Star Spy: Upside-down lion

FREIDL HALE - TEKAPO STARLIGHT
Last updated 11:59 19/02/2013

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LEO

This is another upside-down constellation, and one of the earliest ever observed, possibly as long as 6000 years ago. 

It has had many names in many cultures throughout that long history. In English we call him Leo, the Latin word for lion.

He can be found about three hand breadths (fingers spread out) to the right of Orion and lower in the sky, closer to the horizon.

Many constellations are quite difficult to identify because their stars are so dim. Orion in summer and Scorpius in winter are two fairly easily recognised exceptions. 

Of course our Southern Cross can be readily found with its two bright pointer stars. After finding these three it gets a little harder. 

Leo has one relatively bright star, Regulus, and below the star the shape of his male lion’s full mane is pretty distinctive. The rest of his body is harder to see and connect the dots.

To help you find Leo, I have removed all the other stars from Fraser’s image, and brightened the remaining stars that make the pattern of the lion in the sky.  

A SMALL REMINDER OF WHERE WE LIVE

While the world had their eyes turned south to watch the passing of known asteroid 2012 DA14, an unseen smaller rock approached Russia from the north on a collision trajectory.

The people affected, 1200 injured and more than one billion rubles (NZ$40 million) in damage, may have trouble seeing it as a lucky wake-up call. But the rest of us can. 

Most of humanity is pretty complacent about the very real probability of Earth being in line for a truly significant hit from space.  

According to the Russian space agency, the meteor was less than one third the size of DA14, apparently below the current threshold for discovery.

Yet its explosion released all at once the energy of more than 30 atomic bombs like the one dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. 

While space is large and mostly empty, we need to be mindful that many, if not most, of the processes ongoing within and beyond our solar system are unimaginably violent by human standards. 

ROSETTE NEBULA

This colourful, apparently delicate and wispy, object is an example of such violent processes. 

It is located in a faint constellation called Monoceros, in the region just to the right of Orion. The Rosette can only be seen with a telescope. 

The rich warm glow we see in Fraser’s image is caused by the radiation from the thermo-nuclear reaction taking place inside the hot young stars that are still forming within the cloud.

The cloud itself is 130 light years across, thirty times larger than the distance between our Sun and the next nearest star, Alpha Centauri. 

The gas surrounding the hot young stars in the centre of the cloud has been heated by the stars to around 6 million degrees. The region is a rich source of X-rays.

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