Lions, meteors, and space dust in the sky. Oh my!
Spring is a great time for stargazing. Temperatures have gotten a bit warmer and the nights are still long. In 2021, the spring equinox is officially March 20th.
A very bright Venus is still visible on the western horizon just after dark. To the south, Orion’s belt with the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, will disappear below the horizon in a few weeks, so get your last look until next fall.
In the east, the stars of spring are rising: Regulus in Leo, ruby red supergiant Arcturus in Boötes, and blue-white Spica in Virgo.
In April look for Leo “the lion”, in the south at about 10 p.m., and you will see a shape that looks like a backwards question mark made up of six stars. Leo’s prominence invites deeper looks into some of its celestial delights, including a great double star and famous galactic trio.
Leo was one of the earliest recognized constellations, with archaeological evidence that the Mesopotamians had a similar constellation as early as 4000 BCE. The Persians called Leo Ser or Shir; the Turks, Artan; the Syrians, Aryo; the Jews, Arye; the Indians, Simha, all meaning “lion”. In Greek and Roman mythology, the Nemean Lion would take women as hostages to its lair in a cave, luring warriors from nearby towns to save the damsel in distress, to their misfortune. Using his bare hands, Hercules killed the lion and freed the maidens.
For a real special experience, go somewhere very dark to see an incredibly delicate celestial sight in the west just after the sun sinks. The “zodiacal light” is a cone of shimmering, faint white light only visible around the spring equinox. It is the sun’s light being reflected off huge swathes of dust and ice in the solar system. We learned about these building blocks of stars and planets in a previous Name a Star post.
Are you a morning person, then the Eta Aquarids meteor shower is the stargazing experience for you. It is visible before dawn between April 19 and May 28 every year, peaking May 5 – 6. These brief bright streaks are caused by the Earth moving through the stream of fine dust particles left by the passage of Comet Halley.
It’s going to be a great spring. Keep looking up!