Among the brighter stars in the evening springtime sky is Spica.
This blue-white star shines at first magnitude (+1.04), the 15th brightest star in Earth’s night sky. Although not nearly as bright as the orange, 0-magnitude star Arcturus (currently high in the east in early evening), Spica stands out with no very bright star nearby. Spica is the brightest star in the large constellation Virgo the Virgin. The star is also called Alpha Virginis.
You may see Spica about a third of the way up the sky in the southeast once darkness falls (as seen from the mid-northern United States). You can find Spica by first looking up high in the north at the Big Dipper. Follow the arc of the Dipper’s “handle” in a long curve first to the star Arcturus, and then to Spica.
The ancient Egyptians referred to Spica as the “Star of Prosperity” and it inspired them to build temples in the star’s honor. The name Spica means “ear of wheat.” In old star atlases, the constellation of the Virgin is always depicted as holding a sheaf of wheat in her left hand marked by the star Spica.
There are, however, numerous ways constellations have been drawn, connecting stars with imagined lines. The brilliant, late children’s author H.A. Rey also wrote a famous constellation book for all ages, “The Stars: A New Way to See Them.” He creatively redrew many constellations to better match what they represent. He reconnected the stars of Virgo to look something like a woman, but she appears to be sitting on her bright gem, Spica!
Spica is a close double star, whose components orbit about each other every four days.
They are so close they cannot be resolved as two stars in a telescope, but the binary nature is revealed by spectroscopic studies. Spica is approximately 250 light-years away - Spica-shine (as opposed to sunshine) takes that many years to reach our eyes. When you look at Spica (in 2020) you are looking back in time to 1770!
Far in the background of the constellation Virgo, as well as the nearby constellations Leo the Lion and Coma Berenices, lies a vast cluster not of individual stars, but galaxies, each teeming with billions of stars, gas, dust, and surely trillions of planets and their moons.
On a dark, clear night, even in suburban areas, several of the brighter galaxies are within reach of a small telescope. These distant galaxies generally show as faint smudges among the myriad of foreground stars; some nearer galaxies may show some detail, depending on your telescope, observing conditions and experience at the eyepiece.
There are wonders to behold as one looks deeper. Star atlases are available to help you track them down.
Full moon is on June 5.
Keep looking up at the sky!
Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.