Hunting The Hare

Nestled below Orion is a lazy cross of stars. This is Lepus the Hare. A somewhat small constellation that measures only 290 square degrees of sky, making it 51st in overall size. The Hare seems to be chased by Orion’s two hunting dogs, named Sirius and Procyon. Lepus does have the distinction of being the first constellation catalogued by Ptolemy in the second century BC. The bright star at the centre of the asterism is named Arneb, from the Arabic meaning “the Hare”. The alpha star is about 1,300 light-years away and shines at magnitude 2.5. It is a spectral class F0 supergiant that is 13,000 times brighter than the Sun and 75 times its diameter. If placed in our solar system Arneb would reach the orbit of Mercury.

A few choice objects inhabit Lepus such as the large galaxy NGC 1744. Measuring 7.5 by 3.5 arc minutes, this barred spiral galaxy is located 34 million light-years away. Although it has a magnitude value of 11.1, its face-on orientation makes this galaxy a bit difficult to spot. It can be found at the bottom right side of the constellation and about four degrees south of Epsilon Leporis.


Moving east we come across the only Messier object associated with Lepus. M79 is a highly resolved globular cluster that lies 42,000 light-years from us and 118 light-years wide. By galactic standards, this object is far from home as most globular clusters tend to reside close to the centre of the Milky Way and not 60,000 light-years away. M79 measures 9.3 arc minutes wide or about a third the size of the full moon. At magnitude 7.7, it is an easy binocular object.

Located at the top of Lepus is IC418. Dubbed the Spirograph Nebula because of its similar design from the mid-1960’s drawing toy, its intricate structure is still a puzzle to scientists. This planetary nebula is located some 2,000 light-years away and measures about a third of a light-year across.

For a two week period commencing Feb 13, head out to dark skies to view and photograph the zodiacal lights in the west. This glow is leftover interplanetary dust from the early creation of the solar system. The best times to see this band is close to the spring and fall equinox. The zodiacal lights are angled along the ecliptic (zodiac) from the horizon to a bit south of the Pleiades. If the weather is not in your favour, you will also have a two-week window in March.

The two western planets are now separating with Venus and are starting to pull away from Mars and sinking down to the west. At the beginning of the month, Venus is only 39% lit as seen through a telescope and by month’s end, its large but thin crescent will be a mere 15% lit. It will be at its brightest on the 17th at magnitude -4.34.

Jupiter now rises around midnight local time with the star Spica a few degrees south of the planet. By comparison, Jupiter is 42 light minutes away while the star is 250 light-years from us. Saturn has now crossed into the morning sky and is seen rising from the southeast by 5 a.m. local time to the left of Scorpius.

There will be a penumbral lunar eclipse on February 10 from 22:32 UT to 2:55 UT on the morning of the 11th. The full Snow Moon will slide into the outer portion of the Earth’s shadow. Unlike the dramatic colour change of a total lunar eclipse when the Moon turns orange, the penumbral event is hardly noticeable. Two weeks later on the 26, there will be an annular solar eclipse seen from the lower portion of South America, the Atlantic Ocean and the western part of Africa.

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

Twitter: @astroeducator

eNews date: 
Wednesday, February 1, 2017