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Explaining the science and mythology behind the constellation of Leo

The Leo constellation on night sky with cloud and stars.
Stock Adobe
The Leo constellation on night sky with cloud and stars.

Do you know your zodiac sign? Would you know how to find it in the night sky? To help us learn about the astronomy and mythology behind the zodiac, astronomy contributor Jean Creighton, director of UW-Milwaukee’s Manfred Olson Planetarium, joins Lake Effect.

The planetarium has been hosting a new Constellations of the Zodiac series, and this month they are highlighting Leo.

"Leo looks like a backward question mark, and a great way of finding it is if you imagine the Bigger Dipper — which I often describe as a shopping cart with a long, curvy handle — image that the shopping cart has a leak and is dripping. The water hits the head of Leo and irritates him, which is a great way of remembering where Leo is," says Creighton.

Leo has 13 stars with planets in it, as well as many galaxies, according to Creighton — from classic & bard spiral galaxies, elliptical, and "irregular" galaxies. "That's usually because a galaxy or two are interacting and they don't have yet some beautifully formed final shape, but they're still kind of messy," she explains.

As for the mythology of Leo, it's connected to Hercules' story, which is often the case for zodiacs. Defeating Leo was Hercules' first labor, but Leo's skin was impenetrable by most man-made weapons, according to Creighton.

"Hercules fought the lion for 40 days and 40 nights with his bare hands, the story goes, until eventually he strangled the lion," she says. He took one of Leo's claws to cut the lion skin and wore the lion skin not just to brag about his victory, but to protect himself.

"Zeus wanted to honor the wonderful beautiful lion, and that's why Leo got to be in the sky as well," adds Creighton. "In fact ... the 21st brightest star is called Regulus. After all, that is a kingly name for the kingly lion, and that is a star that we can see in the city."

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Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Dr. Jean Creighton has always been inspired by how the cosmos works. She was born in Toronto, Ontario and grew up in Athens, Greece where her mother claims she showed a great interest in how stars form from the age of five.
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