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home : columns : columns September 15, 2014

5/6/2014 12:11:00 PM
Stars over Sisters
The unusual Sombrero Galaxy, located in the constellation of Virgo, is so named because of its prominent dust lane. photo courtesy NASA
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The unusual Sombrero Galaxy, located in the constellation of Virgo, is so named because of its prominent dust lane. photo courtesy NASA

By Cole Gonzales

Virgo is one of the 12 constellations of the zodiac and can be seen from Sisters by looking south at nightfall in May. Virgo is the second-largest constellation in the sky (only Hydra takes up a bigger portion of the celestial sphere). It can be found by following the curve of the Big Dipper to the bright star Arcturus in Bootes, then continue southward to Spica, the constellation's brightest star.

It is bordered by Leo to the west and Libra to the east.

According to the Mal Apin, the Babylonian compilation of astronomical knowledge, Virgo is known as "The Furrow." It represents the ear of Shala, goddess of grain and compassion, and signified the importance of Mesopotamian agriculture. Virgo is the result of joining two adjacent Babylonian constellations; the Furrow to the east and Frond of Erua to the west.

No other constellation has a greater density of bright galaxies than Virgo. The "Virgo cluster" of galaxies numbers more than 1,300 and includes our own Milky Way galaxy. One of the largest of these star collections is M87, a supergiant elliptical galaxy suspected of having a supermassive black hole at its core.

One of the most unusual galaxies is M104, known as the Sombrero Galaxy. The large and prominent dust lane surrounding this galaxy has the appearance of a sombrero hat.

Virgo contains 35 known exoplanets orbiting 29 stars.

The Eta Aquarids meteor shower is typically active between April 19 and May 28 and usually peaks around May 6 or 7. The shower is best seen in the early morning hours and is caused when the earth plows through debris shed by Halley's Comet.

Three planets are well-placed for observing in May. Jupiter rides high in the western sky at nightfall, still located in the constellation of Gemini. Although the earth has already sped by Mars, the Red Planet is still fairly close-by, at a distance of about 60-million miles. Finally, Saturn will climb higher in the eastern sky throughout the month.

As May begins, the moon is in a waxing state, reaching first-quarter on May 6. From here the moon continues to brighten through mid-month, becoming full on May 14. The moon progressively darkens during the second half of the month, appearing half-lit at third-quarter on May 21, and is gone from the night sky (new moon) on May 28.

If you want to learn more about the night sky, the next Stars over Sisters star watch is on Friday, May 23, beginning at 8:30 p.m. at the Sisters Park & Recreation District's Coffield Center. Telescopes will be set up for public viewing, and the event is free.

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