Leo the Lion and its backward question mark

Lines and dots drawing out Leo and star Regulus at bottom right.
You’ll see Leo the Lion in the sky in 2 parts: the backwards question mark pattern represents Leo’s head, and the triangle at the back represents the Lion’s hindquarters. The bright star Regulus is part of the backwards question mark pattern, which is known as The Sickle. Chart via Chelynne Campion.

Leo the lion is one of the easiest to see of the 13 constellations of the zodiac. You can start by finding the bright star Regulus, then trace out a distinctive pattern of stars shaped like a backwards question mark, known as The Sickle. This pattern represents the Lion’s mane. In Greek mythology, Leo represented the vicious Nemean Lion that was killed by the legendary Greek hero Heracles.

From a Northern Hemisphere perspective, the Lion is a fair-weather friend, springing into the early evening sky around the March equinox.

Late March, April, and May are superb months for identifying Leo the Lion, as this constellation becomes visible as soon as darkness falls and stays out until the wee hours of the morning. Remember, you are looking for a backwards question mark pattern. Leo’s brightest star, Regulus is a sparkling blue-white beauty of a star, located at the bottom of the backwards question mark pattern. Regulus depicts the Lion’s heart.

A star map showing the locations of the stars in Leo.
A map of the constellation Leo the lion. Image via IAU and Sky & Telescope / Wikimedia Commons.

Identifying the constellation Leo

A triangle of stars in eastern Leo represents the Lion’s hindquarters and tail. The name of the brightest star of the triangle is Denebola, which stems from an Arabic term meaning the Lion’s Tail.

Like all stars, Leo’s stars return to the same place in the sky some four minutes earlier daily or two hours earlier monthly. In early April, the constellation Leo reaches its high point for the night around 10 p.m. local time (11 p.m. local daylight saving time), and starts to sink below the western horizon around 4 a.m. local time (5 a.m. local daylight saving time). By around May 1, Leo reaches its high point for the night around 8 p.m. local time (9 p.m. local daylight saving time). Also, in early May, the mighty Lion begins to set in the west around 2 a.m. local time (3 a.m. daylight saving time). By June, you’ll find Leo descending in the west in the evening.

Though Leo drifts progressively westward in the early evening sky as the months go by, you can se the Lion in the evening till July. By late July or early August, the Lion begins to fade into the sunset. From about August 10 to September 16, the sun passes in front of Leo. The constellation returns to the eastern predawn sky in late September or October.

Find Leo by star-hopping from the Big Dipper

If you’re familiar with the Big Dipper star pattern – or asterism – you can star-hop to Leo the Lion every time. In March, the Big Dipper stands pretty much on its handle in the northeast sky at nightfall. At nightfall in April, look for the Big Dipper higher in the northeast sky, and at nightfall in May, look for the almost upside-down Big Dipper high in the north, above Polaris, the North Star. Then, identify the two pointer stars of the Big Dipper. Those are the two outer stars in the Big Dipper’s bowl. An imaginary line drawn northward between these stars points to Polaris, the North Star. In the opposite direction, the line points toward the stars in Leo.

Diagram of Big Dipper with arrows pointing outward from pointer stars.
An imaginary line drawn between the pointer stars in the Big Dipper – the two outer stars in the Dipper’s bowl – points in one direction toward Polaris, the North Star, and in the opposite direction toward Leo.

What can you see with a telescope in Leo?

Check out the chart above to get a sense of the telescopic riches that lie within the boundaries of this constellation.

The star Algieba or γ Leonis is a double star, visible in a small telescope when the atmosphere is steady. If the stars are twinkling wildly, that indicates a turbulent – not steady – atmosphere. On the other hand, if the stars are twinkling very little or not at all, try your luck at splitting Algieba – which looks like a single star to the eye – into its two colorful component stars with the telescope.

A close-knit pair of galaxies in Leo also provide an inviting target for the telescope: M65 and M66. With a low-powered telescope, you might be able fit both M65 and M66 into a single field of view.

A star field with three small galaxies in the center.
The Leo triplet galaxies, seen through a small telescope (a 94 mm refractor). The galaxy at the top is NGC 3628. On the bottom left is Messier 66 with Messier 65 to its right. Image via Alan Dyer /

Next, try your luck with the other galaxy pair: M95 and M96.

A sparse star field showing two small bluish galaxies near the edges of the image.
Messier 96 is on the left and Messier 95 to the right, in this image captured by Alan Dyer using a small telescope (130 mm refractor). Both are barred spiral galaxies. Image via Alan Dyer /

Constellation Leo in history and myth

Leo the Lion is associated with the sun and has been for epochs. The ancient Egyptians held Leo in the highest esteem, because the sun shone in front of this constellation at the time of the annual flooding of the Nile River, the lifeblood of this agricultural nation.

It may be that the various lion-headed fountains designed by Greek and Roman architects symbolize the life-giving waters being released by the sun’s presence in Leo.

In astrology, the sun rules Leo, one of the three fire signs of the Zodiac.

Many stories feature Leo the Lion. Perhaps the two better-known tales feature Heracles’ (also known as Hercules) first labor with the notorious Nemean Lion, and the Roman author Ovid’s rendering of the tragic love affair of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Painting of a large and small lion, representing Leo and Leo Minor, superimposed on stars.
Leo the Lion, with the constellation Leo Minor, as it appears in Urania’s Mirror, a set of cards by Sidney Hall depicting the constellations that was published in 1825. Image via US Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons.
Ancient manuscript with latin calligraphy an an image of a lion.
Leo the Lion, from an ancient manuscript dating sometime between 1001 and 1100 CE. Image via National Library of Wales / Wikimedia Commons.

Bottom line: Leo the Lion, one of the easiest zodiacal constellations to find, starts its appearance in the evening sky in late March. It’s associated with the Nemean lion of Greek lore.

The constellations of the zodiac

Meet Taurus the Bull in the evening sky
Meet Gemini the Twins, home to 2 bright stars
Meet Cancer the Crab and its Beehive Cluster
Leo the Lion and its backward question mark
Virgo the Maiden in northern spring skies
Meet Libra the Scales, a zodiacal constellation
Scorpius the Scorpion is a summertime delight
Sagittarius the Archer and its famous Teapot
Capricornus the Sea-goat has an arrowhead shape
Meet Aquarius the Water Bearer and its stars
Meet Pisces the Fish, 1st constellation of the zodiac
Say hello to Aries the Ram
Born under the sign of Ophiuchus?

April 13, 2021

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