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If all you know about Leo is what you read on the horoscope page, you’re in for a treat. These stories, facts, and myths about this constellation are fascinating accounts of early astronomy and redemption. After all, it’s probably one of the oldest constellations known to humans because of its massive size. That’s good news if you’re just getting started in astronomy.
One of the interesting things about looking at the sky is all the romance that goes with it. Ancient humans made up stories and myths to explain what they saw. Leo has many tales to tell as part of the zodiac.
Its mere size made Leo noticeable in the night sky as one of the 88 official constellations. It’s essential to remember that it’s a three-dimensional world up there. Scientists use trigonometry and a measurement called square degrees to give sizes to celestial objects. It’s not unlike using square meters or miles for land. They use degrees because the sky is a sphere.
The Sickle is a group of stars within the constellation that looks like its name and represents the lion’s mane and upper torso. You may wonder, what is the brightest star in the Leo constellation? Look no farther than Regulus at the lion’s heart. Denebola marks its tail. All give the constellation its unique shape that is one of the few appropriately named.
Ancient humans knew of many of the planets and constellations of the sky since you can see them with the naked eye. Leo is no exception. Interestingly, peoples as diverse as the Jewish, Turks, and Mesopotamians all called it the same thing—the lion—in their respective languages. It appears as if then, like now, we all think alike.
Many of Leo’s stars have simple names, such as A-Leo and λ-Leo. There are 13 named ones, each with their story. For example, Rasalas or Mu Leonis literally means “north star of the lion’s head.” The constellation’s brightest star, Regulus, means “little king.” It’s a fitting name, considering its importance to Leo.
A constellation often contains a myriad of other objects worth a look. Leo offers a special treat with one exoplanet that is potentially inhabitable, orbits of two dwarf galaxies, and five Messier objects. The latter are cataloged celestial bodies, an undertaking of astronomer Charles Messier. You can think of them as a life list for enthusiasts. Identifying the five galaxies is an excellent start for those new to the hobby.
Leo is 947 square degrees, making up an impressive 2.3% of the night sky. Scientists derived it by starting with the area of the sphere above you at 41,252.96125 square degrees. The figure is a simple calculation. However, the takeaway is that Leo is a massive celestial body, which is part of the reason the Ancients discovered it so readily.
In 1983, scientists discovered what they thought was a massive gas cloud near Leo devoid of stars they dubbed The Leo Ring. They theorized they might have learned how stars form. Fast forward 40 years to the MUSE instrument. This powerful telescope allowed researchers to identify nebulae from ancient stars up to 40 times larger than the Sun, resulting from the collision of two galaxies.
Its location in the northern second quadrant means that Leo is visible to people living between latitudes 90° N and -65° N. It has some good company with other well-known constellations nearby, including Virgo, Ursa Major, and Cancer.
We’ve talked about Leo’s mane, heart, and tail. The other visible stars making up its form describe different parts of the lion’s body. There’s Al Jabhah, referring to its forehead, Chertan identifies its ribs, and Zosma is its girdle or its midsection.
Astronomers use the term radiant to denote the origin of a meteor shower. This constellation is well-known for more than its unique form. It’s also the source of the November Leonids. This one is worth a look, with up to 15 shooting stars per hour at its peak. The meteors soar fast and bright in the eastern sky after midnight. A minor meteor shower occurs in January.
We’ve discussed how the Ancients identified objects in the sky, including 48 of the 88 constellations. By a global agreement, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) designates the official names for celestial bodies, meteor showers, and planets. The organization typically keeps ones used by ancient peoples. Leo gets its moniker from the Nemean Lion of Greek Mythology.
The story involves a brutal beast that would lure men to its lair and kill them. While that was going on, Hercules, the Roman version of his name, was engaged in an ongoing battle with his stepmother, Hera, goddess of marriage, women, and family. She made him go mad, leading to the deaths of his wife and children. A message from the god Apollo instructed him to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae.
As penance for his deeds, the king tasked Hercules with the so-called Twelve Labours of Hercules. The first was to kill the Nemean Lion, which he did despite its impenetrable fur. Zeus, the king of the gods, rewarded Hercules by placing the animal’s body in the night sky, hence, the Leo constellation.
Leo is best viewed in the spring. It’s easy to locate once you know how to find it. Undoubtedly, you recognize the Big Dipper and its two pointers that direct your line of sight to the North Star. Going down the dipper in the opposite direction will take you to where you’ll find the constellation.
While stars have set places in the high sky, their travel time varies through the year. It reaches its highest point around 10 p.m. in early April. It’ll get to this point earlier as the months go by, making it virtually invisible during the night until it makes a reappearance in early fall in the predawn sky.
Many of the stars in this constellation, such as Regulus, are easily visible without a telescope. However, there are so many things to see within it that we recommend getting a telescope to explore it fully. Even an entry-level model will open up a whole new world.
Part of the fun about astronomy is learning the stories about what you see in the night sky. Some could rival any soap opera on TV. Leo certainly has some of the best, with its tales of bravery and family feuds. What makes this constellation even more fascinating is that it’s an excellent starting point for amateur astronomers. It offers a lot to see with some worthy benchmarks to make exploring it even more exciting.
Featured Image Credit: Pike-28, Shutterstock
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Chris has been writing since 2009 on a variety of topics. Her motto with all of her writing is “science-based writing nurtured by education and critical thinking.” Chris specializes in science topics and has a special love for health and environmental topics, and animals of all shapes and sizes.
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