Regulus, the bright heart of Leo, the lion, shines close to the right or upper right of the Moon as night falls this evening. And it’ll be to the lower right of the Moon as they set, a couple of hours before sunrise.
Because it was the brightest member of a prominent constellation, Regulus played a major role in the astronomy and skylore of many cultures. And they gave it names to match. In fact, the name “Regulus” means “the little king.”
The name was bestowed by Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century astronomer who showed that Earth orbits the Sun, not the other way around. He adapted the name from an earlier one, Rex, which means “the king.”
Less than a century after Copernicus came up with Regulus, German astronomer Johann Bayer devised another name that’s also still in common use: Alpha Leonis, indicating that it’s the brightest or most important star of Leo.
Bayer labeled more than 1500 stars. He used a letter of the Greek alphabet followed by the name of the star’s constellation. “Alpha” usually was applied to the constellation’s brightest star, but not always. Sometimes, Bayer labeled the stars based on their location, not their brightness.
Regulus qualifies as the “alpha” star both ways. Not only is it the lion’s leading light, but it’s also at the bottom of a pattern that outlines the lion’s head and mane. So this “royal” star is the most prominent member of a royal constellation: Leo, the king of the beasts.
Script by Damond Benningfield