Spring officially arrives in the Northern Hemisphere on March 20th at 12:57 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time — and for many of us having been subjected to the polar vortex and seemingly endless rounds of ice and snow, it can’t come soon enough! And high in our current evening sky the most famous constellation associated with the spring season will be found.
In the constellation of Leo, the Lion shines the bluish-white star, Regulus. According to Richard Hinckley Allen, an expert in stellar nomenclature, this star was known in Arabia as Malikiyy – “the kingly one.” Regulus was seemingly always associated in ancient cultures with royalty and kingly power. Copernicus has been credited with giving the star its present name, a diminutive of Rex, or king, which may also relate to the four so-called “Royal Stars” (with Aldebaran, Antares and Fomalhaut) all about 90 degrees apart on the celestial sphere.
As the brightest star in Leo, first magnitude Regulus lies in the handle of the so-called “Sickle of Leo,” a star pattern resembling a large reversed question mark. Regulus is 79 light years distant; meaning that the light you see emanating from it tonight started on its journey toward Earth back in 1935. Its diameter is estimated to be about five times that of the Sun; its luminosity 160 times greater.
If You Live in New York, New Jersey, or Ontario, Take Note of This
Regulus is expected to be hidden by the asteroid 163 Erigone on the early morning of March 20, 2014, as first predicted by Aldo Vitagliano in 2004. This is the best and brightest asteroid occultation ever predicted to occur over a populated area. While the asteroid will come nowhere near Earth, as it passes in front of the star its 67-mile-wide shadow will sweep across Nassau and Suffolk counties, all five boroughs of New York City and the Hudson River Valley, with the center of the predicted shadow path following a line roughly connecting New York City, White Plains, Newburgh, Oneonta, Rome and Pulaski before crossing into Canada near Belleville and North Bay, Ontario (see the accompanying map). This stellar eclipse will occur sometime between 2:06 and 2:08 a.m. EDT. Observers in the shadow path may see Regulus suddenly wink out for as long as 14 seconds.
Algeiba, (“the Lion’s Mane”) is in the curve or the blade of the Sickle, and appears as a single star to the naked eye. However, as a telescope of only moderate size will clearly show, it is really one of the most beautiful double stars in the sky. It should really be observed in twilight or bright moonlight to reveal the contrasting colors — one star has been said to be greenish, the other a delicate yellow. Others, however, have described different hues such as pale yellow and orange; reddish and golden yellow and even pale red and white!
The Sickle, when rising and climbing the eastern sky, as it is doing during the early evening hours, is seen cutting upward. Eastward from the Sickle there is a right triangle of stars that also belong to Leo. At the eastern point of this triangle you will find Denebola, (“The Lion’s Tail”). To modern sky watchers the Sickle outlines the majestic head and mane of a great westward-facing lion, with the triangle forming the lion’s forequarters. He is crouching in the regal pose somewhat resembling the enigmatic Sphinx.
Astronomer Henry Neely (1879-1963), for many years a popular lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium would often use his electric pointer to draw attention to these stars and then would exclaim: “Behold! Here is the lion known as Leo. A conception that was familiar to the peoples of many lands long before a certain motion-picture company adopted him as its trademark.”