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Leo Minor

June 8, 2016

Modern America isn’t the first culture to expect a lot of flash from its stars. The astronomers of ages past, for example, linked the brightest stars in the night sky to make pictures. They depicted beasts, such as the lion; people, such as the strongman and the hunter; half-beast-half-people, such as the centaur; and even beastly people, such as vain Queen Cassiopeia.

But the astronomers neglected the faint stars between these patterns. In fact, many stars weren’t given a constellation home until just a few centuries ago.

An example is the stars of Leo Minor, the little lion. It’s in the west this evening, between Leo, the big lion, and the Big Dipper. It’s faint, so you need dark skies to find it.

The constellation was created more than three centuries ago by Johannes Hevelius. He included 18 stars in this new bit of celestial geography, but he didn’t give them names. Those were added later by other astronomers. But the list has a glaring omission.

In most constellations, the brightest star is designated with the Greek letter “alpha.” But Leo Minor has no alpha star at all. In fact, only one star has any Greek designation — Beta Leonis Minoris. And it’s not even the constellation’s brightest star. That honor belongs to 46 Leonis Minoris, which isn’t much to look at. It should have gotten the “alpha” name, but the first person to label the stars simply forgot. Then, as now, it seems, a star had to have some flash to get anyone to notice it.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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