Jimmy Westlake: The Lion of spring
Beginning stargazers are often frustrated by the fact that very few constellations actually resemble their namesake. For example, I challenge anyone to look at the stars of Sagittarius, the Archer, and pick out a centaur, half-man, half-horse, holding a bow and arrow! The spring sky, however, does offer an excellent example of a constellation that really resembles what it is supposed to be.
I’m talking about Leo the Lion, one of the many mythological beasts that wound up on the losing end of a battle with the strong man Hercules. Legend tells us Leo fell to Earth like a meteor and roamed the countryside terrorizing the peaceful inhabitants. Leo’s hide was so tough that no spear or arrow could pierce it. Hercules managed to defeat the beast by strangling it with his bare hands, then, he made a robe out of the lion’s hide that protected him from spears and arrows. The legend doesn’t explain how Hercules managed to remove a hide that couldn’t be cut!
Marking the heart of this celestial Lion is the bright blue star, Regulus, meaning, the Little King. Locate Regulus by using the pointer stars, Dubhe and Merak, at the top end of the Big Dipper’s bowl: a line extended through these two stars northward will always lead you to Polaris, the North Star, but extend the same line southward and it will take you to Regulus. Regulus is 77 light years away from our solar system, so, the light you see tonight left Regulus back in the year 1930!
Regulus forms the bright point beneath a pattern of five stars that looks like a backward question mark. Also called “The Sickle,” this distinctive pattern of stars represents Leo’s head and bushy mane.
To the east of the Sickle pattern is a prominent triangle of three stars. This triangle marks the Lion’s hind leg and foot as he proudly struts westward across our sky. The easternmost and brightest star in this triangle is named Denebola, meaning, the Lion’s Tail. Denebola is only 36 light years from Earth.
This year, the ringed planet Saturn is located just west of Leo’s sickle asterism. Aim a telescope at Saturn for one of the most spectacular views you’ll ever see.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the Web sites of CNN.com, NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day,” Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover and WeatherWise magazines. His “Celestial News” article appears weekly in the local Steamboat Pilot newspaper. He also records a radio spot called the “Cosmic Moment” for the local radio station “The Range” at 107.3 FM.
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