Hey, Sky Fans!
A lifetime ago, my not-yet-wife and I grabbed some carne adovada (the Garcia’s on Central Avenue was always the place) and some last-minute tickets, and went off to see a show at a local theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Picasso at the Lapin Agile, she told me, was written by Steve Martin. How could we not go?
Afterward, we strolled along empty streets and busy avenues under skies that were surprisingly deep and starry for just outside downtown. Orion and the broad and scattered stretch of nameless stars under Sirius led us back to our apartment.
I often think of Sirius as marking the rough boundary between the upper and lower parts of the sky. Under it, below around 30º from the horizon, has always been a favorite of mine, though it wasn’t until years after that night that I learned what stars and constellations hang around down there.
It usually doesn’t get the attention it should, but it’s a good stretch for us lazy sky fans. When we look “up” at those stars, it’s more like we’re looking out at them, watching them on a giant cosmic TV; no exhausting neck-bending needed. They march along just above the horizon on a celestial parade route for misfit constellations. It’s a great way to keep track of time, too. As grey has crept into my beard, and toddlers have turned into teenagers, I’ve spent countless chilly spring nights watching crows and cups come and go. Then as the nights grew hot and sticky, countless terrified scorpions ran screaming from maniacal teapots.
That night, coincidentally enough, mixed up in the fray was what has become one of my favorite of the low constellations. Lepus’s name is the Latin root of Lepin, the French word for rabbit. It’s one of Ptolemy’s original 48 constellations, and it almost actually looks a bit like what he wanted us to see. There aren’t a lot of myths associated with it, but my bent, folded, and Duct-taped copy of the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to the Night Sky (Knopf, 1991) explains that rabbits are often associated with the Moon. You can see this with China’s Yutu rover, whose name means Jade Rabbit. So maybe that’s where the constellation comes from.
It also suggests that maybe Orion might have been out hunting rabbits. I’m not sure I buy it. That’s quite a task while he was also fending off Taurus. Elmer Fudd he ain’t. I picture a busy rabbit hopping at Orion’s aching feet, distracting his dogs, splashing in and out of the river Eridanus, and generally irritating everyone, but, still… I say he does have to shoot me now!
So, here we are at the start of March. Even though the start of the northern hemisphere’s spring is just a couple of weeks away, these winter stars are still in the sky. Once darkness settles in, they start the night on the setting half of the sky; farther west than they were just a couple weeks ago.
With light pollution pushing the night away, Lepus is a bit of a challenge, I’ll admit. But let’s see what we can do. First, head out and find Orion.
In city or suburban skies, the only of Lepus’s stars that’s likely visible is Arneb (α Lep), a third-magnitude double anywhere from 900 to about 2200 LY away. It sits at the bottom of a small and spritely upside-down equilateral triangle about 10º below Saiph (κ Ori) and Rigel (β Ori), Orion’s knees. It’s always fun to try to imagine how big and luminous stars like it must be in order for us to see them from so far away. Along with Nihal (β Lep), it forms the middle part of the rabbit’s body. Toward the east (to our left) is Lepus’s hind quarters. If your skies cooperate, you should just be able to make out its ears poking through your local sky glow to the west of Arneb.
Over the years since that night, we’ve snapped our fingers and rebooted our lives a few times, but it wasn’t until we moved here that I was able to see Lepus’s full asterism, and it always brings me back to that night. It’s a challenge, but one that I’m always happy to try to see hopping along every spring.
I hope you’ll head out and take a look. Clear skies, everyone!