you've ever wondered why we say “March comes in like a
lion”, you may
find the answer in the evening sky this spring. After
twilight, look to the east, and you should be able to find a group of
six stars that look like a backward question mark, with the brightest
star at the point. The bright star is
Regulus, the heart of Leo the Lion. The
backward question mark, known as the Sickle, represents the head and
mane of this regal beast. Leo's
hindquarter is a large right triangle, with the bright star Denebola
representing the lion's tail. With a
little imagination, you can use those stars to see a lion leaping into
our spring skies.
The origin of the
celestial lion can be traced back to the Babylonians where it was later
inherited by the ancient Greeks and became an important part of their
mythology. The Greeks believed the lion
originated from the moon and later fell to the earth to torment the
people of Nemae. The Nemaean Lion was much
larger than his terrestrial cousins and his coat was impervious to fire
and metal weapons. The terrified people of
Nemae were desperate for help. Hercules,
the son of Zeus and the strongest man in the world, was sent to kill
the lion in the first of his Twelve Labors. After
failing to kill the lion with spears and arrows, Hercules wrestled the
lion to death and then skinned the lion with his own claw.
To stargazers, Leo is best
known for its wealth of bright galaxies. To
observe these “island universes” you'll need a telescope
with a lens or
mirror at least 6 inches in diameter. More
importantly, and much harder, you'll need clear, dark skies free of
light pollution. Another helpful aid to
discovering these galaxies for yourself is a star atlas.
However, if you point your telescope and just the
right spot you're likely to stumble across a cluster of galaxies.
Placed behind the tail of
Leo the Lion and above the V-shaped form of
stars in the constellation Virgo is the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies. Dozens of galaxies are visible in this region
of the sky, but the easiest ones to track down are part of the Messier
Catalog; a collection of 110 of the best deep sky objects.
The most difficult part of exploring the Virgo
Cluster is that at times you'll confuse one galaxy with another.
The king of the Virgo
Cluster is M87, also known as Virgo A. It's
an elliptical galaxy containing at least a trillion stars and is
surrounded by thousands of globular clusters. At
the heart of M87 is a supermassive black hole which has an estimated
mass of 2 billion suns. However, this
monster galaxy appears as nothing more than a puffy ball of gas through
most amateur telescopes. This can be
forgiven when you take into account the fact that M87 is located 50
million light-years from earth. When you
understand what you're looking at, faint fuzzies take on a whole new
image courtesy of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope web site.