Use a bear to find a lion? I can’t think of a better way. In late February, the Big Dipper stands on its handle in the northeastern sky at nightfall. Can’t miss it. The handle is actually the tail of the Great Bear called Ursa Major. The Dipper forms only the brightest part of the bear with handle representing the tail and the bucket the bear’s torso. Fainter stars extends in short chains from the Dipper to fashion the head, legs and claws.
It’s a beautiful constellation in total when viewed from a dark sky because it strongly resembles a real bear on all fours nosing through the forest. Along with Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper is one of the most recognizable star groups in the sky. That’s why we’re going to use it to point to a less familiar constellation, Leo the lion.
First, you’ll need a clear night with a view to the north. Focus your attention on the Dipper’s Bowl and then pivot to the right to face east-northeast. Ball your fist and hold it at arm’s length horizontally against the sky. If you “touch” the left end of your fist to the bottom of the Bowl and mark off a little more than three fists to the lower right, you’ll see a sickle-shaped group of stars with a bright star at its bottom. That’s the head of Leo the lion. Because it resembles a farming tool called a sickle that’s its nickname. Others see it a backwards question mark. The bright star at the bottom of the Sickle is called Regulus, Latin for “little king.”
Once you’ve located the Sickle, slide a fist and half below and to the left of Regulus to find the triangle of stars that form the lion’s rump and tail. See how easy that was? If houses or trees compromise your view of the eastern sky wait an hour and look again. In that time Leo will have risen more than fist higher and be easier to see.
Leo is one of the zodiac constellations, the ones the sun, moon and planets travel through as they make their rounds about the sky. Right now, Leo is planet-less and moonless. If you learn to recognize the group, you’ll also know when it hosts a planet because it will appear as a bright star that doesn’t belong there.
All the planets orbit the sun in the same flat plane. That plane projected against the sky is called the ecliptic, and the ecliptic runs straight through all 12 constellations of the zodiac. Get to know them all, and you’ll always know where the planets are. What better place to start than with a lion.