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Springís constellations are in bloom even if spring isnít

Turn your eyes skyward and its spring. Leo the lion is marching regally across the sky to the south southeast. You can identify his front half by the Sickle-shaped arc of stars sprouting up from the bright star Regulus or Lions Heart.

Leo has the honour of being one of the few constellations that actually resembles its namesake Ė no mind altering substances required, just a star chart and a clear night.

In front of Leoís nose is Cancer the crab. In this dim, K-shaped critter youíll find two open star clusters. One is Messier object 44 or M44.

Also known as Praesepe (Pray-Sepp-Ee) M44 is a dim patch of light that was once thought to be a thin spot in heavenís floor. The souls of the departed were said to enter Heaven through it. From a dark observing site it is a naked eye target and a real treat in binoculars. The second star cluster is known as M67 and requires a telescope.

Leo is a lionly treasure chest of galaxies. To his front are M95, M96 and M105. To the rear in his haunches are M65 and M66. A telescope with a wide field of view will also draw NGC 3628 into the same field of view. Bingo, youíve got the famous Leo Trio in your eyepiece! But weíre not done with his majesty yet.

Lionís have a tail and in Leoís case itís a large tuft of stars known as Coma Berenices. Coma Berenices is now one of the 88 constellations and is visible with the naked eye from a dark rural site. It is a lovely swim of stars in binoculars.

This large open cluster represents the beautiful tresses of Queen Berenices Queen of Egypt who pledged to cut them off and leave them at a temple if her husband returned safely from war. He did. She did. And now they look down from the night sky.

Also in the spring sky is Virgo the Virgin. Known as the goddess of fertility, she is an appropriate choice for this time of planting and celebrating winterís end. But she doesnít travel alone. Accompanying her is the Angry Red Planet, Mars.

In mythology Mars is the god of war which goes with the planetís blood-red colour. Actually the planetís red glow comes from iron oxide on its surface. And what is iron oxide? Rust is what they call it at the auto-body shop.

Mars will rise about 10:00, so you donít need to lose any sleep waiting to spot the little red ball. On April 8 it will be at opposition Ė directly opposite Earth and the Sun. So we will see it rise as the Sun sets.

Saturn is in the constellation Libra, the scales of justice. Rise time during March is about midnight, so youíd best catch a nap if the ringed thing is one of your targets.

This year Saturn is favourably inclined from Earthís point of view, so the rings should show beautifully in a telescope. Binocular observers will see the planet as an oblong football shaped object thanks to its rings.

Thatís your spring tonic of constellations. Anyone with a real interest in observing should pick up a copy of Terrence Dickinsonís NightWatch. It has great star charts that are easy to read and plenty of text to give you background information.

John can be reached via www.buckhornobservatory.com.

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