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Night Sky News: Brightest Saturn, Spring’s Lion

On April 3 Saturn officially reaches opposition—when the planet is directly opposite the sun from Earth’s perspective.

—Picture courtesy NASA/JPL

That means Saturn will be especially bright, because it will be the closest to Earth it will get for 2011, making this an ideal time to take a gander at the gassy planet.

During opposition, the lord of the rings rises in the east at sunset and sets in the west at sunrise. At midnight you will find it due south.

Shining like a brilliant, creamy colored star in the zodiacal constellation Virgo, the ringed planet is a tad brighter than its neighboring star Spica, which sits just below Saturn.

Making this a must-see sky target with a telescope is the fact that during opposition, the rings seem to surge in brightness thanks to sunlight directly backscattering through the countless chunks of ice particles. This should make for an awesome sight!

—Picture courtesy NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Rising above Saturn will be another cosmic celebrity, the constellation Leo, the Lion.

Roaring up from the southeast horizon in early spring evenings, this grouping of stars is one of the few stellar patterns that really looks like its mythological namesake.

In fact, the lion-shaped constellation was familiar to many ancient cultures, some of which associated lions with the power of the sun.

Ancient Egyptians, for example, believed the annual rise of the Nile occurred at a time when the sun rose inside Leo. This link between the river and the lion is a possible explanation why Greeks and Romans later placed the familiar lion’s head at many springs and fountains. (Take an ancient-Egypt quiz.)

Today Leo’s distinct pattern is still quite easy to spot, making it a favorite for beginner stargazers.

The sitting lion’s basic shape is a triangle formation of stars that forms the beast’s rump. The triangle is connected to a series of stars in the shape of a giant backward question mark, forming the lion’s head and forequarters.

—Picture courtesy Starry Night Software

Marking the base of this hook is a superbright, bluish star named Regulus, Latin for “little king.” Up until a few hundred years ago, this star was called Cor leonis, or “lion’s heart.”

Lying about 77 light-years from Earth, Regulus holds a neat little surprise when viewed through binoculars or a backyard telescope: Regulus is actually a grouping of at least four separate stars, although only three are visible from Earth.

Revealed by its gravitational influence, an unseen binary companion orbits the bright blue Regulus A at about the same distance as Mercury’s orbit around the sun.

But Regulus A is also orbited by another pair of stars that lies about 435 billion miles (700 billion kilometers) away—more than a hundred times the distance tiny Pluto is from our sun.

Be patient when hunting for the dimmer members of Regulus, because the binary pair is 400 times fainter than the blue giant.

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.


  1. Dale Farrand
    Fort Edward, NY 12828
    March 20, 2012, 7:53 pm

    What are the names of the 2 bright stars that are out at 8:00 pm in the northwest skies. The top one is brighter than the bottom one.

  2. […] (Get more on how to find Leo in the spring skies.) […]

  3. […] and Leo rise in the southeast after sunset. Read all the details about these two cosmic gems in my National Geographic Skywatching column this week. Bookmark Posted in Uncategorized | No Comments […]