Posts Tagged ‘Polaris’

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.

Stargazing tips: Make the most of a starry night

October 18, 2007

Last week I posted a blog listing a number of stargazing necessities.  This week I’ll be going over some stargazing tips.   Or, more specifically, ways to make the most of a starry night.

On Oct. 16, I talked to astronomy graduate student Matt Davis, and he gave me a list of suggestions for the amateur stargazer.

Davis said it’s important for a stargazer using a star map or a star chart to determine which way is north and to get oriented with the night sky.  “The best way to do that is to find Polaris, the North Star,” Davis said.  He said the easiest way to find the North Star is to first find the Big Dipper– which isn’t really a constellation but an asterism* that is part of the constellation Ursa Major— and draw an imaginary line from the two stars that make up the edge of its bowl, called the pointers, because they roughly point to the North Star.  (An added bonus:  The North Star is the tip of the handle to another asterism called the Little Dipper, part of the constellation Ursa Minor.)

Not only does the Big Dipper make spotting the North Star easier, it also acts as a signpost to other asterisms and stars.  Pathways to Astronomy says to try this:  Visually extend the arc formed by the stars of the handle of the Big Dipper and find the orange star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes.  I’ll definitely be looking for Bootes the next time I go stargazing.

Davis also suggests stargazers use their hand to measure distances and get a better idea of the location of stars and constellations.  “The sky is broken up into degrees, so if you want to measure how many degrees something is from the horizon you can either use a fancy instrument or you can use your fists,” Davis said.  “There are a bunch of different tools you can use:  your hand spread at arm’s length covers an angular size of about 20 degrees, your fist is about 10 degrees, your thumbnail is about two degrees and your pinky fingernail is about one degree.”  (For more information about locating stars and constellations, see StarDate Online’s cooresponding FAQ answer.)

Stargazers can also use the hand-measuring method to find their latitude, he added.  “If you want to know your latitude, go outside, find the North Star and find a way to measure how far the North Star is away from the horizon– [that’s] your latitude.  Just start stacking fists.”

Should stargazers have any difficulties seeing a faint star, Davis advises them to use their peripheral vision to look at the star instead of looking directly at it.  “When you look straight at something you’re using the color-sensitive parts of your eye,” he said.  “At night you start to lose the ability to see colors.  At night everything looks gray, so we sort of switch to using the light-sensitive parts of our eyes.  Your peripheral vision is most sensitive to light and dark.”  I had a friend tell me about this little trick, too.  Looking off to the side really does help.

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

*Pathways to Astronomy defines an ‘asterism’ as “an easily identified grouping of stars, sometimes a part of a larger constellation (such as the Big Dipper) or extending across several constellations (such as the Summer Triangle).”  Asterisms are not included in the 88 constellations officially recognized by astronomers.


October 4, 2007

Welcome to Sara and the Stars, a blog committed to the subject of stargazing. I, myself, am an amateur stargazer. I can usually point out the Big Dipper, and sometimes I’ll find Cassiopeia or Orion’s Belt. (I’ve never figured out the rest of the Orion constellation.) Maybe I’ll manage to spot Polaris and the Little Dipper, but that’s about it as far as stars and constellations go. Often I’ve looked up at the night sky and wished I could play connect-the-dots with the stars, but couldn’t. I’m sure others have felt the same way.

I plan to use this blog as a means to learn and inform others about the stars, constellations, moon, and planets until I (or any beginning stargazer) can confidently point to the night sky and say, “Look! That there is Orion. That’s his belt and his sword. He’s holding a shield in his right hand and a raised club in his left, see? And that red star at his shoulder is called Betelgeuse.” Oh, I can’t wait! I’ve always loved stargazing, but once I know what it is I’m looking at I’ll enjoy it even more.

My blog posts will tell of the different stars, constellations, planets, etc. to watch for in the upcoming nights. I’ll also include interesting information about those celestial phenomena, mythology of the constellations, stargazing tips and other astronomy topics relevant to stargazing. I’ll even blog about my own stargazing experiences.

My sources for this blog will include the textbook Pathways to Astronomy, astronomy websites and interviews with Senior Lecturer of Astronomy Dr. Ana Larson at the University of Washington and Matt Davis, an astronomy graduate student at the UW. I’ll try to provide links to photos and illustrations of featured stars and constellations as often as I can, to aid in the star-hunting process.

Please post comments and any questions about stargazing to this blog.  And, of course, happy stargazing!