Virgo is the second-largest of all the constellations -- so big that it takes about four hours for the whole thing to clear the eastern horizon. To the unaided eye, though, that huge area is basically a void -- only one bright star resides within its borders.
That star is Spica, which climbs into view by around nightfall. It shines blue-white. The star represents a stalk of wheat held in the hand of a woman or girl.
Like all the constellations, there are a couple of ways to look at Virgo. One is the "connect-the-dots" pattern of stars first drawn thousands of years ago -- the figure of Virgo herself. The other way is as a region of the sky contained within well-defined borders -- like a state or country here on Earth.
Astronomers drew those borders eight decades ago, when they divided the sky into 88 official constellations. They incorporated most of the constellations that were drawn in antiquity, added others that had been drawn in more recent centuries, and dumped quite a few others. Their work tidied up the night sky, giving each star a constellation to call home.
As Virgo climbs skyward tonight, the first thing you'll notice within its borders is not a star, but the planet Saturn, which looks like a bright golden star. It's well up in the east by nightfall. Spica rises below Saturn a couple of hours later. The entire constellation clears the horizon by 9:30 or so -- all 1,294 square degrees of it.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
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