Constellations: Virgo 'the Maiden' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Constellations: Virgo 'the Maiden'

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The shield of the Science, Mathematics and Engineering faculty of the h2g2 University.Constellations: Overview | Andromeda | Antlia | Apus | Aquarius | Aquila | Ara | Aries | Auriga | Boötes | Caelum
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Puppis | Pyxis | Reticulum | Sagitta | Sagittarius | Scorpius | Sculptor | Scutum | Serpens | Sextans | Taurus
Telescopium | Triangulum | Triangulum Australe | Tucana | Ursa Major | Ursa Minor | Vela | Virgo | Volans | Vulpecula
 I-Ching character Wu Wang, which stands for 'Innocence'.
Her 'Spica' sigils, ears of corn or wheat,
Adorned her garb and curled round her feet,
And sacrificed to her was lamb or goat
If famine overwhelmed the land, or drought.

– Elizabeth Dandy.

Constellation Data

Name:Virgo (Latin: 'virgin')
Short form:Vir
Area:1,294 sq deg
Co-ordinates1:Right Ascension 13h, Declination 0°

Virgo is the second largest of the 88 internationally recognised constellations, ranked just behind Hydra. Bordered by Boötes, Coma Berenices, Leo, Crater, Corvus, Hydra, Libra and Serpens Caput, Virgo is one of the 13 constellations2 that straddle the ecliptic3. It is also one of the 12 that make up the ancient Zodiac (see 'The Zodiac' section below).

Virgo hosts an enormous number of galaxies, including the Virgo Supercluster, 65 million light years4 away, which contains possibly as many as 2,000 galaxies - all gravitationally bound to each other. As this is on the border with Coma Berenices, it is also known as the Coma-Virgo Cluster. Virgo has Messier objects aplenty, and boasts the closest quasar to us, although, at 2.5 billion light years distant, it is hardly a neighbour, even on a galactic scale.


Virgo the maiden has different incarnations in various legends, but is always portrayed as a beautiful chaste female. In Greek mythology Virgo represents Astraea, daughter of Zeus and the goddess Themis. Astraea was the virgin goddess of justice (being next to Libra, the scales of justice). Another virgin goddess was Ishtar, a Babylonian icon. Yet another story concerns Erigon, the daughter of Icarus, who died a virgin.

In many cultures the constellation Virgo represents the goddess of the harvest, whatever her name may have been, because one thing all people have in common is that they need to eat.

One story tells of Persephone, who was goddess of innocence and purity until she was kidnapped and raped by Hades, the god of the Underworld. That wily old devil duped Persephone into eating some seeds of a pomegranate, which had the affect of ensuring her fidelity to him after he set her free. Thus she returned to the Underworld for three months of the year. Persephone's mother, Demeter, goddess of the Earth, missed her so much she could not take care of the Earth during that time, so it fell barren, cold and bleak. This is the Greek mythological explanation for the season of winter.


The scientific star names are simple to understand (if you know your Greek alphabet). For example, the 'alpha' (first letter of the Greek alphabet) star means it is the brightest star in that constellation. Some stars have proper names as well - for example, alpha Virginis is Spica. Others are known by their catalogue numbers or 'Bayer designation'.

Virgo has only one bright star: the rather famous Spica; it is the 16th-brightest star we can see from Earth. Spica is one of the four partners of the relatively unknown cross-constellation asterism, the Great Diamond of Spring. The other three stars which form the diamond pattern are: Arcturus (alpha Boötis), Cor Caroli (alpha2 Canum Venaticorum) and Denebola (beta Leonis).

Porrima (gamma Virginis) is named after the Roman goddess of childbirth. Porrima has many names including Arich, Struve 1670 and 29 Virginis. It is a binary system comprising two yellow-white main sequence stars of +3.6 and +3.7 magnitude5. However, it is possible there is a third, unseen companion.

In 1936 an irregularity was witnessed. The stars passed the closest to each other (the perigee), but what should then have been the fastest revolutions occurred some months later. In 2005 another close approach occurred, but the unknown guest (the third suspected component) failed to make an appearance, adding to the mystery. In January 2007 the pair appeared in telescope observations as one elongated star.

Star Table

StarDesignationName or
catalogue number
(light years)
Spectral classification
and/or comments
α Viralpha VirginisSpica+0.98262Blue-white giant
γ Virgamma VirginisPorrima+2.6 var38Binary
ε Virepsilon VirginisVindemiatrix+2.9100Yellow giant
δ Virdelta VirginisMinelauva+3.4 var200Red giant
ζ Virzeta VirginisHeze+3.4 var72White dwarf
β Virbeta VirginisZavijava+3.55 var36White dwarf
109 VirHD 130109109 Virginis+3.7 var125White main sequence
μ Virmu VirginisRijl al Awwa+3.8 var60White main sequence
η Vireta VirginisZaniah+3.9 var260White giant
θ Virtheta Virginis51 Virginis+4 var450Double star
ι Viriota VirginisSyrma+4 var69White dwarf
ν Virnu Virginis3 Virginis+4 var300Red giant
κ Virkappa Virginis98 Virginis+4.1220Orange giant
ο Viromicron Virginis9 Virginis+4.1 var165Yellow giant
τ Virtau Virginis93 Virginis+4.2 var200Double star
λ Virlam VirginisKhambalia+4.5 var187Spectroscopic binary
QS VirQS VirginisWD 1347-129+11.4 var156Cataclysmic variable binary with possible third companion

Messier Objects

The Messier catalogue was compiled by French astronomer Charles Messier, whose passion was comet hunting. He listed everything in his catalogue that was not a comet - that is, a 'non-comet'. This catalogue is still used by astronomers today to identify some of the most awesome spectacles viewable from Earth.

M49 is one of the largest and brightest galaxies of the Virgo supercluster. Several companions have been detected, including the bright peculiar galaxy NGC 4470 and thousands of globular clusters (tight balls of stars).

M58 was discovered by Messier while he was trying to catch an elusive comet. M58 is a favourite target of astronomers with access to large telescopes; two supernovae (exploding stars) have been witnessed in this galaxy during the past two decades.

M59 is one of the larger elliptical galaxies of the Virgo supercluster. It is unusual in that it is quite flat (elliptical galaxies are usually shaped like a rugby ball). M59 was discovered by German astronomer Johann Gottfried Koehler (1745 - 1801) in 1779. Since then, over 1,000 globular clusters have been catalogued in that galaxy.

M60 is a giant elliptical galaxy of the Virgo supercluster. It was another discovery of Koehler’s, who beat Italian astronomer Barnabus Oriani (1752 - 1832) to the claim by one day, and Messier by less than a week. M60 is remarkable for its awesome 'halo' and over 5,000 globular clusters which orbit like a string of pearls. The massive central core has been imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Supernova 2004W was registered in M60 by the Lick Observatory in January 2004. NGC 4649 is a nearby spiral galaxy, but they are not interacting.

M61 is a spiral galaxy located in the Virgo supercluster. Messier was hunting for a comet when he noted this object, mistaking it for his original target. That same day, 5 May, 1779, Oriani logged it as a new discovery, so he got the kudos. Messier continued with his own observations, finally realising it was not a comet a week later because the object had not shifted position.

M84 is a giant elliptical galaxy but, as there is some discrepancy over whether there are discernible arms, it is sometimes classed as lenticular (a cross between spiral and elliptical). An unusual feature of M84 is the two small but noticeable jets which brought it to the attention of astronomers with the Hubble at their disposal. Supernovae SN1957B, SN1980I and SN1991bg have also been observed in M84.

M86 was discovered by Messier in 1781. Of all the Messier objects, this lenticular galaxy is the subject of the most intense debate, with astronomers unable to agree whether it is part of the Virgo supercluster or, more likely, in the foreground. In X-ray, M86 has been imaged showing its gas tail, which measures over 200,000 light years. M86 can be viewed by focusing a telescope on Vindemiatrix (epsilon Virginis) and moving along about half the distance to Denebola (beta Leonis).

M87 is also known as Virgo A. Discovered in 1781 by Messier, this one is the big daddy of the Virgo supercluster; it boasts a girth covering 120,000 light years. It has a jet which may be the sign of a black hole. Some dwarf galaxies orbit M87, the most notable being NGC 4476, NGC 4478, NGC 4486A and NGC 4486B, and over 13,000 recorded globular clusters.

M89 has a debris stream stretching over 100,000 light years, which some astronomers think is the remains of another galaxy that M89 passed through and cannibalised, leaving a trail of undigested stellar material in its wake.

M90 is a large, bright, spiral galaxy, one of eight catalogued by Messier on 18 March, 1781. Its arms are so tight that it's possibly evolving into a lenticular galaxy. IC 3583 is a smaller companion galaxy which orbits M90 rather than interacting with it.

M104 is the highly photogenic and instantly recognisable Sombrero Galaxy. From our privileged vantage point, we view this awesome spiral galaxy edge-on. With its glowing central core and dark dust rim, it is easy to see how it got its common name. It can be viewed close to the border with Corvus, practically along the same line of sight as Spica.

Messier Table

MessierNGCTypeBrightness (m)Distance
(million light years)
M49NGC 4472Elliptical+8.460Supernova 1969Q
M58NGC 4579Barred spiral+9.760Supernovae 1988A+1989M
M59NGC 4621Elliptical+9.660Discovered by Koehler in 1779
M60NGC 4649Elliptical+8.860Supernova 2004W
M61NGC 4303Spiral+9.760Discovered by Oriani in 1779
M84NGC 4374Elliptical+9.160Possibly lenticular
M86NGC 4406Lenticular+8.960Has a giant tail
M87NGC 4486Elliptical+8.660Virgo A
M89NGC 4552Elliptical+9.860Possible post-collision
M90NGC 4569Spiral+9.560Possibly becoming lenticular
M104NGC 4594Spiral+850Edge-on

New General Catalogue (NGC)

The NGC was compiled by John Louis Emil Dreyer (director of the Armagh Observatory from 1882 to 1916).

(million light years)
NGC 4438Galaxy50Markarian's Eyes
NGC 4435Galaxy50Interacting with NGC 4438
NGC 4647Galaxy60Neighbour of M60
NGC 4691Galaxy60Supernova 1997X
NGC 4261Galaxy65Black hole
NGC 4388Galaxy60Edge-on spiral
NGC 4402Galaxy50Edge-on spiral

Beniamin Markarian

Beniamin Egishevich Markarian (1913 - 1985) was studying astrophysics when he had to interrupt his education to enlist in the Russian army during World War II. Following the war, he completed his course, presenting his thesis ‘Fluctuations in the Visible Distribution of Stars and the Cosmic Absorption’. He began lecturing and took over as director of the Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory, Armenia, in 1953. During his career, he was awarded the USSR State Prize (First Degree) jointly with VA Ambartsumian for outstanding work in the field of astrophysics.

Markarian discovered many galaxies and is reputed to have mapped the whole northern sky available from his observatory. He published the first Byurakan Spectral Survey of the Northern Sky, identifying Seyfert, radio, infrared and X-ray galaxies. In his lifetime, Markarian produced over a 100 published works. The Armenian Academy of Sciences awarded him full member status in 1971, and he was president of the IAU Commission from 1976 - 1979.

There is a line of galaxies reaching from M84 and M86 to as far as M88 in Coma Berenices, romantically called Markarian's Chain, after their discoverer. Part of this cosmic feature is the two interacting galaxies of outstanding beauty called Markarian's Eyes. Catalogued NGC 4438 (the larger one on the left) and NGC 4435, they have now drifted some 100,000 light years apart. Astronomers estimate they ventured within 16,000 light years at their closest encounter, judging by the shape of the larger galaxy, which managed to keep a grip of most of its stars and gas. The smaller galaxy did not fare so well in this galactic tug-of-war and was lucky to escape relatively unscathed. The image shows a spectacularly shaped galaxy pair with a central feature reminiscent of a person's face tilted slightly to one side.

Meteor Showers

The space debris which creates a meteor shower comes from the tail of a comet, as the Earth crosses where the comet passed previously on its own orbit. Imagine a trail of breadcrumbs, or sawdust like that used in hashing.

There are three meteor showers connected with this constellation:

  • Pi Virginids (13 February - 8 April) maximum 3 - 9 March
  • Eta Virginids (24 February - 27 March) maximum 18 March
  • Theta Virginids (10 March - 21 April) maximum 20 March

Extrasolar Planets in Virgo

Several extrasolar planetary systems had been found in this constellation; the first was discovered in 1992. Figures given in the table below are the length of the planet's orbital period around its parent star, which we know of as a year. The mass of the extrasolar planet is compared with Jupiter, our Solar System's largest planet, known by astronomers as the 'Jovian scale'.

The search for planets orbiting a star other than our Sun began in 1990 with the 305m Radio Telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The first success was muted, however, when in 1992 Polish professor Aleksander Wolszczan discovered two planets, then a third, orbiting PSR 1257+12, an aged pulsar (rapidly spinning neutron star). A neutron star is what is left behind after a giant star explodes as a supernova, and any planets in the vicinity would not have survived the blast. Therefore, these planets must have formed after the supernova. Scientists hypothesise that they probably formed from a debris disc, or they may be captured asteroids.

All three 'pulsar planets' would fit within the orbit of Mercury if they existed in our Solar System. Their orbits are stable and they are not gas giants. But this does not mean there is any possibility of life as we know it. Their parent star subjects them to a dose of charged particles of (lethal) radiation every six milliseconds.

Extrasolar Planets Table

Star name or
catalogue number
catalogue number
Planet mass
(Jovian scale)
Orbital period
(Earth days)
Year of discoveryComments
PSR 1257+12PSR 1257+12 bSmaller than
Earth's Moon
25.21992Pulsar planet
PSR 1257+12PSR 1257+12 c0.01366.51992Pulsar planet
PSR 1257+12PSR 1257+12 d0.01298.21992Pulsar planet
70 Virginis70 Virginis b7.4116.61996Hot superjovian
HD 130322HD 130322 b1.110.71999Hot Jupiter
HD 114783HD 114783 b0.95012001Gas giant
HD 106252HD 106252 b7.11,5162002Superjovian
HD 107148HD 107148 b0.2482006Hot gas giant
HD 102195HD 102195 b0.54.12006Hot Jupiter
HD 125612HD 125612 b3.25022007Gas giant
HD 125612HD 125612 c0.0674.152009Hot Neptune
HD 125612HD 125612 d7.14,6132009Superjovian
HW VirginisHW Virginis b19.25,7672008Brown dwarf
HW VirginisHW Virginis c8.53,3212008Superjovian
61 Virginis61 Virginis b0.0164.2152009Hot super-Earth
61 Virginis61 Virginis c0.057338.022009Hot Neptune
61 Virginis61 Virginis d0.0721232009Hot Neptune
chi VirginisHD 110014 b11.98352009Superjovian
HD 126614HD 126614 b0.381,2442009Gas giant
WASP-16WASP-16 b0.853.192009Hot Jupiter
Ross 458(AB)/DT VirginisRoss 458(AB) c8.533,000 (years)2010Circumbinary planet: widest known orbit around a binary star
WASP-24WASP-24 b1.032.342010Hot Jupiter
WASP-37WASP-37 b1.693.572010Hot Jupiter
HAT-P-26HAT-P-26 b0.054.232010Hot Neptune
WASP-39WASP-39 b0.284.052011Hot gas giant
HAT-P-27/WASP-40HAT-P-27/WASP-40 b0.663.042011Hot gas giant
WASP-54WASP-54 b0.63.72011Hot gas giant
WASP-55WASP-55 b0.574.462011Hot gas giant
Qatar-2Qatar-2 b2.51.342011Tidally locked
HD 106270HD 106270 b112,8902011Superjovian
HD 102329HD 102329 b5.97782011Superjovian
HD 106515AHD 106515A b9.63,6302012Eccentric orbit due to binary star
HD 109271HD 109271 b0.057.852013Hot Neptune
HD 109271HD 109271 c0.07312013Hot Neptune
WASP-85WASP-85 b1.262.652014Hot Jupiter
38 VirginisHD 111998 b4.58262016Superjovian
WASP-157WASP-157 b0.583.952016Hot gas giant

The Zodiac

Virgo is the sixth sign of the Zodiac ('circle of animals') and is supposed to represent those born between 24 August and 23 September. Unfortunately, the dates were assigned over 2,000 years ago and a small matter of precession6 has shifted the dates somewhat - a fact which today's astrologers choose to ignore. Some people are happy to read their 'horoscope' in popular magazines and daily newspapers, but it is not a serious science, just a bit of fun. No matter then that the Sun actually travels through Virgo between 16 September and 30 October.

Virgo is one of the Earth signs, and the only Earth/Mutable. Apparently you should take both into account when using the stars' influence in your quest for a life partner. Assuming this to be true, Virgo people should flirt with Taurus and Capricorn (fellow Earth signs), and Gemini, Sagittarius and Pisces (matching mutability), while ignoring the rest. However, some astrologers promote neighbouring signs as good matches, so you can add Leo and Libra to the growing list. This just leaves Cancer, Scorpio, Aquarius and Aries people whom you should avoid like the plague. Although, should they have favourable aspects like matching 'houses' containing the Moon, or your Venus aligns with their Mars, there could still be a glimmer of hope that the spark of love will ignite and burn with passion. So, it is probably best to advise you not to discount anybody based upon their star sign; rather see how you get along personality-wise.

Virgoans in the Edited Guide

Stephen Fry; John Peel; Eduard van Beinum; Buddy Holly; Jesse Owens; Kevin Carter; Agatha Christie; Greta Garbo; HG Wells; Stephen King and Bruce Springsteen.

1Current International Astronomical Union (IAU) guidelines use a plus sign (+) for northern constellations and a minus sign (−) for southern ones.2Yes, 13. When the IAU redrew the constellation borders, it found there were 13 constellations that the Sun passes through - the 12 which astrologers use plus Ophiuchus.3The apparent path of the Sun across the sky.4A light year is the distance light travels in one year, roughly 5.88 trillion miles or 9.46 trillion km.5All magnitude data researched from various sources.6The gradual wobble of the Earth upon its axis, caused by the combined gravitational influences of the Sun and Moon.

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