Whether you're a dog lover or a cat person, there's something in the sky for you at the moment.
In our current late evening sky, we have three constellations that represent no fewer than four dogs — the Big and Little Dogs (Canis Major and Minor) and two Hunting Dogs (Canes Venatici). They're sharing space with three big cats, Leo, Leo Minor, and Lynx, which are all found relatively close together.
While wild cats are well represented overhead, there is not a single domestic feline in the heavens, a situation that contrasts starkly with the situation on the ground. The United States cat population is significantly higher than the dog population (82 million versus 72 million), according to Hal Herzog, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University. [ Amazing Night Sky Photos by Stargazers for February ]
This despite the fact that 74 percent of Americans identify as dog lovers compared to 41 percent who like cats, according to a recent poll. (Herzog says that people tend to own multiple cats, as they are more amenable to many people's lifestyles.)
Defunct celestial feline
At one time there was indeed a domestic cat among the stars. Two centuries ago, some star atlases depicted a cat: Felis, the creation of an 18th-century Frenchman, Joseph Jerome Le Francais de Lalande (1732-1807).
He explained his choice: "I am very fond of cats. I will let this figure scratch on the chart. The starry sky has worried me quite enough in my life, so that now I can have my joke with it."
I often wonder whether Australian cartoonist/film entrepreneur Pat Sullivan had the name Felis in the back of his mind when he created his anthropomorphic black cartoon cat, Felix, in 1923.
As the winter stars begin to shift toward the west, the lion Leo dominates high in the southern sky during the late evening hours. Leo is among the most ancient of the constellations, with a backward-question-mark curve of six stars in the creature's head appearing to form a large stellar sickle. [ Photos: The Biggest Lions on Earth ]
Blue-white Regulus is the brightest of these at the end of the sickle's handle yet the faintest of the 21 stars in the first-magnitude category. Regulus is 69 light years away and has a luminosity 110 times that of our sun. As the brightest star in the constellation Leo, Regulus has been almost universally associated in ancient cultures with the concept of royalty and kingly power. This star lies in the handle of the so-called "Sickle of Leo."
On March 20, Regulus will likely garner considerable publicity when an asteroid passes in front of this star and causes it to briefly disappear from view for fortuitously placed observers living along a narrow path that will cross New York State. More on this next month.
To modern skywatchers, the sickle outlines the majestic head and mane of a great westward-facing lion.
The lion most closely associated with this constellation is the Nemean one — the mythological beast that terrorized the Valley of Nemea and was unaffected by ordinary weaponry (such as arrows and spears) due to its impenetrable hide. Another story regarding the Egyptian concept of the Lion associates it with the Sphinx, that famous giant half-lion, half-human sculpture in the desert.
Eastward from the sickle there is a right triangle of stars that also belongs to Leo. At the eastern point of this triangle you will find Denebola, marking the tip of the Lion's tail.
The lynx and a smaller lion
Lynx is one of only two animal constellations that has identical Latin and English names (the other is Phoenix). This celestial feline is rather dim and hard to visualize. Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687), a 17th-century Renaissance man, placed it in the sky.
Besides being an astronomer, Hevelius was an artist, engraver, a well-to-do man of affairs and a leading citizen of Danzig, Poland. Interestingly, the old astronomy books and sky charts, which depicted the constellations as allegorical drawings, placed the lucida (brightest star) of Lynx in the tuft of its tail. And from these drawings it would seem that nearby Leo Minor, the Smaller Lion, is about to provoke a cat fight by biting Lynx's tail (me-OW!).
Although the telescope was just coming into general use during Hevelius' time, he openly rejected the new invention. In his star atlas of 1690, he actually tucked a cartoon into the corner of one sky chart showing a cherub holding a card with the Latin motto "The naked eye is best." In creating Lynx, Hevelius chose a cat-like animal that possesses excellent eyesight. Lynx itself is a region chiefly devoid of bright stars, and Hevelius openly admitted that you would have to have a the eyes of a lynx to see it!
Editor's note: If you have an amazing picture of a constellation or any other night sky view that you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, send photos, comments and your name and location to managing editor Tariq Malik at email@example.com.
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmer's Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, N.Y. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.
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