The Leo Constellation

Leo is one of the constellations of the zodiac, lying between Cancer the crab to the west and Virgo the maiden to the east. Its name is Latin for lion, and to the ancient Greeks represented the Nemean Lion killed by the mythical Greek hero Heracles (known to the ancient Romans as Hercules) as one of his twelve labours. One of the 48 constellations described by the 2nd-century astronomer Ptolemy, Leo remains one of the 88 modern constellations today, and one of the most easily recognizable due to its many bright stars and a distinctive shape that is reminiscent of the crouching lion it depicts. The lion’s mane and shoulders also form an asterism known as “The Sickle,” which to modern observers may resemble a backwards “question mark.”

Leo contains many bright stars, many of which were individually identified by the ancients. There are four stars of first or second magnitude, which render this constellation especially prominent:

  • Regulus, designated Alpha Leonis, is a blue-white main-sequence star of magnitude 1.34, 77.5 light-years from Earth. It is a double star divisible in binoculars, with a secondary of magnitude 7.7. Its traditional name (Regulus) means “the little king.”
  • Beta Leonis, called Denebola, is at the opposite end of the constellation to Regulus. It is a blue-white star of magnitude 2.23, 36 light-years from Earth. The name Denebola means “the lion’s tail.”
  • Algieba, Gamma Leonis, is a binary star with a third optical component. The primary is a gold-yellow giant star of magnitude 2.61 and the secondary is similar but at magnitude 3.6; they have a period of 600 years and are 126 light-years from Earth. The unrelated tertiary, 40 Leonis, is a yellow-tinged star of magnitude 4.8. Its traditional name, Algieba, means “the forehead.”
  • Delta Leonis, called Zosma, is a blue-white star of magnitude 2.58, 58 light-years from Earth.
  • Epsilon Leonis is a yellow giant of magnitude 3.0, 251 light-years from Earth.
  • Zeta Leonis, called Adhafera, is an optical triple star. The brightest and only star designated Zeta Leonis is a white giant star of magnitude 3.65, 260 light-years from Earth. The second-brightest, 39 Leonis, is widely spaced to the south and of magnitude 5.8. 35 Leonis is to the north and of magnitude 6.0.
  • Iota Leonis is a binary star. To the unaided eye, Iota Leonis appears to be a yellow-tinged star of magnitude 4.0. The system, 79 light-years from Earth, has components of magnitude 4.1 and 6.7 with a period of 183 years.
  • Tau Leonis is a double star. The primary is a yellow giant of magnitude 5.0, 621 light-years from Earth. The secondary is a star of magnitude 8. 54 Leonis is a binary star 289 light-years from Earth. The primary is a blue-white star of magnitude 4.5 and the secondary is a blue-white star of magnitude 6.3.

The other named stars in Leo are Mu Leonis, Rasalas (an abbreviation of “Al Ras al Asad al Shamaliyy”, meaning “The Lion’s Head Toward the South”); and Theta Leonis, Chertan or Coxa (“hip”). Leo is also home to one bright variable star, the red giant R Leonis. It is a Mira variable with a minimum magnitude of 10 and normal maximum magnitude of 6; it periodically brightens to magnitude 4.4. R Leonis, 330 light-years from Earth, has a period of 310 days and a diameter of 450 solar diameters. The star Wolf 359 (CN Leonis), one of the nearest stars to Earth at 7.8 light-years away, is in Leo. Wolf 359 is a red dwarf of magnitude 13.5; it periodically brightens by one magnitude or less because it is a flare star.

Leo contains many bright galaxies; Messier 65, Messier 66, Messier 95, Messier 96, Messier 105, and NGC 3628 are the most famous, the first two being part of the Leo Triplet. The Leo Ring, a cloud of hydrogen and helium gas, is found in orbit of two galaxies found within this constellation. M66 is a spiral galaxy that is part of the Leo Triplet, whose other two members are M65 and NGC 3628. It is at a distance of 37 million light-years and has a somewhat distorted shape due to gravitational interactions with the other members of the Triplet, which are pulling stars away from M66. Eventually, the outermost stars may form a dwarf galaxy orbiting M66. M95 and M96 are both spiral galaxies 20 million light-years from Earth. M95 is a barred spiral galaxy. M105 is about a degree away from the M95/M96 pair; it is an elliptical galaxy of the 9th magnitude, also about 20 million light-years from Earth. NGC 2903 is a barred spiral galaxy discovered by William Herschel in 1784. It is very similar in size and shape to the Milky Way and is located 25 million light-years from Earth. In its core, NGC 2903 has many “hotspots,” which have been found to be near regions of star formation. The star formation in this region is thought to be due to the presence of the dusty bar, which sends shock waves through its rotation to an area with a diameter of 2,000 light-years. The outskirts of the galaxy have many young open clusters. Leo is also home to some of the largest structures in the observable universe. Some of the structures found in the constellation are the Clowes–Campusano LQG, U1.11, U1.54, and the Huge-LQG, which are all large quasar groups; the latter being the second largest structure known.

The Leonids occur in November, peaking on November 14–15, and have a radiant close to Gamma Leonis. Its parent body is Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which causes significant outbursts every 35 years. The normal peak rate is approximately 10 meteors per hour. The January Leonids are a minor shower that peaks between January 1 and 7. Credit: Wikipedia.