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Leo’s Outlines

March 17, 2012

The planet Mars continues its dominion over the eastern evening sky this weekend. It’s about a third of the way up the sky as night falls, and shines like a bright orange star. Earth is pulling away from the planet, though, so it’s starting to lose a bit of its luster.

Mars has a mighty companion that never loses its luster: Leo, the lion. The pattern of stars that outlines the lion stretches above and to the left of the planet.

There are two ways to look at the constellation Leo.

One is as the bright pattern of stars that looks like a lion. The head and front leg are above Mars, the body to its left, and the tail to its lower left. Seen this way, Mars is outside the lion, and just keeping company with it.

The other way to look at Leo, though, is not as a pattern of stars, but as a big patch of sky. In the 1930s, astronomers adopted a list of 88 constellations, and drew borders for each of them -- like a patchwork quilt on the night sky.

In this system, Mars is well within Leo’s borders. In fact, a big chunk of the constellation is down below Mars, and quite a ways from the classical outline of the lion himself. It doesn’t contain any prominent stars. But it does contain a sprinkling of faint, twinkly stars that are best appreciated from dark skies -- away from the glow of city lights.

You can make out Leo’s classical star pattern from the suburbs, and his heart and tail are visible even from cities.

More about Leo’s tail tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012


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