The Moon slides by the tail of the lion tonight. Denebola, the star that represents the tail, stands to the left of the Moon as night falls, and to the upper right of the Moon as they set, about an hour before dawn.
Denebola is about 36 light-years away, which makes it a close neighbor. It’s almost twice as big and heavy as the Sun, and about 15 times brighter. And it’s pretty young as stars go — about one-tenth as old as the Sun.
Like a few other stars in its age and size range, Denebola is encircled by a wide disk of dust. Some of the tiny particles that make up the disk probably are left over from the cloud that gave birth to the star. Others may be debris from collisions between larger chunks of material — the size of asteroids or bigger.
No one has detected planets amidst this debris. But astronomers have found gaps in the disk that could have been cleared out by the gravity of orbiting planets. If planets do exist, they probably formed as the dust grains stuck together to form bigger and bigger bodies — the same way our own Earth took shape.
New planet-hunting instruments could someday snap pictures that are sharp enough to actually see planets around Denebola — worlds orbiting the lion’s tail.
Denebola is at the lower left of the triangle of stars that forms the lion’s hindquarters. It’s among the few dozen brightest stars in the night sky, so it’s easy to find even through the glare of the nearby Moon.
Script by Damond Benningfield