Leo, the ferocious lion in the sky

Let’s take a closer look at the constellation of Leo. Greek legend has it that this ferocious beast of Nemea had an inpentetrable hide, immune to the thrust of iron, bronze or stone, and simply could not be reasoned with. To the delight of the villagers it terrorised, the great warrior Heracles (or Hercules if you believe the Roman folklore) strangled it to death as the first of his 12 great labours. Some say he went on to skin the creature and wore its pelt for protection and its head to look a bit more scary. Our hero!

As one of the signs of the zodiac, this constellation is centered along the ecliptic plane – the perceived line of travel of the Sun, planets and moons of our solar system from our view from Earth.

Leo is best viewed in the northern hemisphere in the first half of the year, with perhaps the best time being April when it is high in the sky to the South after sunset.

So let’s take a look at it shall we… click the image below to embiggen and animate:

Constellation of Leo (animated)

Constellation of Leo (click to embiggen and animate)

Leo (the Latin for ‘lion’) lies between other zodiacal constellations of Cancer to the West and Virgo to the East.

The brightest star in Leo is Regulus which forms the handle of the asterism known as ‘the Sickle’. Other stars forming this familiar pattern of stars (the head and mane of the lion – that looks a bit like a backwards question mark) include Al Jabbah, and Algieba, together with the fainter stars Adhafera, Ras Elased Borealis, and Ras Elased Australis.

Regulus, the ‘king star’, is one of the brightest stars in our sky and lies around 77 light years away from the solar system. Although you can’t discern it with the naked eye, Regulus is a multiple star system (like many stars) that comprises four stars – organised into two pairs – that orbit around their common centre of mass.

The ‘Leo Triplet’ is comprised of at least 3 galaxies including M65, M66 and NGC3628. They lie under the hind of the lion, beneath a star called Chertan. These spiral galaxies are around 35 million light years away. The Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope (VST) captures these incredible interacting galaxies in the image below. On the left side of the image is NGC 3628, whilst to the right are the Messier objects M65 (upper right) and M66 (lower right).

VST’s view of the Leo Triplet and beyond. Image credit: ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM. Acknowledgement: OmegaCen/Astro-WISE/Kapteyn Institute

VST’s view of the Leo Triplet and beyond. Image credit: ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM. Acknowledgement: OmegaCen/Astro-WISE/Kapteyn Institute

The Leonids appear to radiate from this constellation each year around mid-November. The meteors are small remnants of the comet Tempel-Tuttle. The Earth passes through this debris trail every year on its journey around the Sun.

Happy stargazing!

About Derek Shirlaw

I'm passionate about science communication, social media, and my home country, Scotland. In particular, I have a real interest in astronomy, digital marketing, and the great outdoors.
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  1. Pingback: Derek Shirlaw » How the sky looks in May 2012

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