeter, the goddess of fertility and agriculture.
Demeter’s role as goddess of agriculture was to ensure good conditions for mankind for growing their crops. Demeter had a beautiful daughter, Persephone, whom she was very protective over.
One day, Hades, god the underworld, took a shine to Persephone and abducted her into his kingdom to be his wife. With no explanation of her daughter’s whereabouts, Demeter became distraught and ignored her duties to the world. Soon, terrible conditions prevailed, such as drought and famine, and the people complained to Zeus.
Image Credit: Heather Royal
Zeus was able to negotiate with Hades to return Persephone but she was tricked into eating some pomegranate seeds, the food of the underworld. This meant that she was obliged to spend 3 months a year with Hades. During these 3 months, Demeter is beside herself and does not focus on her godly duties, resulting in poor growing conditions. This is why we have 3 months of winter!
Spica is the brightest star in Virgo and the 15th brightest in the sky. The star is actually a double star but its second member is too close to the primary star to be resolved in telescopes. The 2 stars are separated by only about 1.5 million kms, which is a mere tenth of the distance from the Earth to the Sun!
The name ‘Spica’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘Ear of Grain’ or ‘Ear of Corn’ due to the constellation’s association with agriculture and farming. In many sky charts, Virgo is pictured holding an ear of wheat to symbolise this.
DEEP SKY OBJECTS
The Virgo Cluster is group of close to 2000 galaxies that are all interacting with each other. A 6 inch telescope will reveal over 150 individual galaxies! The cluster extends into the neighbouring constellation of Coma Berenices.
The cluster is part of the larger complex known as the Virgo Supercluster, of which our Milky Way is also a member.
Image Credit: NASA/ESA
In 2019, history was made when the Event horizon telescope captured the first image of a black hole at the centre of Messier 87, a huge galaxy about twice the size of the Milky Way and one of the largest members of the Virgo Cluster.
Messier 104 – The Sombrero Galaxy
Image Credit: NASA/ESA
Despite the Cluster dominating the skies around Virgo, its most famous deep sky object is Messier 104, also known as the Sombrero Galaxy on account of its shape. The unusually bright core is thought to have been caused by a starburst event as 2 galaxies collided and absorbed one another. The ensuing activity is the perfect catalyst for new stars to be born.
Although about 30 million light years from Earth, M104 is visible in binoculars quite close to Virgo’s brightest star Spica.