Leap Along With Lepus On February Nights

Beatrix, a Flemish giant rabbit at the Lake Superior Zoo, leaps from the ramp of her cage to fetch a biscuit on Groundhog Day. Beatrix saw her shadow, which according to tradition, means that winter will stick around for another six weeks. Bob King

Yesterday was Groundhog Day. Since there are no groundhogs in Duluth, the local zoo coaxes out a porcupine named Spike to play the role. If Spike sees his shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter, pretty much a foregone conclusion in Minnesota anyway. But this time around, the zoo folks switched it up and instead of Spike, we got Beatrix and Lorraine, a pair of Flemish giant rabbits. When food was offered, it wasn’t long before the bunnies left their warm straw and bounded down to the snow-covered ground nibble on the treat.

If you can find the three stars that make the Belt of Orion, you can locate Lepus the bunny. It’s directly below the bottom of Orion and to the right (west) of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Lepus and Orion both stand straight up south around 9 p.m. in early February. Arneb, from the Arabic al-arneb (the hare), is the brightest star, while Gamma (γ) Leporis is a binocular double. star. Stellarium

Seeing the bunnies reminded me of their celestial counterpart, Lepus the Hare. Lepus (LEE-puss) can be spotted any clear night in February on the run directly beneath Orion the Hunter. None of its stars is particularly bright, but from the outer suburbs or rural skies, you can make out just enough of the them to picture a rabbit with a tail and two ears. Arneb is the alpha or brightest star in the constellation, hence its other name, Alpha (α) Leporis — it’s about as bright as one of the stars that outline the Big Dipper.

To help you picture the bunny in Lepus, you can use the mythological image. Lepus is one of the ancient constellations — our ancestors were just as impressed with the animal’s fertility as we are. Stellarium

You’ve probably heard about Betelgeuse in Orion, a bright reddish star located about two fists north of Lepus. It’s a red supergiant star that will almost certainly collapse and then explode as a supernova when it exhausts its supply of nuclear fuel. Arneb, located about 2,200 light years away, is also a supernova candidate. Like Betelgeuse it’s enormous and massive: 129 times the size of the sun and 14 times as massive. Massive stars live extravagant and short lives measured in the tens of millions of years compared to the frugal sun, which being smaller and cooler, burns it fuel more slowly. In the big picture, both Arneb and Betelgeuse won’t be with us much longer, while more modest suns will stick around for tens to hundreds of billions of years.

The ancient Greeks knew Lepus as the hare or Lagoos; the name we use is Latin and more recent. While there are several deep sky objects in Lepus that require a telescope, anyone with a pair of 7x binoculars can split the double star Gamma (γ) Leporis located in one of the creature’s hind legs. Use Sirius and Arneb to find it. The companion is a 6th magnitude star lies close to and directly above Gamma.

Lepus always looked like a dragonfly to my eyes until I got to see it in a dark sky. Once you add in those four faint stars that outline its ears, the pattern transforms from insect to furry mammal. Hop on over for a look the next clear night 🙂




1 Response

  1. Edward M. Boll

    I thought that I had sent a statement about Comet 2017 S3. August magnitude guestimats that I have seen rank with a dimmest of magnitude 4 at perihelion to as bright as Venus. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. This Spring, it ought to break magnitude 18, if it has not done so yet.

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