Vindemiatrix

StarDate: March 17, 2009

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A star with one of the best names in the sky shines all night long this month. It's in the constellation Virgo, which is climbing skyward at nightfall.

Vindemiatrix is Virgo's third-brightest star, at the top left corner of the constellation as it rises.

In ancient times, Virgo was associated with the harvest, because its stars first appeared in the dawn sky when it was time to harvest wheat and other crops. In fact, its brightest star, Spica, represents an ear of wheat held by the daughter of the harvest goddess.

Vindemiatrix was associated with a harvest, too, but not wheat -- grapes. Its name comes from ancient Greece, and means "grape gatherer." When the star first peeked through the glare of dawn in autumn, it was time to pick the grapes and begin fermenting them to make wine.

The star itself is a giant. It's several times bigger and more massive than the Sun, and its surface is about the same temperature. It's late in life, so it's undergoing changes both in its core and in its outer layers. Eventually, the changes will cause Vindemiatrix to puff up even bigger, so it'll shine even brighter than it does now. Soon after that, though, it'll cast off its outer layers, leaving only its dense core. This cosmic ember will be hot but faint, so Vindemiatrix will disappear from view.

For now, look for the star well up in the east by mid evening, to the upper left of brighter Spica.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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