For thousands of years, humans have looked at the stars. The stars helped them try to understand their purpose and the role they play in our lives.
To help memorize the different stars, many different cultures created connect-the-dot figure patterns. Today we recognize 88 official patterns or “constellations” of stars.
In last month’s blog, we talked about Gemini, the Twins, as well as two other prominent constellations seen in the winter.
This month’s post will focus on three constellations that mark the transition from winter to spring: Leo the Lion, Cancer the Crab, and Coma Berenices.
lion the lion
High in the south, at this time of year, we find Leo the Lion.
To find Leo, look for an upside-down question mark and to the left of it a triangle with the long side facing east. Leo’s head and mane are formed by that question mark and his body extends towards the triangle.
Can’t you see it at all? Look at the image below to see a cat superimposed on the stars of Leo.
Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, is a multiple star system, two of which can be seen with a telescope. Regulus means “little king” and is one of the four royal stars of ancient times. The others are Antares (summer), Aldebaran (winter) and Formalhaut (autumn).
Cancer the crab
To the west of Leo is Cancer the Crab. A few discrete stars make up the body of the crab. Within Cancer, an open cluster known as M44 can be found: the Beehive cluster.
As described in last month’s issue, an open cluster is a loose group of stars that have formed together from a giant gas cloud. While the cloud may have dissipated, the remaining stars can still be seen. Open clusters can be seen in park skies with binoculars and look great with a telescope.
Eat Berenices (Hair of Queen Berenices)
To the left (east) of Leo is the constellation of Coma Berenices, named after Queen Berenices II (queen of Egypt during the Ptolemaic dynasty). It is the only constellation named after a historical figure.
This constellation is made up of many loose stars that represent the hair that she cut and sacrificed as a votive offering. Interestingly, her hair is actually an open star cluster in its own right, but was not recognized due to the large size of it.
For more information on March astronomy, visit our Eyes on the Skies post.