I have to admit that the constellations of spring are no match for the wonderful constellations of winter such as Orion and the rest of his gang. The winter shiners show up after evening twilight, but it won’t be long until Earth, in its orbit around the sun, presses on and the nighttime side of our planet turns away from the part of space where the winter constellations live.
There are few good spring constellations in the evening spring sky, and Leo the Lion is one of them. There’s no question as to what he resembles, or is there a question? I say that because the main part of the constellation truly looks like a backward question mark leaning to the left in the early evening southeastern sky. Even if you’re looking for it in light-polluted skies you should be able to spot it unless the light is outrageous.
This spring in the Everett sky you can also use the very bright planet Mars, at its closest point to Earth in over two years, to help you find Leo. It’s a little more than 57 million miles away and is the brightest starlike object in the eastern half of the early evening sky. Even to the naked eye Mars is sporting a bright orange-reddish hue. Just look a little to the upper right of Mars and you should spot the Leo the question mark.
The period at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo. Astronomically Regulus is a star over 77 light years away, and if you’re new to this column just one light year is equivalent to just under six trillion miles. This star is three to four times as massive as the sun and about three to four times the diameter of our home star.
Regulus marks the heart of the oversize celestial feline and the rest of the curved question mark outlines the profile of the lion’s head. Just to the left of the backward question mark you should see three moderately bright stars that form a triangle that makes up the rear end and tail of the celestial king of the beasts. Denebola, the second brightest star in Leo, marks the tip of the big cats tail.
There are many legends and mythology stories about Leo the Lion. I think the best one comes from the Greeks and it involves Hercules, the mighty hero. He wasn’t always a hero though. In fact, Hercules committed a hideous mass murder after being driven temporarily insane by his marriage to the evil princess Megara. He took an axe to her and all of their kids. Hercules was immensely remorseful for his horrible crimes and wanted to make amends. After consulting a wiseman, Hercules pleaded his case to Eurystheus, king of Mycenae. The king assigned Hercules twelve great labors that he had to perform to atone for his sins.
His first labor was to slay Leo the mighty Lion. Leo was a definite terror of the land, devouring anyone that got in his way. Many a brave hunter met his demise trying to slay the lion. Leo’s hide was like steel armor and no spears could pierce it. Hercules had his work cut out for him, but he had to succeed to make amends for his heinous crime. For weeks and weeks he stalked the lion and his patience paid off when an opportunity finally presented itself. After gobbling down a fair princess for a mid-afternoon snack, the beast laid down for a nap. Moving as fast as he could, Hercules dove at the lion from the rear and went right for its thick neck. With his tremendous strength and his large hands, he struggled with the animal for hours but finally choked the lion with his bare hands. To commend his momentous accomplishment, the gods placed both Leo the Lion and Hercules in the skies.
By the way, the fainter constellation Hercules can be seen in east in the early evening summer heavens, and you can bet in a few weeks I’ll point it out to you when it makes its first appearance. I’ll have much to say about the constellation Hercules sometime in June. Meanwhile, good luck hunting down Leo the Lion yourself in the southeast evening sky.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at http://www.adventurepublications.net.
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something you’re seeing in the night sky drop Lynch a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Everett Astronomical Society welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Their website is: http://www.everettastro.org/