What's in the Carolina sky?
|Constellation close-up: Virgo, the Maiden|
The constellation Virgo is high overhead in our May skies. To find it, seek its brightest star, Spica, by beginning at the curved handle of the Big Dipper. Extend the curve southeast to a bright orange star, known as Arcturus, then draw a straight line southward to Spica, which will appear bluish-white. “Arc to Arcturus and speed on to Spica” is a common mnemonic to help remember this “star hopping” routine. From Spica, the constellation Virgo spreads out into a "Y" shape, with forks of the “Y” opening to the northwest. The second brightest star in Virgo, Gamma Virginis (also called Porrima), marks the point where the forks of the Y meet the stem of the Y. A telescope reveals Porrima to be a beautiful pair of yellow-white stars. The stars orbit around each other every 169 years.
Most recently, Virgo comes to us from Greek mythology, where she was said to represent a beautiful maiden. Through the ages, the constellation has been associated with nearly every important goddess across several different cultures. Even centering on Greek mythology, it's difficult to pin down exactly who Virgo is intended to represent. Virgo may be most familiar to those born in August and September, as it is one of the twelve traditional signs of the astrological zodiac. If you're interested in how the zodiac works, check out this article from Sky & Telescope -- you may find out that your zodiac sign isn't quite what you think it is!
Virgo is rich with beautiful sights, if you happen to have access to a telescope. The constellation is home to the Virgo cluster of galaxies, which includes more than a thousand galaxies, all centered at a distance of about 55 million light years from Earth. You might find a few of them with binoculars by combing the area just north of the open end of Virgo's "Y" shape.
As darkness falls, Saturn becomes visible fairly high in the southeast near the border of the constellations Libra and Virgo and remains in the sky until it sets in the west in early morning. Look for Saturn shining steadily to the left of dimmer and twinkling Spica.
Jupiter drops lower in the western evening sky during the month, vanishing into twilight at month's end. Venus appears low in western evening twilight. Mercury joins these other two planets around May 18.
On Memorial Day weekend this year, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter appear to cluster unusually close together, low in the west-northwest at dusk. The grouping is at its tightest on May 25, 26 and 27; look for the trio of planets soon after sunset, above the spot where the Sun went down. Since this sight will be fairly low in the west-northwest, choose a location free of hills, trees or buildings that could obstruct your view of the horizon in that direction.
Mars remains lost in the Sun's glare and will not become visible again until next month.
- Last Quarter: Thursday, May 2
- New Moon: Thursday, May 9
- First Quarter: Saturday, May 18
- Full Moon: Saturday, May 25
- Last Quarter: Friday, May 31