Sky ArchiveTonight

Late May: Moon in Leo the Lion

After darkness falls on May 28, 29 and 30, 2020, watch the moon as it travels in front of the constellation Leo the Lion. When the moon first enters Leo, it’ll display a rather wide waxing crescent phase. When the moon finally leaves Leo a few days later, it’ll show a waxing gibbous phase. Midway though its trek in Leo, the moon will exhibit its half-illuminated first quarter phase.

The moon reaches its first quarter phase on May 30, at 3:30 UTC. At United States time zones, that means the first quarter moon comes on May 29, at 11:30 p.m EDT, 10:30 p.m. CDT, 9:30 p.m. MDT and 8:30 p.m. PDT.

The moon’s passage through Leo can help you identify Regulus, Leo’s brightest star. This blue-white gem of a star is of 1st-magnitude brightness and is the 21st brightest star to light up the nighttime sky.

The name Regulus means “little king.”

The moon is close to Regulus for only a few days each month. So when the moon is no longer there to guide you, let the Big Dipper serve as your handy guide to this star. The two bowl stars on the handle side of the Big Dipper faithfully point to Regulus. See the chart below.

Chart: Big Dipper with arrows pointing to upper left Arcturus and lower left Regulus.
Use the Big Dipper to locate the bright stars Arcturus and Regulus.

The color of Regulus – blue-white – reveals that this star has a high surface temperature. Considering that Regulus is nearly 80 light-years away, it must be quite luminous (intrinsically bright) to shine so brightly in Earth’s sky. Regulus is several hundred times more luminous than our sun. At Regulus’ distance, our sun would be not be visible to the unaided eye.

Normally, a star’s blue-white color indicates that the star is in the heyday of youth (only 50 to 100 million years old). But Regulus has a very close companion star which can’t be seen through a telescope; it can only be detected with a spectroscope. It’s thought that Regulus’ companion could be a white dwarf star, in which case Regulus and its companion star would have to be at least a billion years old. Possibly, mass transfer of material from one star to the other in this close-knit binary star system acts as a fountain of youth, keeping Regulus young in its old age.

Regulus is the only 1st-magnitude star to sit almost squarely on the ecliptic – the sun’s apparent yearly pathway in front of the constellations of the zodiac. Of course, the sun’s apparent motion in front of the stars is really a reflection of our planet Earth’s revolution around the sun.

Looking at the sky chart below, notice that Regulus dots a backwards question mark of stars, called The Sickle. The Sickle outlines the Lion’s head and mane, whereas the star Denebola (whose name means “tail of the lion” in Arabic) marks the Lion’s tail.

Star chart of the constellation Leo the Lion with stars in black on white.
Chart of the constellation Leo via the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The ecliptic depicts the annual pathway of the sun in front of the constellations of the zodiac. The sun passes in front of the constellation Leo each year from around August 10 to September 17, and has its yearly conjunction with the star Regulus on or near August 23.

Bottom line: On May 28, 29 and 30, 2020, use the moon to locate the constellation Leo and its bright star Regulus. Once the moon leaves the evening sky, starting around mid-June 2020, try to piece together the starlit figure of the Lion in a dark sky.

Go to Heavens-Above Moon to find out the moon’s present phase and its present position on the zodiac

May 27, 2020
Sky Archive

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Bruce McClure

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