Leo – the lion

April 23, 2017


lioncutThe constellation Leo shows up in the early spring, when frogs wake up, the crocuses start blooming, and pudgy old guys begin meandering around Lowes in cargo shorts and birkenstocks. These stars dominate the spring sky the way Orion dominates the winter. In the weeks before the equinox Leo begins leaping up from the eastern horizon, stretching up and sniffing the zenith.

The lion allegory goes back at least 6000 years, maybe longer. The ancient greeks associated it with the lion that Hercules killed with a mighty bear hug. That particular lion had thick skin that couldn’t be pierced with swords or arrows, hence the hugging tactic. But the name pre-dates Hercules, going back to those industrious and imaginative Babylonians, and the Persians, and many others.
The stars of the head and a front leg of the beast form a backwards question mark, a group known as The Sickle, which is basically a primitive wheat whacker. With the rest of the stars of the constellation it forms a pretty decent stick-figure of an animal. To the Chinese it was a horse.

The bright star Regulus is the star of kings, and the lion’s front paw. It’s important to celestial navigation because of its brightness, and because it is visible much of the year, and it is conveniently right on the ecliptic. Basically that means it is handy for calculating how badly off course you’ve drifted.

The star Denebola is the tail of the lion. The name means “tail of the lion.”

Wolf 359 is an itty bitty red dwarf star only 7.78 light years from Earth. It is about 8% of the mass of our Sun, which is as wimpy as you can be and still be a star. Any less mass and there wouldn’t be enough pressure in the core to create all the light and heat that a star needs to shine and let’s face it, shining is a star’s job. No nucleosynthesis, no stardom. There are plenty of star wannabees out there who never got that big break, sort of like all of those waiters and waitresses in Anaheim.

spring_02lgRight in the middle of the lion’s thighs you’ll find a two-fer, M65 and M66. These two galaxies can be had in one shot through your telescope, and they look just fine in amateur scopes. Just aim at his tail and swipe right.

After grabbing the 65-66 two-fer, go for a three-way. The galaxies M95, M96, and M105 can be had in a shot. Put in your lowest power eyepiece and scan the belly of the beast. The light from several trillion stars will be gathered and focused onto your retina. Perhaps some humble creature out there is looking back at us and thinking the same.

meteorstormThe Leonids meteor shower is famous. It’s one of the very best. It is caused by a bunch of gravel left behind by a messy comet named Tempel-Tuttle. The earth starts smacking into the little buggers around November 13 and it lasts a week. Most years you will see 20 or so good ones per hour, which is cool. But once every 33 years the earth swims right through that dirty river of space-debris, and instead of a shower it can become a meteor storm. Sometimes there are thousands per hour and it rains meteors. In 1833 there was a Leonid storm which probably produced between 100,000 and 240,000 per hour. That’s up to 67 freaking shooting stars per second, and it lasted for 9 hours. The next likely storm will be in 2032. Take a lawn chair, a blanket, a lovely beverage, and a warm friend.

spring_01The second most massive known structure in the whole universe is in Leo. It’s called the Huge Large Quasar Group. It’s not just large, it’s huge large. It’s 73 quasars spread across 4 billion light-years. The only thing we see bigger is the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall, which is 10 billion light-years wide. Now that’s a big wall. It’s not known who paid for it.

One twelfth of the people responsible for all the atrocities in history were born under the sign of Leo.

Carpe Noctem.

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