Jimmy Westlake: Leo ushers in spring
Steamboat Springs — Some folks rely on Punxsutawney Phil, the ground hog, to tell them when the season of spring will arrive. Me? I just watch for the stars of Leo the Lion to appear over the eastern mountains just as the sun sets in the west.
The arrival of Leo into our early evening sky is a sure sign that springtime is not far behind.
Leo the Lion represents one of the many mythological beasts that wound up on the losing end of a battle with the Greek hero Hercules. Legend tells us that Leo fell from heaven like a meteor and roamed the countryside, terrorizing the peaceful inhabitants.
Leo’s hide was so tough that no weapon could pierce it — spears and arrows just bounced off. Hercules managed to kill the beast by strangling it with his bare hands. Then, he made a robe out of the lion’s impervious hide, which protected him in battle. The legend doesn’t explain how Hercules managed to remove a hide that no knife could cut.
Even though spring doesn’t officially arrive until 3:45 p.m. March 20, you can spot Leo out your back door now, in late February and early March. Look for a pattern of bright stars that forms the shape of a backwards question mark, punctuated by a bright, blue star. Also known as “the Sickle,” this pattern forms the head and mane of the celestial King of the Beasts.
The bright, blue star is named Regulus, meaning “the Little King,” and it represents Leo’s heart. Regulus is the 21st brightest star in our night sky and is remarkable because it spins on its axis so fast.
A point on its equator zooms around at the dizzying speed of 700,000 miles per hour This rapid rotation causes Regulus to flatten and bulge outward at its equator.
The second brightest star in the Sickle is Algieba, one of the most colorful binary stars in the heavens. What the unaided eye sees as a single, yellowish star, a telescope splits into two stars — one orange and one golden — very close together. The stars of Algieba take 500 to orbit each other.
At the eastern end of Leo is a prominent triangle of stars marking the Lion’s hind leg and foot. The brightest star in this triangle is named Denebola, which means “the Lion’s Tail.”
For centuries, a nearby cluster of stars marked the tuft of hair on the end Leo’s tail, but in the mid-1500s, his tail was cut off to create a new constellation called Coma Berenices, representing the golden hair of Queen Berenices. Look for the Queen’s Hair rising in the northeastern sky right behind Leo.
This year, the giant and brilliant planet Jupiter guides us to the constellation Leo as the Lion chases Jupiter westward across the sky during the night.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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