Tuesday, June 21, 2011

More About Virgo

Spica is the real star of Virgo. Her rising marked to official beginning of Spring and the planting season. She has been called the "Queen Star of the Spring," and the "Star of Prosperity," but literally means "Ear of Wheat" which Virgo is holding in her left hand. The Egyptians built many temples to Spica's movement. At key times in the year, the light of Spica would penetrate deep shafts in these temples like in that Indiana Jones movie. The star is a brilliant blue-white in color and lies 260 light years away - or 1,508,000,000,000,000 miles! It is a binary star - meaning it is really two stars revolving around each other.

Vindemiatrix is the second brightest star lying north of Spica. Vindemiatrix means, "Grape Gatherer" because it rises in the morning before the time of the vintage. The star lies 100 light years away and is a yellow giant.

Near Vindemiatrix rest many galaxies. Look a little to the right of Vindemiatrix with a large telescope and see what you can find. One of the largest galaxies around is called M87 and is located in Virgo. The Hubble Telescope caught this picture of it with a jet of material streaming out. To many astronomers this indicated the presence of a super-massive black hole in the center of M87


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Virgo the Maiden

As Spring turns to Summer, the constellation Virgo reclines in the south after sunset. Virgo is lying on her back holding an ear of wheat in one hand and a dove of peace in the other. It's difficult to make out her silhouette in the sky - many of the stars are dim, and really don’t look much like a maiden. But her brightest star, Spica (pronounced SPY-ka), makes up for this obscurity. Spica is one of the most beautiful blue stars and easy to locate.

First find the Big Dipper in the northern sky. Trace down the arc of the handle and continue that curved line out in the sky. This should take you to a very bright, vaguely orange star called Arcturus. Now straighten out the line a little more and continue it until you hit Spica farther in the south. And there is Virgo. There is a catchy saying to remember all this. "Follow the arc to Arcturus then hit a spike to Spica." All right, it’s not that catchy...

The majority of the cultural myths - from Greece to India - describe Virgo as a maiden, virgin, or symbol of purity, innocence, and justice. The ancient Greeks likened her to the daughter of Zeus and the goddess of justice. She lays in the sky next to another zodiac sign, Libra the scales to mark her association with the scales of justice.

The ancient Egyptians thought Virgo represented the great goddess Isis. Isis had an ear of corn in her hand instead of wheat. Isis was the creator of the Milky Way, the band of fuzzy stars that form the heart of our galaxy, when she was up in the sky. One day, Isis was chased by a monster just as she was about to eat some corn. In the chase, she dropped the corn which scattered around the dome of heaven making the Milky Way - or should I say, "The Corny Way."

The Milky Way - Rightclick to open in new window
The Arabs initially included Virgo in a giant Lion constellation and some called it the Barking Dogs, but many groups seem to have changed it to conform with the Greek myths. Virgo is "Al Adhra al Nathifah," the Innocent Maiden.

And in India, the Hindus believe Virgo to be Kanya, the maiden and mother of the great Krishna.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Finding Direction - Your North Star

 Let's say you're lost (on a mysterious island or in the city). What do you do?  The stars can guide you my friends...

Although the Little Dipper is faint, and the Little Bear is dim, this constellation holds the most famous star in the sky. Polaris, also known as the North Star, is the guide of travelers, stargazers, and all-around lovers of the night. Polaris is the star on the end of the Little Dipper's handle or the Little Bear outrageously long, stretched-out tail.

Contrary to popular opinion, the North Star is NOT the brightest star in the sky. In fact it ranks about 48th in brightness. Through the city haze, it is just barely visible.

The best way to find the North Star is to use the brighter stars of the Big Dipper to guide you. Follow the two stars at the end of the Big Dipper's spoon (named Merak and Dubhe) and they will point you to Polaris. This is called the "Pointer Star Method" and can help you find your way around many parts of the sky - even over to Cassiopeia.
Around Cincinnati the North Star is always about halfway up in the sky. Now that you can find the North Star, you'll never be lost again!