One sure sign of spring is the appearance of Leo the lion in the south in the evening. Leo is large and easily spotted among the sparse stars of spring. To the west lies Orion and his merry winter band of bright stars. By the end of next month they will be gone, lost in the advancing evening twilight. In the spring sky we look out the thin side of the Milky Way. Though the stars are sparse, telescopes reveal a wealth of galaxies, other Milky ways beyond.
Leo consists to two distinctive patterns of stars. The front part of his body is a backward question mark of stars that delineate the head, mane and chest of this beast. The bright star Regulus, the "Little King Star" is the dot at the bottom of the question mark. The question mark is also called the sickle. The rump of the lion is to the east as a triangle of stars. The end star of the triangle is Denebola, whose name is a corruption of an Arabic phrase that means "Lion's Tail". Many drawings in old star atlases depict him ready to pounce. However, I see him regally lounging in the tall grass under the shade of a tree surveying his kingdom, our sky.
While the backward question mark is easy to spot, another way to spot him is seen on our star chart for this month. Find the Big Dipper, and drill a hole in the bowl.. The water will fall on his back. This is particularly memorable because cats aren't supposed to like water.
It was thought by the Egyptians that the sun was in Leo at the creation of the world. This may have been because the start of the Egyptian agricultural year began with the flooding of the Nile. While that event was signaled by the heliacal rising of Sirius, that is the first apperarance of Sirius in the morning sky after leaving the evening sky more than a month before, the Egyptians also knew that the sun was in Leo at the time. Equating these stars to a lion and the lion to the sun was supposed to be due to the fact that lions were driven to the shore of the Nile by the heat of the summer sun.
The Egyptians didn't see the lion as we see it. The stars of the sickle became the constellation of the knife. It must of had a short blade, but a really fancy handle.
In my Christmas program In Search of the Star of Bethlehem I talk about the two Jupiter-Venus conjunctions of 3 and 2 BC that occur in Leo. The significance of the events in Leo and how they pointed to Judea was that Judah is compared to a Lion's cub in chapter 49 of Genesis. This is also alluded to in Revelation 5:5.
The telescope can be used to split the close double star g (gamma) Leonis, also known as Algieba. It's the star at the lower left corner of the curve of the sickle. The two golden stars are slightly more than four seconds of arc apart and slowly widening. The period of the orbit of these two is probably greater than 500 years.
The other telescopic wonders of Leo are galaxies. Five are Messier objects M65, 66, 95, 96 and 105. M65 and M66 are easily seen below the front two stars of the triangle that is Leo's rump. Another galaxy, NGC 3628, an edge on spiral is nearby. M95, M96 and M105 form a triangle about center and below a line from Regulus to the lower right star of the rump triangle.
Leo is an easy to spot constellation, that actually looks like what it represents. Best of all, it is a sparkling sign of spring.
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