Virgo

by Shaphan Shank | May 1, 2024 | 0 comments

Virgo is a sprawling constellation that lies high in the southern sky during late spring. This constellation is easy to find thanks to the presence of its brightest star, Spica. Spica is not only the brightest star in Virgo, but also the brightest in the southern sky on May evenings. The only nearby star that is brighter is Arcturus, which lies about 30° northeast of Spica.

Late spring is one of the best times of the year to look at distant galaxies, and Virgo is one of the most galaxy-rich constellations in the late spring sky. The Virgo-Coma Galaxy Cluster contains the heaviest concentration of galaxies in Virgo. This galaxy cluster lies in the northern part of the constellation, spanning the border between Virgo and the adjoining constellation Coma Berenices. The Virgo-Coma Cluster contains at least 2,000 galaxies in an area about 10° across. Several hundred of these are bright enough to be visible with a 10–12” telescope, and many can be seen in smaller apertures too.

The most impressive characteristic of the Virgo-Coma Cluster is not the appearance of any one galaxy (most of them are faint, fuzzy ovals of light), but rather the sheer number of galaxies the cluster contains. The easiest way to observe this galaxy cluster is to slowly sweep through it with a telescope at moderate magnification without worrying about the identity of each galaxy you’re seeing. That said, there is nothing wrong with trying to identify the galaxies in the Virgo-Coma Cluster; it’s just not the most relaxing way to view this part of the sky.

There is one part of the Virgo-Coma Cluster that you should be sure to observe: Markarian’s Chain. This is a beautiful, curving chain of eight galaxies that spans 1.5° and lies in the middle of the Virgo-Coma Cluster. With low magnification, you may be able to fit the whole chain into a single telescopic field of view. Several other galaxies are also located in the immediate vicinity of the chain. Markarian’s Chain is easy to find because it is located exactly between Vindemiatrix, the northernmost bright star in Virgo, and Denebola, the star that makes the tail of Leo. You will get your best views of Markarian’s Chain and the other galaxies in the Virgo-Coma Cluster by using the largest-aperture telescope and darkest sky you have access to.

Markarian's Chain of galaxies
Markarian’s Chain. Photo © Reinhold

My favorite galaxy in Virgo, M104, lies by itself in the southern part of the constellation. M104, which is also known as the Sombrero Galaxy, is a bright spiral galaxy that is oriented nearly edge-on to Earth. To find this galaxy, imagine a line connecting Kappa Virginis to Spica (12° apart). Continue the line almost the same distance (11°) west of Spica to find the Sombrero. This galaxy has a large central bulge, which gives it its distinctive sombrero-like shape. A dark dust lane bisects the galaxy just on the south side of the nucleus. The dust lane is visible in mid-sized telescopes under dark skies.

Along with its galaxies, Virgo is home to several double stars. The most notable of these doubles is Porrima, which lies northwest of Spica. Porrima is a tight pair of nearly identical white stars that are currently separated by a mere 3 arcseconds. The component stars of Porrima orbit each other every 169 years; they are currently separating (from Earth’s perspective) after reaching their minimum separation of 0.4 arcseconds in 2005. Although Porrima is still a tight split, any good telescope should be able to split this double at high magnification as long as the atmosphere is relatively steady.

star map of Virgo

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