Riding the Ecliptic

Some of the sky’s brightest sites travel this road through the heavens

The waning gibbous moon rises around 7:45pm Friday, January 21. Look a half-dozen degrees above it for the blue-white star Regulus, the heart of Leo the lion. Just as the lion is the king of beasts, Leo is the king of the constellations. In Latin, regulus means little king. The star is located right on the ecliptic, the apparent path of the sun, moon, planets and the constellations of the zodiac, meaning that at times during each year it rises with the sun, giving it great powers throughout cultures of yore.

And unlike many constellations, Leo actually looks like a lion lying prone. Stretching upward from Regulus, see if you can connect the dots forming the inverted question mark of the lion’s head, an asterism called the Sickle of Leo. The lion’s body extends backward from Regulus with a bright triangle of stars forming the lion’s hind end, the brightest of which, Denebola, marks the tip of the lion’s tail. While Regulus was associated with luck, power and wealth, Denebola brought misfortune and suffering.

By Monday, the moon rises a little before midnight, joining with the two bright lights of Saturn and Spica to form a tight triangle. Of the two, Saturn is higher as well as noticeably brighter than Spica, the main star of the constellation Virgo. 

Like Leo, the origins of Virgo date to antiquity, where she was seen as the Great Goddess. Virgo, too, rides the ecliptic. At times each year, the sun rises with Spica, and during the dawn of civilization they rose together during harvest time. As Virgo and Spica set from view each year, they mark the end of the fertile season and the emergence of winter, while their reappearance marks the return of life to the land.

Wednesday the last-quarter moon rises after midnight, now trailing Spica by 10 degrees, and the two join with Saturn, 10 degrees farther, to form a near-straight line.