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Finding Leo’s galaxies

Greetings stargazers.

End Daylight Saving Time! There – I got my semiannual rant out of the way and can get back to what are likely more productive musings.

Leo is one of the constellations of the zodiac, and one of the easier ones to identify. This month it is rising in the eastern evening sky and will be crossing the meridian near midnight. Leo can be found most easily by looking for the asterism known as the sickle, or “backward question mark” that makes up the mane of the lion. Regulus, the brightest star in Leo at magnitude 1.34, is the “dot” of the question mark.

If you are familiar with the pointer stars in the Big Dipper – Merak and Dubhe, the two stars at the end of the dipper that point toward Polaris – you can use these same two stars but go in the opposite direction from Polaris to get to Leo.

Algieba, a little higher up in the sickle from Regulus is a good double star for a small telescope. The two stars in the double are about one magnitude apart in brightness, so can provide a pleasing view.

The other star in Leo with a name to note is Denebola. Literally translating as the tail of the lion, it is toward the horizon from the sickle.

Spring is traditionally galaxy season for those of you with telescopes, and Leo has numerous galaxies that are worth the time to find. Even if none of the individual galaxies are outstanding when viewed through a small aperture telescope, they are bright enough to show slight structure to their fuzziness.

The Leo Triplet, comprising M65, M66, and NGC 3628, can be seen in the same low power field of view, and each is uniquely photogenic. M65 is a classic, symmetric spiral without noticeable dust lanes, which we would see as dark areas obscuring stars in the spiral arms. The spiral M66 has a prominent arm that sticks out asymmetrically. It is apparently the result of gravitational interactions with NGC 3628. The last of the Triplet, NGC 3628, is only slightly less prominent than the two with Messier designations. This edge-on spiral galaxy has a very conspicuous dust lane, that I think makes it the most photogenic of the three.

Galaxies M95, M96 and M105 form a cluster set below the Lion’s belly. They are all within three degrees of each other but may not be quite close enough together to be in the same field of view.

Following Leo in a large region to the east, is the Virgo cluster of galaxies. A small telescope can make out scores of these galaxies, but unless you have a very detailed chart, or lots of practice, it is difficult to tell which is which. Even if you can’t tell them apart, it is fun to see something so distant. The Virgo cluster is estimated to be between 50 and 60 million light years away.

This month

The two brightest planets, Venus, at magnitude -3.95, and Jupiter, at magnitude -2.1, are in the western sky after sunset. They had their conjunction on March 1, and are moving away from each other, with Venus getting higher, and Jupiter closer to the horizon every night. Jupiter is setting a little after 8:00.

Mars, at magnitude 0.55, along with Betelgeuse in Orion, and Aldebaran in Taurus make a nice triangle of bright reddish objects in the southwestern sky.

The spring equinox is March 20. Having the sun north of the equator is a much better way to have more daylight hours than doing anything with your clocks.

Useful links:



Astronomy picture of the day


An Astronomer’s forecast for Durango


Old Fort Lewis Observatory



Charles Hakes teaches in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College and is the director of the Fort Lewis Observatory.