How to Find the Virgo Constellation

spring skies of the northern hemisphere.
Look for Virgo early in the northern hemisphere spring. This chart shows all the northern hemisphere spring skies and constellations, view to the south.

Carolyn Collins Petersen

The constellation Virgo, one of the oldest-known star patterns in the sky, is located near the constellation Boötes and next to the constellation Leo. To the unaided eye, Virgo looks like a lopsided box tipped over on its side with lines of stars streaming away from it.

Virgo does not contain many deep sky objects visible through binoculars or the naked eye. However, there is a massive galaxy cluster within Virgo's boundaries that amateurs with good telescopes can explore. In fact, though it might not look like much upon first glance, the constellation Virgo is a treasure trove for astronomical discovery. 

Finding Constellation Virgo

Virgo constellation
A finder chart for the constellation Virgo. It lies very close to Boötes and next to Libra.

Carolyn Collins Petersen

To find Virgo in the evening sky, ​first locate the Big Dipper in the northern part of the sky. Using the curve of the handle, imagine a curved line, or an arc, drawn from the end of the dipper down to the bright star Arcturus (in other words, "arc to Arcturus"). Then, extend that line to "drive a spike" through Spica, Virgo's brighest star. Once you've spotted Spica, you can spot the rest of the constellation. Virgo is easily visible from around the world. In the northern hemisphere, Virgo is most visible in the evening sky from mid-March to late June. In the southern hemisphere, it can be seen in autumn and winter. 

The Story of the Constellation Virgo

Virgo has been associated with fertility and the planting season since antiquity. The early Babylonians referred to part of the Virgo constellation as "The Furrow." The bright star Spica is named after the Latin term for "ear of grain."

Most cultures have interpreted Virgo's shape as a female figure. During the Middle Ages, the church associated it with the Virgin Mary. The Romans saw their goddess Ceres in Virgo's shape, and the Babylonians associated the figure with their goddess Astarte.

The Stars of the Constellation Virgo

constellation Virgo.
The entire constellation of Virgo is shown with IAU boundaries and the brightest stars that make up the pattern. Observers with good telescopes should hunt down the many galaxies that lie along the northern edge of the constellation, near Vindemiatrix.

IAU 

The constellation Virgo has nine major stars. Star charts often show them with a Greek letter next to each star. The alpha (α) denotes the brightest star, beta (β) the second-brightest star, and so on.

The brightest star in Virgo is Spica. It's a binary star, which means that there are two stars in a very close orbital dance with each other. Spica lies about 250 light-years away from us, and its two stars orbit a common center of gravity approximately every four days.

Spica lies very close to the orbital path followed by the Earth, Sun, and planets in our solar system. This path is known as the ecliptic.  As a result, Spica is occasionally occulted by the Moon. That means the Moon passes between the Earth and Spica for a few hours, essentially covering up Spica for a brief period. Planets can also occult Spica, although this happens less frequently than lunar occultations.

Other stars include γ Virginis (also known as Porrima), and ε Virginis, also called Vindemiatrix. Other stars in the larger region covered by Virgo feature some interesting objects. 70 Virginis has at least one planet known as a super-Jupiter, and the star χ Virginis sports a hugely massive exoplanet. 61 Virginis has a multiple-planet system.

Deep Sky Objects in Constellation Virgo

galaxies in Virgo constellation
The huge halo around giant elliptical galaxy Messier 87 appears on this very deep image taken by Chris Mihos of Case Western Reserve University. The image also reveals many other galaxies forming the Virgo Cluster, of which Messier 87 is the largest member. In particular, the two galaxies at the top right of the frame are nicknamed "the Eyes".

 European Southern Observatory

Virgo is brimming with galaxies that observers will need a telescope to spot, including Sombrero Galaxy. Also present is the Virgo Cluster, a huge collection of galaxies that includes the Local Group, which contains our own Milky Way. The core of the cluster lies along the constellation's northern boundary.

The largest galaxy in the Virgo Cluster is called M87. M87 is a giant elliptical galaxy that lies approximately 60 million light-years away.  It's got a giant jet of material shooting out from its center that can be detected with smaller telescopes. The orbiting Hubble Space Telescope (among others) has been used to zero in on this jet, which is likely streaming from a supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy. 

Another exciting object at the heart of the Virgo Cluster is Markarian's Chain. A seen from Earth, Markarian's Chain is a curved "vee" of galaxies in two separate lines. It's best seen through a telescope focused on the center of the cluster. Once you've spotted this chain, you can explore a variety of galaxies of all different shapes and sizes.