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Hare and Dove at Orion’s feet

Lepus the Hare and Columba the Dove are two small, faint constellations near the easy-to-find constellation Orion the Hunter.

Tonight for February 17, 2015

One of the easiest to find constellations in the sky at this time of year is recognizable for a short, straight row of three medium-bright stars. These stars represent the Belt of Orion the Hunter. As seen from latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll find Orion in the south around 8 p.m. As seen from the equatorial regions, Orion is more overhead. From the temperate parts of the Southern Hemisphere, Orion is seen in the northern sky. Also, notice the star Sirius nearby.

You’ll have no trouble spotting the constellation Orion the Hunter and the bright star Sirius tonight – or even on bright moonlit nights. But to see the Lepus the Hare and Columba the Dove, you need a moderately dark sky with little to no moonlight.

On old sky maps, the mighty Hunter of the ancient myths is seen poised with an upraised club and shield, as though fending off the raging Bull, Taurus. Lepus and Columba seem to cower at the Hunter’s feet.

Lepus the Hare was described by Roman stargazers as being “swift,” “light-footed,” and “eared.” Columba the Dove can be found to the south of the Hare. This little constellation is sometimes ignored in Northern Hemisphere books about the sky, probably because it is so far south as seen from the U.S. Richard Hinckley Allen, in his classic book Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, wrote that Columba was first seen in constellation drawings in 1603. But, he said, there are hints in early writings that stargazers knew the name Columba, and identified a Dove here, as long as 17 centuries ago.

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Bottom line: Lepus the Hare and Columba the Dove are two faint constellations near the easy-to-find constellation Orion.