Leo the Lion
The big kitty is one of the few real connect-the-dots sort of allegories. It makes a reasonable stick figure of an animal at least. The Chinese call it the horse. It takes some imagination. If you try to connect the dots you may get something that looks like a coat hanger after it's been used to unlock a car door. That's how I drew horses in first grade, actually it still kind of resembles my best effort.
The head and front leg of the constellation are an asterism unto itself known as the Sickle. It's like one of those old-timey composite monsters with the head of a sickle and the body of a lion. That's pretty scary.
Near Leo’s baby maker are M65 and M66, which are two galaxies preparing to merge. Galaxies do this all the time, just like banks. Once they’ve signed off on the relative momenta of their investments and branch constituents, they will combine assets and enjoy the subsequent dividends, the compression of gas clouds leading to the birth of new star systems, i.e. more real estate.
The cool thing about M65-66 is that not only are they big and bright, the two fit nicely into the view of your telescope simultaneously. On a good night they might even be had by one of those cheap-ass department store telescopes that came in a box covered with air-brushed photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. If your goal is to see all of the Messiers (of course it is), thus claiming the legitimate and cherished title of “geek of the week” (look at me bitches), then here is your chance to nail a two-fer.
No human being has ever been outside of our own galaxy and looked back to see just what it looks like, regardless of what you may have heard on late night radio. But in terms of the architecture, M95 is probably pretty damn close to the same deal. So swing up and over and take a good look at M95. Meanwhile M96 is nearby and it is also a worthy target I suppose, if you happen to like face-on spirals of hundreds of billions of stars displaying a full diversified array of the myriad stages of stellar evolution. The two galaxies and several others are buzzing around Leo's underbelly like a bunch of drunk horse flies.
Messier 105 forms a threesome with 95 and 96, but it is hideous. It reminds me of one of those cafes with bad coffee and no Internet. Drive by with the windows up and the doors locked. Don’t stop.
Also down in the nether regions under the lion there is a rather interesting star zipping quickly through our neighborhood called Wolf 359. But it is way too dim for you to see with your telescope so never mind. Let's move along.
Virgo the Maiden
First of all, she is a young maiden, not a virgin. Well maybe she is a virgin, I don’t want to be judgmental and get all slut-shamey or anything. What Virgo does on her own time is her own damn bidness. She is definitely not an angel though, in spite of the addition of wings at some point thousands of years after the fact. She is one of the oldest of the zodiacal constellations and I think maybe some medieval Christians wanted to “freshen” her up with the wings, after all she is supposed to represent fertility, not menopausality. Maybe she is something in between saint and sinner, like those nice girls with gossamer wings and skimpy underwear. Now I’m judging.
For a while Virgo was known as the Seed Furrow, which has some grown-up implications if you know what I mean. The name is a relic of an earlier system going way back, but that is why she is typically drawn with wheat in one hand. It’s time for the boys to sow something when the maiden of gluten arrives in the spring sky.
Virgo is a popular place to do an astronomy because it is a window out of our galaxy. And what I mean by that is that it is freaking hard to see out of our galaxy. There is a hell of a lot of crap in the way. Our galaxy is shaped like a great big pancake, OK maybe a rather misshaped pancake, like the first one you make, and since we’re inside, cake everywhere. When we try to look out, especially along the edges, we see the combined light of billions of tiny stars too far away to pick out individually, but together they add up to a milky haze all around the sky. Also there are the dust lanes that are like big cloudy unpaved roads in Kansas. But Virgo is sort of straight up out of the pancake, very close to galactic north. There is very little obscuring dust and gas or other celestial poo in that direction.
The maiden shows us the far reaches of the Universe. Just sweep that scope around her regions and you see all sorts of little fuzzies, each one a monstrous galaxy like our own, each one with billions, hundreds of billions, or trillions of stars. There are so many galaxies to be had by amateur scopes in Virgo that sometimes instead of using your maps to star hop to a target, you find yourself galaxy hopping. No kidding. Nope, not kidding at all. You'll be working your way from one galaxy to the next while trying to determine which one is which.
It can be tricky finding Virgo if you are not familiar with her territory, good luck trying to connect her dots. She does have one bright star, Spica (the wheat sprig), and most folks get there by hopping down from Arcturus (the bear chaser), and you get to that star by hopping down from the Big Dipper. In springtime, the Big Dip is on the very top of the sky or close to it for most of us, sorry Kangarooland. So start by looking straight up. Notice the tail has an arc. It arcs to Arcturus, a lonely red star.
The Salish Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest call Arcturus “Coyote’s Eyeball.” You see, the Coyote liked to take out his eyeballs on special occasions and juggle them to impress the girls. Right now you might be asking yourself what most people ask me. Are girls really impressed by that sort of thing? Well, yeah. Hell yeah, sometimes. One girl told me it would be especially impressive to see a coyote do it. Anyway, one day he juggled them too high and one of them stuck to the sky.
These stories from ancient mythology sound really bizarre to us today. But you have to remember that most religions probably started out with some perfectly innocent toad licking ceremony.
After you find Arcturus from the Dipper, drop straight down to Spica. Congratulations, you’re in Virgo. Arc to Arcturus and spike to Spica. It's just that easy.
There is a nice big interesting galaxy on the southern border of Virgo called the Sombrero, aka M104. It’s hard to tell if it belongs in the constellation of Virgo or Corvus. It's right on the fence. Maybe it’s in the process of climbing over, or tunneling under, I don’t know. If it wants in I say let it in, just sign the guest book is all.
Unlike the high contrast photos, the Sombrero galaxy in an amateur telescope shows mostly only the upper portion of the disk and central bulge, giving it a distinctive look like one of those hats. You know, the kind that Mexicans throw on the ground and dance around while trying not to stomp it flat. I was never good at that which is why I prefer to use a beret.
Libra the Scales
The scales are by far the newest of the zodiacal membership. It may seem odd that there is a machine for weighing stuff in the line-up of monsters and zoo critters. On the other hand it has my two most fav star names; Zubenelgenubi, and Zubeneschamali, aka alpha and beta Librae respectively. You should learn these two star names. I mean it, you can really impress your friends and your family. Take them outside at night, and just point to any two stars, hell they won’t know, and say “Look, there’s Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali.” From then on they’ll assume you know everything about the stars.
The backstory on Libra starts at a time when the Romans were mucking about with the calendar. Those guys were always stealing days from February and other shenanigans. Then they started trying to divide the sky up into perfect 30 degree sections. Well that didn't work. The star groups are all different sizes and shapes. The Sun is in Virgo for 45 days. It was in the scorpion for a neat and tidy 30 days. But the Romans didn't like how Scorpius had such huge gangly claws because you see at that time, there was no Libra. The stars of Libra were the scorpion’s original claws. So the Romans cut off his claws. Then they gave him some little tiny claws, and used the left over space to invent the scales. And that’s why the Sun is now in Scorpius for only 7 days and why we have 12 birthday signs instead of 11, which is way more cool anyway because 12 can be divided easily. If you think long division sucks, just try doing it with Roman numerals.
But here’s the thing, Zubenelgenubi is an ancient Arabic phrase that means “the southern claw,” and Zubeneschamali means “the northern claw.” And now you know the rest of the story.
Next: Summer Swelter -
Scorpius, Ophiuchus, and Sagittarius
More snarky stuff at Skywise Unlimited