“Gateway to the Stars” April 5 – Leo the Lion

Mike Murray

As we move into spring, a whole new set of constellations are coming out to greet us. Each season has a great “guidepost” constellation – one that is high in the sky and easy to find. For the spring that’s the zodiacal constellation of Leo the Lion. Look high in the south and you’ll find a bright bluish star called Regulus. This represents the heart of Leo. It’s one of the brightest stars in the night sky, even at 79 light years away. Put another way, if Regulus were put in place of our sun, it would look 6 times wider in the sky and shine 288 times brighter!

Follow the curve of Leo to the Beehive Star Cluster

Follow the curve of Leo to the Beehive Star Cluster

Regulus is certainly one of the wonders of Leo, but the shape of the constellation itself can serve as a “pointer” to other bright stars and deep sky wonders. For example, the front (western) section of Leo is shaped liked a hook, kind of like a backward question mark. This marks the head, mane, and heart (Regulus). If you extend the curve of the hook farther toward the southwest, you’ll end up in a blank void in the sky where Cancer the Crab is supposed to be. It’s there, but very difficult to identify because of its extremely faint stars. But under dark skies, you should come across a faint fuzzy patch of light. Put a pair of binoculars on it and you’ll see the famous Beehive Star Cluster! This is a fine example of an Open Star Cluster, a loose gathering of about a hundred stars all moving together through space. Another way to pinpoint the spot is to notice the two bright stars even further west – Pollux and Castor, the heads of Gemini the Twins.

Spiral Galaxies in Leo

Spiral Galaxies in Leo

Leo provides a preview of another class of objects that will be in prime position for the spring – galaxies! These are enormous islands each containing hundreds of billions of stars.  Our Milky Way is just one of those “island universes.” Because other galaxies can be millions of light years outside our own, it takes telescopes and clear dark skies just to see them as faint smudges of light. But there are some good examples in Leo — look to the hind end stars and tail of the lion (they make a convenient right triangle). Draw with your mind’s eye from the top star (Zosma) in the hind quarters through the bottom (Chertan) and keep going south about half the distance between those two stars. Then shift slightly left and focus your telescope at low power. You should be able to see two faint ovals of light known as “M65″ and “M66″. These are two beautiful spiral galaxies in Charles Messier’s list of deep sky objects. As we move further into spring, we’ll show you several other examples of these distant whirlpools of stars, gas and dust!

For you planet lovers, Jupiter will lie almost directly overhead, high in the west early in the evening. It is by far the brightest star-like object in that part of the sky, in Gemini west of Pollux and Castor. And if that’s not enough, Mars finally brightens up again after 26 months because it will be at its closest approach to Earth on April 15!

Join us Saturday, April 5 at 6:45pm in the Hansen Dome Theatre for a look at the early Spring skies! Tickets are just $2, free for members.

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