On Oct. 25 I posted a blog featuring the constellation Orion, adhering to the advice in Pathways to Astronomy for beginning stargazers to learn the star lore of a constellation to improve their ability to locate it in the night sky. And I have to say, it worked for me! Since posting that blog, I’ve successfully spotted Orion three times. (It was unexpected at first: I was out lying on the dock at Lake Joy in Duvall, enjoying the night with a couple of friends, when I identified the three stars of Orion’s Belt. But instead of stopping there, as in the past, I traced the sky for the outline of Orion’s body. “I did it!” I said. It was a very proud moment.) As promised, this is the second installment.
The constellation in the spotlight: Leo.
Leo is a spring-winter constellation and, thus, most visible in both the spring and winter months. (Leo rises in the east around midnight in November.) And just like Orion, the Leo region is host to a meteor shower this month. The Leonids will peak in activity at 1 a.m. on Nov. 18. However, interested stargazers should be warned: According to FOXNews.com, while the Leonid meteor shower has been spectacular in the past, this year’s display will be modest.
On Nov. 14 I talked with Dr. Ana Larson, a senior lecturer of astronomy, about the Leo constellation. “It’s one of the few that really looks like what it’s supposed to represent,” Larson said. “It sort of looks like a lion.”
Stargazers shouldn’t have too much trouble spotting Leo, Larson said. “Even if you’re in a bright city, it’s actually one of the easiest constellations to point out, because it’s one of the largest,” she said. “Not as big as Orion, but it’s pretty large. And there’s not many bright stars around it, so it really sticks out at night around midnight.”
Larson said the easiest way to spot the Leo constellation is to first find the Big Dipper. Instead of following the imaginary line of the pointer stars to Polaris, extend the line southward. It will point to the middle of Leo’s back, she said. Or stargazers can also look for a backward question mark, an asterism called the Sickle, which forms Leo’s head.
Other interesting components of the Leo Constellation:
- Regulus (a white-blue star at Leo’s shoulder) is often eclipsed by the Moon.
- Saturn (the sixth planet from the Sun) is currently in the middle of the Leo constellation. “It’s one of the brightest things in the constellation, so it won’t be hard to miss,” Larson said. “It has a sort of yellowish glow. It’s right in the middle– right in the belly of Leo.”
Again, instead of butchering the story behind the Leo constellation in a summary, I’ve posted an excerpt. Here is one version of the legend of Leo the Lion, courtesy of the Legg Middle School Planetarium Web site:
“Hercules’ first labor was to kill the Nemean lion, a fierce beast who descended to Earth from the Moon in the form of a meteor and ravaged the countryside of Corinth. The lion had hide so tough that neither spear nor arrow nor any other weapon could pierce it. So well known was the beast that Hercules had no trouble finding its lair, a cave with two entrances. As Hercules approached, the lion showed itself and Hercules sped an arrow toward its heart. The arrow merely bounced off and fell to the ground. Hercules now knew that arrows or spears were useless against the beast. He then sealed of one of the entrances to the cave and pursued the lion inside through the other entrance. So great was his strength that Hercules seized the lion and strangled it to death by ramming his fist down its throat. He then flung it over his shoulder and returned to show King Eurystheus that he had fulfilled his first labor. The cowardly king was terrified at the sight of the beast and fled. Hercules then [used the beast’s own claws to skin] the lion, and used its [pelt as a cloak of invulnerable armor and donned the lion’s head as a helmet]. So angry was Hera at Hercules’ success that she raised the soul of the lion high into the sky.”
Don’t forget to check out StarDate Online’s seven-day star forecast for the nights Nov. 18 to Nov. 24.