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Lions in the Sky and other Spring Treasures

The bitter cold winter nights are over and there is much in the warmer spring nights to gaze at in the sky. The Big Dipper is in a great position fo both view it and use it as an aid to locate other constellations.  Three bright stars make up the spring triangle and the planet Mars graces the sky all night.

Leo the lion has long been associated with the arrival of spring. The constellation is close to overhead as darkness falls. The easiest way to locate Leo is to look for a star formation which looks distinctly like a backwards question mark. People have associated this area of the sky with a lion for over 4000 years. Around 2000 BC the Sun occupied this area of the sky during the hottest part of summer, and along the Nile the Sun could indeed be fierce. During this time, prides of lions would migrate to the banks of the Nile river in search of some relief from the heat. The area of the sky we call Leo became associated with the appearance of the lions.


The brightest star in Leo is Regulus and it is often called the "heart of the lion." Around the time of 2300 BC, Regulus was called the "flame star" or "red fire." This was because the of the Sun being near the area of the sky which Regulus occupied. It was thought that Regulus teamed up with the Sun and the combined heat was responsible for the hot weather durning this time of the year. Much later, Sirius, the brightest star in our sky, earned the same reputation when precession of the Earth's axis shifted the Sun to be near Sirius during the hot part of summer.

Regulus forms one part of the Spring Triangle. Facing south, and looking about halfway between the horizon and zenith (point directly overheat) is a bright bluish star called Spica, in the constellation Virgo the Virgin. The Chinese called Spica the "special star of springtime."

The third component of the Spring Triangle is about halfway between Regulus and the eastern horizon. There you will see a bright yellowish star called Arcturus, which is part of the constellation Bootes the herdsman. The name Arcturus has a Greek origin and means "the Bear Guard" and is no doubt a result of Arcturus' close proximity to Ursa Mojor the Great Bear. The Native American Shawnee tribe of Tennessee and South Carolina called Arcturus "White Hawk" after a famous hunter.

Arcturus is a giant yellow star and is a senior citizen, probably about 10 billion years old. It belongs to a group of stars called population II stars. These stars are all believed to be among the earliest stars created in the galaxy. The reason we think this is because the stars are almost completely composed of helium and hydrogen, and have few other trace elements. Younger stars pick up other elements recycled from stars which explode in old age.

The Big Dipper is high overhead in the northern sky. It is upside down, puring its celestial contents in the night sky. The Big Dipper is not actually a constellation, and is often mistakenly referred to as such. There are eighty-eight recognized constellations, and a number of groups of stars called asterisms. The Big Dipper is an asterism. Asterisms are familiar, easily recognized groups of stars. They are usually part of a constellation. The Big Dipper is an asterism in the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Look along the handle of the Dipper for the next to last star. This star is Mizar and it has a companion star called Alcor. The pair have long been used as a test for eyesight If you can see Alcor with the unaided eye, you have good eyesight!

Copyright © 1999 Kathy Miles and Charles F. Peters II