Leo Offers Telescopic Marvels

by Rod Kennedy

Spring is a great season to get outdoors.  The days are mild and the nights are usually clear and steady.  However, the night skies of April are somewhat empty of bright constellations.  The bright constellations of winter are setting in the West while those of summer are rising in the East.  Fortunately, one constellation stands as a lone sentinel in the dark skies of April; the constellation Leo the Lion.

Leo contains a wealth of double stars suitable for binoculars or a small telescope.  The easiest double star to find in Leo is also the brightest, the star Regulus.  Regulus is a bright blue white star about 85 light years from Earth.  Binoculars or a telescope reveal a small, 7.9 magnitude companion.  The companion is a dwarf star that appears deep gold in color, meaning that it is slightly cooler than our sun.  This companion to Regulus is also a close double star, but a larger telescope is needed to resolve the fainter of the pair.

Denebola, the tail of Leo, is a white star 43 light years distant.  Telescope observations reveal several companions; but unlike Regulus the companions of Denebola are optical companions.  This means they lie along the same line of sight but are not associated with Denebola in any orbital way.

The star Algieba is the brightest star in the mane of the lion, sometimes called “The Sickle”.  Algieba, or Gamma Leonis,  is a fine example of a double star system even though the pair is a challenge because they are so close together.  These stars appear orange and yellow.

Observers looking for something more challenging than double stars should turn their telescopes to the star Theta Leonis, or Chort.  Just 2.5 degrees southeast are three galaxies: M65, M66 and NGC 3628.  M65 and M66 are both spiral galaxies and can easily be seen in the same field of view with low magnification.  The pair is visible with binoculars but clear dark skies away from city lights are required.  Both these galaxies are part of the Virgo Cluster, a huge cluster of many galaxies including the Andromeda Galaxy and our own Milky Way.

Die hard galaxy hunters will want to search the sky east of the star Denebola.  In the constellation Coma Berenices is a rich field of more than 50 galaxies.  While many of these are too faint to be seen even in large telescopes, several including M64, M85 and M88 are easily spotted in the average backyard scope.  Keep in mind however than most galaxies will only appear as fuzzy smudges of light to the human eye.  Only long exposure photographs reveal the delicate structure that forms a galaxy’s beautiful spiral arms.

The skies of April do not offer a wide range of bright constellations for the unaided eye.  Yet the loss for casual observers is an advantage for the observer armed with binoculars or a telescope.  While waiting for the stars of summer to reveal themselves, turn the telescope to the rich treasures of Leo the Lion.

April 2013 Sky Chart

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply