The Lion is rising!
Looking up on an early March evening, a menagerie of animal constellations may be seen rising in the east, most notably Leo the Lion.
Marked by its brilliant jewel star, Regulus, Leo seems to be chasing a hive of bees, and it is flanked on one side by a great sea serpent and on the other by a smaller lion, a lynx and a very large bear. A pair of hunting dogs appears to be chasing them all, as Lion and the rest push out the bright winter constellations of Orion and others in the south.
Leo and its company are harbingers of spring, when they dominate the southern evening sky.
The blue-white star Regulus shines at the lower end or a string of prominent stars shaped somewhat like a backward question mark. They have also been likened to a sickle. These stars mark the head and chest of the lion pattern. These stars are in front, rising first in the east. Stars marking the lion's body follow behind. They end with the tail, with a prominent star marking the tuft by the name Denebola.
Users of small telescopes and equipped with a good star atlas can locate several galaxies in the region of Leo, appearing in the eyepiece as faint, fuzzy spots, of varying shapes and ease of visibility.
Ahead of Leo is the constellation Cancer the Crab, which contains a large but dim star cluster known as the Bee Hive, or M44. Visible as a faint patch to unaided eyes if the sky is dark, binoculars easily show the swarm of cluster stars that we call the bees.
Hydra, the Sea Serpent, is the longest constellation in the sky. A compact star group marks its head, seen below the Bee Hive. Hydra is mostly dim but has one easily seen star, Alphard.
Leo Minor, the Little Lion, is a faint constellation north of Leo. Lynx is also dim. Both Leo Minor and Lynx border a large and easily traced group, Ursa Major the Great Bear. Within this constellation is the seven stars making up the famous Big Dipper.
The Hunting Dogs, also called Canes Venatici, are two stars in the expanse to the right of the Big Dipper handle, as seen on an early evening in March.
The great Milky Way Galaxy, with an estimated 200 billion stars, continues on its course, the stars that mark our constellations being at completely different distances. Our star pictures, the products of imaginative earth-bound star watchers, would completely disappear if we were able to take a star ship and move way beyond the solar system and into the realm of galactic space.
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Constellations remain useful for our astronomical reference, to be able to point to specific telescope targets. They also serve well to keep interest in the universe alive for generation after generation. Learning your way around the night sky, constellation by constellation, we do well to pass on our knowledge to our children and grandchildren.
Show them the wonder above their heads; spark an interest in something much larger than themselves and not available in the same way on any electronic device. Nothing beats donning a coat and going outside and actually turning your head upwards on a clear, moonless night.
Last-quarter moon is on March 4.
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Keep looking up!