Meet the constellation Leo Minor the Little Lion

Star chart: Lion-shaped constellation Leo below, and a few stars linked with lines above.
Leo Minor the Little Lion lies above the zodiac constellation Leo the Lion. It’s easiest to find on April evenings.

The ancients visualized the first constellations, drawing dot-to-dot figures out of the brightest stars and naming them after creatures and gods that were important to them. What was left were stretches of space between the well-known and bright stars, dark territories that have few stars, nebulae, clusters and galaxies. One of these dark regions is Leo Minor the Little Lion.

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The creation of Leo Minor

Johannes Hevelius named Leo Minor in the late 1600s. He also named other “empty” spaces of sky that were not originally parts of other constellations. Leo Minor means the Little Lion, which he chose because of its location near Leo the Lion.

Locating the Little Lion

Leo Minor is a constellation that’s easy to find but not easy to see. That’s because it’s sandwiched between two very well-known constellations but has no stars itself that are prominent.

Ursa Major and its Big Dipper lie above Leo Minor, and the great lion Leo lies below it. You can best see the constellation in April and May from either hemisphere. Sometimes the Little Lion is said to be standing on Leo’s back.

Stars of the Little Lion

It may be a challenge to pick out the triangular shape of Leo Minor. The brightest star in the constellation is 46 Leonis Minoris. It shines at magnitude 3.8, and lies 95 light-years away. It lies about 24 1/2 degrees above Regulus, or between the hind legs of Ursa Major. This not very bright star makes up the bottom left corner of Leo Minor’s triangle shape.

The top star in the triangle is Beta Leonis Minoris. It’s a double star system, with the brighter star shining at magnitude 4.2. The star system lies 146 light-years away.

The bottom right corner of this short and wide triangle is 21 Leonis Minoris, a magnitude-4.5 star lying 92 light-years distant.

Star chart with stars in black on white, with Leo Minor constellation labeled.
The stars of Leo Minor the Little Lion. Image via IAU.

Galaxies in Leo Minor

The only deep-sky objects of note in Leo Minor are all galaxies. While there are many galaxies in the background of the Little Lion, unfortunately, they are all rather dim. One area that is easy to target is immediately below the brightest star in Leo Minor, 46 Leonis Minoris. A mere 18 arcminutes below 46 Leonis Minoris is NGC 3442, a 13th-magnitude galaxy that you’ll need a large telescope to see.

One degree below NGC 3442 is a cluster of faint galaxies. The brightest here is NGC 3430 at magnitude 11.5. How many other galaxies can you spot through your telescope in this region of sky?

For one last galaxy, first look between the two stars that make up Leo the big lion’s back. Then, look 4 1/2 degrees up from the center of this line to find NGC 3344. This gorgeous 10th-magnitude spiral galaxy has a bright core. It lies about 25 million light-years from Earth!

Bottom line: Leo Minor the Little Lion is a dim constellation that sits upon the back of the larger Leo the Lion. See it in April and May skies.

April 30, 2024

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Kelly Kizer Whitt

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