Archive for the ‘Constellations’ Category

Leo: In the Spotlight

November 17, 2007

On Oct. 25 I posted a blog featuring the constellation Orion, adhering to the advice in  Pathways to Astronomy for beginning stargazers to learn the star lore of a constellation to improve their ability to locate it in the night sky.  And I have to say, it worked for me!  Since posting that blog, I’ve successfully spotted Orion three times.   (It was unexpected at first:  I was out lying on the dock at Lake Joy in Duvall, enjoying the night with a couple of friends, when I identified the three stars of Orion’s Belt.  But instead of stopping there, as in the past, I traced the sky for the outline of Orion’s body.  “I did it!” I said.  It was a very proud moment.)  As promised, this is the second installment.

The constellation in the spotlight:  Leo.

Leo is a spring-winter constellation and, thus, most visible in both the spring and winter months.  (Leo rises in the east around midnight in November.)  And just like Orion, the Leo region is host to a meteor shower this month.  The Leonids will peak in activity at 1 a.m. on Nov. 18.  However, interested stargazers should be warned:  According to, while the Leonid meteor shower has been spectacular in the past, this year’s display will be modest.

On Nov. 14 I talked with Dr. Ana Larson, a senior lecturer of astronomy, about the Leo constellation.  “It’s one of the few that really looks like what it’s supposed to represent,” Larson said.  “It sort of looks like a lion.”

Stargazers shouldn’t have too much trouble spotting Leo, Larson said.  “Even if you’re in a bright city, it’s actually one of the easiest constellations to point out, because it’s one of the largest,” she said.  “Not as big as Orion, but it’s pretty large.  And there’s not many bright stars around it, so it really sticks out at night around midnight.”

Larson said the easiest way to spot the Leo constellation is to first find the Big Dipper.  Instead of following the imaginary line of the pointer stars to Polaris, extend the line southward.  It will point to the middle of Leo’s back, she said.  Or stargazers can also look for a backward question mark, an asterism called the Sickle, which forms Leo’s head. 

Other interesting components of the Leo Constellation:

  • Regulus (a white-blue star at Leo’s shoulder) is often eclipsed by the Moon.
  • Saturn (the sixth planet from the Sun) is currently in the middle of the Leo constellation.  “It’s one of the brightest things in the constellation, so it won’t be hard to miss,” Larson said.  “It has a sort of yellowish glow.  It’s right in the middle– right in the belly of Leo.”

Again, instead of butchering the story behind the Leo constellation in a summary, I’ve posted an excerpt.  Here is one version of the legend of Leo the Lion, courtesy of the Legg Middle School Planetarium Web site:

“Hercules’ first labor was to kill the Nemean lion, a fierce beast who descended to Earth from the Moon in the form of a meteor and ravaged the countryside of Corinth.  The lion had hide so tough that neither spear nor arrow nor any other weapon could pierce it.  So well known was the beast that Hercules had no trouble finding its lair, a cave with two entrances.  As Hercules approached, the lion showed itself and Hercules sped an arrow toward its heart.  The arrow merely bounced off and fell to the ground.  Hercules now knew that arrows or spears were useless against the beast.  He then sealed of one of the entrances to the cave and pursued the lion inside through the other entrance.  So great was his strength that Hercules seized the lion and strangled it to death by ramming his fist down its throat.  He then flung it over his shoulder and returned to show King Eurystheus that he had fulfilled his first labor.  The cowardly king was terrified at the sight of the beast and fled.  Hercules then [used the beast’s own claws to skin] the lion, and used its [pelt as a cloak of invulnerable armor and donned the lion’s head as a helmet].  So angry was Hera at Hercules’ success that she raised the soul of the lion high into the sky.”

Don’t forget to check out StarDate Online’s seven-day star forecast for the nights Nov. 18 to Nov. 24.


Orion: In the spotlight

October 25, 2007

Pathways to Astronomy advises beginning stargazers to learn the constellations.  And, it says, the best way to do that is to learn the stories behind them:  Making that mental connection between the constellations and their cooresponding star lore helps stargazers find and remember constellation shapes and locations in the sky.  That being said, I will periodically post blogs featuring constellations to aid in the memorizing process. 

The constellation in the spotlight:  Orion

I chose Orion because the constellation is one of several winter constellations (the constellations most visible in the winter months) and because of the activity going on in the Orion region this month with the Orionid meteor shower.  Sadly, it was too cloudy for me to see any meteors at the shower’s peak on Oct. 21.  Stargazers who missed the meteor shower on Oct. 21 will be relieved to know that the Orionids will continue to grace the night sky until about mid-November, albeit with progressively decreasing frequency.

On Oct. 24 I talked with astronomy graduate student Phil Rosenfield about constellations, particularly the Orion constellation.  He was happy to answer any questions I had about Orion, because, he said, Orion is his favorite constellation.

In light of the Orionid meteor shower, Rosenfield had some advice for stargazers who have never watched a meteor shower:  Don’t set your hopes up too high.  “Meteor showers are hard to catch,” Rosenfield said.  “They’re hit and miss.  Stargazers new to meteor showers can be let down, because they expect to see something amazing but then only see two or three [meteors].”

However, that doesn’t mean meteors are impossible to spot.  “We’re constantly being bombarded by dust, by meteors,” Rosenfield said.  “Sometimes I’ll see five in one night in a dark sky just while I’m walking around.”  (For more advice on watching meteor showers, check out this article I found at

Rosenfield says the Orion constellation is one of the easiest constellations to spot, thanks to the three stars that make up Orion’s Belt: Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak.  (He says the stars in Orion’s Belt in Spanish are called ‘Las Tres Marias.’)

Other interesting components of the Orion constellation:

  • Two supergiant stars of different colors– Betelgeuse (a red supergiant star in Orion’s armit) and Rigel (a blue supergiant star, and one of Orion’s feet).  
  • Two star nebulas, or active star-forming regions of interstellar gas and dust– the Horsehead Nebula (which gets its name from it’s horsehead shape) and the Orion Nebula (which looks like the middle ‘star’ of Orion’s sword).

I asked Rosenfield why different drawings of the Orion constellation showed Orion holding different things.  (Some variations include a club and a shield, a club and a lion’s pelt, a sword and a shield and a bow and arrow.)  He told me the variations in illustrations of Orion are simply modern attempts to reflect the different stories in the constellation, and that the Greeks probably didn’t intend him to be holding anything specific. 

“It’s not a matter of which [combination] it should be [in Orion’s hands],” Rosenfield said.  “It wasn’t ‘this one represents this.’  It’s just a story, folklore.  I mean, Hercules is sprawled out up there and he’s not holding anything.”

I’m sure I’d only succeed in butchering the story (or stories) behind the Orion constellation in a summary, so I’ve posted an excerpt.  Here is one version of the legend of Orion the Hunter, courtesy of Pathways to Astronomy

“The king of the island Chios had a lovely daughter, Merope.  His island was filled with savage beasts, and to rid his kingdom of these dangerous animals, the king called on Orion to kill the beasts and make his kingdom safe.  When the task was done, Orion met Merope and made unwelcome advances.  In punishment, he was blinded by the king, but after doing penance, he had his sight restored.  After reaching an old age, however, Orion one day stepped on a scorpion, which stung and killed him.  On his death, the gods placed him in the sky with his faithful dogs [Canis Major and Canis Minor] (one of whom chases Lepus, the rabbit), forever attacking the wild bull, Taurus.  Beyond the bull, Merope and her sisters (the Pleiades [a cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus]) run from the hunter, who pursues them each night across the sky.  The scorpion [Scorpius] was also placed in the sky, but on the other side of the heavens so that Orion would never again be threatened by it.” 

Check out StarDate Online’s seven-day star forecast for the nights Oct. 25 to Oct. 31.  Oh, and definitely look at this week and every week.  Trust me.