Leo the Lion appears in the western sky

  • Fri May 25th, 2012 1:06pm
  • Life

By Mike Lynch

Most of the 66 or so of the constellations seen around the Northwest require you to suspend any sense of reality and turn on the imagination.

Leo the Lion, though, is one of the easier ones to find and is arguably the best constellation of springtime, both for it brightness and its distinct look. We actually start seeing Leo in the eastern evening sky in February, but now that summer is approaching Leo begins its long goodbye.

Leo is a two-part constellation. On the lower right side is a distinct sickle or backward question mark leaning to the right a bit. Without too much trouble you can see how that sickle resembles the profile of a lion’s chest and head.

The moderately bright star that marks the period at the bottom of the question mark marks the heart of the great celestial lion. That star is called Regulus, about 78 light-years away from Earth (one light-year equals almost 6 trillion miles). Actually Regulus isn’t just one star but a system of four stars all orbiting around each other.

The second part of Leo the Lion is a fairly bright triangle of stars to the upper left of the sickle that outlines the rearend and tail. On the upper left hand corner of the triangle is the star Denebola. Just to left of the lion’s tail is a cluster of distant galaxies around 60 million light-years away.

If there’s a really dark sky and a moderate to larger telescope you may see some of the member galaxies as faint little smudges. Most of those little smudges are galaxies much, much larger than our Milky Way.

In between and below the sickle and triangle of Leo is the planet Mars. About all you’ll see with a backyard telescope is a tiny little red dot. The planet Saturn that’s nearby is a much more pleasing target.

Mythologically Leo has been seen by many ancient cultures as a celestial lion. In ancient Sumeria, now Iraq, there are etchings in caves of a stellar lion that go back thousands of years.

The constellation we know as Leo is also is seen on Egyptian star maps from the time of Cleopatra. The gates of the Egyptian canals irrigating the Nile valley were often decorated with a lion’s head.

Enjoy the constellation Leo the Lion in the western sky. Don’t wait to long to see it though, because by early July the great celestial beast will already set below the western horizon by the end of evening twilight.

Venus transits the sun

On June 5 the planet Venus will transit or cross the face of the sun. We’ll never see this again in our lifetimes. To get a good view of it, you can order a special safe pair of solar glasses from tropicalsails.com/Eclipse_Glasses.php. The glasses allow you to watch this event without damaging your vision. Order soon so you’ll have glasses in time. They’re only $2 a pair.

Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores. Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.

The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.