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Editorial Office, E. Virgo. Encyclopedia. Available online: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/56290 (accessed on 15 April 2024).
Editorial Office E. Virgo. Encyclopedia. Available at: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/56290. Accessed April 15, 2024.
Editorial Office, Encyclopedia. "Virgo" Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/56290 (accessed April 15, 2024).
Editorial Office, E. (2024, March 15). Virgo. In Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/56290
Editorial Office, Encyclopedia. "Virgo." Encyclopedia. Web. 15 March, 2024.
Virgo
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Virgo is one of the 12 constellations of the zodiac, located between Leo to the west and Libra to the east. Covering a vast area of the sky, Virgo is the second-largest constellation after Hydra. Represented as a maiden holding a sheaf of wheat, Virgo is often associated with fertility and agriculture in ancient mythology. This constellation is notable for hosting the bright star Spica, which serves as a celestial marker for navigation and observation.

astronomy constellation IAU zodiac star Virgo Cluster black hole

1. Introduction

Nestled within the vast expanse of the southern celestial hemisphere, the constellation Virgo holds a prominent position in human fascination, weaving together ancient mythological narratives and contemporary astronomical exploration. Virgo, Latin for "virgin," is the second-largest constellation in the night sky, sprawling across approximately 1294 square degrees. It is bordered by Leo to the west and Libra to the east, while its celestial coordinates span from approximately 12 to 15 hours of right ascension and from about -11 to +3 degrees of declination. Virgo's striking appearance resembles a reclining maiden, and can be easily found through its brightest star, Spica (Figure 1).

Figure 1. IAU chart of Virgo. Source: https://www.iau.org/static/archives/images/screen/vir.jpg. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope. Reproduced under CC BY 4.0 license.

The mythology surrounding Virgo is rich and varied, with interpretations spanning cultures and civilizations. In Greek mythology, Virgo is often associated with the goddess of agriculture, Demeter, or her daughter Persephone, symbolizing the harvest season and the nurturing aspect of femininity. Across different cultures, Virgo is linked to themes of fertility, purity, and the earth's abundance, reflecting humanity's deep connection to the cycles of nature.

From an astronomical perspective, Virgo is renowned for hosting the Virgo Cluster, a vast congregation of galaxies approximately 53 million light-years away. This cluster contains over a thousand galaxies, including the giant elliptical galaxy Messier 87 (M87) and the Sombrero Galaxy (M104), both visible with amateur telescopes. The Virgo Cluster provides astronomers with a rich laboratory for studying galaxy formation, dark matter distribution, and the large-scale structure of the universe.

Virgo's strategic placement along the ecliptic ensures its prominence during the spring months in the Northern Hemisphere, offering a spectacle that has captured the imaginations of skygazers throughout history. Its celestial splendor serves as a reminder of the vastness and complexity of the universe, inspiring humanity to gaze upward and contemplate the mysteries that lie beyond our terrestrial realm. As we embark on a journey of cosmic exploration, Virgo beckons us to gaze into the depths of space and unlock the secrets of the cosmos.

2. Historical Background and Mythology

From ancient Greece to Mesopotamia, the celestial maiden has been revered as a symbol of fertility, agriculture, and feminine power, embodying the cyclical rhythms of the natural world.

In Greek mythology, Virgo is often associated with the goddess Demeter, the divine embodiment of agriculture, grain, and the harvest. Demeter was revered as the nurturer of the earth, responsible for the bountiful crops that sustained life. According to myth, Demeter's daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, leading to Demeter's grief and the subsequent barrenness of the earth. The constellation Virgo is sometimes identified as Demeter herself or as a representation of Persephone, symbolizing the cycle of life, death, and rebirth associated with the changing seasons.

In another Greek myth, Virgo is linked to the story of Astraea, the goddess of justice and innocence. According to legend, Astraea lived among mortals during the Golden Age, a time of peace and prosperity. As humanity grew corrupt and wicked, Astraea became disillusioned and ascended to the heavens, where she took her place among the stars as the constellation Virgo. Her presence in the night sky was believed to symbolize the longing for a return to a lost age of innocence and virtue.

Beyond Greek mythology, the constellation Virgo also holds significance in other cultures and civilizations. In ancient Babylonian astronomy, Virgo was associated with the goddess Ishtar, the divine patroness of love, fertility, and war. Ishtar's presence in the heavens was believed to influence the fortunes of humanity, guiding the cycles of life and death. In Egyptian mythology, Virgo was often depicted as the goddess Isis, the divine mother and protector of the pharaohs. Isis was revered as the giver of life, the protector of the dead, and the symbol of maternal love and compassion. The constellation Virgo was seen as a celestial manifestation of Isis's nurturing presence, symbolizing the fertility and abundance of the Nile River Valley.

3. Notable Stars

3.1. Spica (Alpha Virginis)

Spica, also known as Alpha Virginis, is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo and one of the brightest stars visible in the night sky. Located approximately 250 light-years away from Earth, Spica is a binary star system consisting of two massive stars orbiting each other in a close embrace. The primary star, Spica A, is a blue giant with a luminosity over 20,000 times that of the Sun and a surface temperature exceeding 22,000 degrees Celsius (39,500 degrees Fahrenheit). Its companion, Spica B, is a slightly fainter blue-white dwarf star. Together, these stars create a striking visual binary system, easily distinguishable to the naked eye.

Spica's name is derived from the Latin word for "ear of grain," reflecting its association with the harvest season in ancient mythology. In the celestial maiden's hand, Spica represents a sheaf of wheat, symbolizing fertility, abundance, and agricultural prosperity. 

3.2. Zavijava (Beta Virginis)

Zavijava, also designated as Beta Virginis, is another notable star in the constellation Virgo. It is a white dwarf star located approximately 36 light-years away from Earth. Zavijava belongs to the spectral class F9V, indicating that it is a main-sequence star similar to the Sun but slightly cooler and less luminous. With a visual magnitude of around 3.6, Zavijava is visible to the naked eye under dark skies. The name Zavijava is derived from the Arabic phrase "al-zawīj al-yās," meaning "the barking dog," which refers to its proximity to the constellation Canes Venatici. Despite its name, Zavijava is not associated with any mythological or cultural significance but is valued by astronomers for its relatively close distance to Earth and its spectral characteristics.

3.3. Heze (Zeta Virginis)

Heze, designated as Zeta Virginis, is a white main-sequence star located approximately 73 light-years away from Earth. It belongs to the spectral class A3V, indicating that it is a relatively hot and luminous star. With a visual magnitude of around 3.4, Heze is visible to the naked eye under dark skies. The name Heze is derived from the Arabic word "al-hizā‘," meaning "the fence" .

4. Deep-Sky Objects

4.1. Virgo Cluster

The Virgo Cluster is one of the largest galaxy clusters in the nearby universe, containing over a thousand galaxies bound together by gravity. This vast cosmic metropolis spans a region of space approximately 15 million light-years in diameter and is located within the constellation Virgo. The cluster's central region is dominated by giant elliptical galaxies, such as Messier 87 (M87) and Messier 86 (M86), which anchor the gravitational structure of the cluster.

Messier 87 (M87) is perhaps the most famous member of the Virgo Cluster, known for its massive supermassive black hole at its center. This black hole, known as M87*, was the first to be imaged directly by the Event Horizon Telescope in 2019, providing astronomers with unprecedented insights into the extreme environments surrounding black holes.

4.2. Sombrero Galaxy (M104)

Located near the border of the constellations Virgo and Corvus, the Sombrero Galaxy (Messier 104 or M104) is a striking spiral galaxy known for its distinctive shape and prominent dust lane that gives it the appearance of a wide-brimmed hat. M104 is classified as a lenticular galaxy, combining features of both spiral and elliptical galaxies. Its bright central bulge contains a supermassive black hole, while its spiral arms are populated with young, hot stars and star-forming regions.

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