Lepus, the Rabbit
lies directly south of the great hunter, Orion, and so it is nicely suited for viewing in February evening skies. It was the Greeks who named this constellation, envisioning the hare eluding Orion’s hunting dog, Canis Major, as the groups fly across the sky toward the river Eridanus just to the west of them.

In the Chinese calendar, the year begins on the second new Moon after the winter solstice. In this system, years are given three names, which repeat in a cycle of 60 years, corresponding to a man’s expected life. First, each year is either an elder or a younger year. Then, each pair of years is named after one of five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal and water. And third, each year is related to one of the twelve Zodiac animals—Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram, Monkey, Cock, Dog, and Boar, in that order. The current cycle began in 1924—the year of the founding of the Eastbay Astronomical Society—the Year of the Elder Wood Rat.

In ancient Egypt the stars we know as Orion were worshipped as an all-powerful god. Descriptions in the pyramid tomb of the fifth dynasty Pharaoh Unas, who reigned about 4300 bc, speak of the dead monarch as having risen into the heavens to become one with the god Sahu (the stars of Orion), ranging through the skies hunting down the lesser gods. He would tear the flesh of these gods and feed, in order to absorb their magic abilities. For it was a common belief among primitive peoples that the character of a man or animal is contained in his flesh and blood; and to eat of a stag would bring swiftness, to eat of a rabbit would bring timidity, to eat of a human warrior would bring strength and courage.

Later, these stars, still identified as deities, became Osiris, the Sun god who ruled supreme in Egyptian religion. At times he was portrayed as sailing down the long river of the sky in a boat, the little constellation of Lepus. Considering the size of Osiris (giant Orion) and the size of the boat (tiny Lepus), this must have been a rather precarious journey. Regardless, these stars below the great hunter's feet have been known as the Boat of Osiris.
The four major stars of Lepus form an easily recognizable trapezoid. Although the stars of Lepus are few and not very bright, still there are a number of objects here for binoculars or the small telescope.

Hind's Crimson Star (R Leporis) is a long-period variable of a deep red color. It was discovered by J. R. Hind in London in 1845. The brightness varies from 6th to 10th magnitude about every 432 days.

The brightest star in Lepus is Arneb, Alpha Leporis. It is a second magnitude star with a very faint companion. It may be found about ten degrees south-southeast of Rigel. Gamma Leporis is a double consisting of a yellow 4th magnitude and a red 6th magnitude star. These stars, separated by 95 seconds, form an attractive pair for binoculars.

Herschel 3752 is a nice triple star visible in small telescopes. The well-resolved globular cluster M79 is quite compact and a good object for small telescopes. It lies close to Herschel 3752. M79 was discovered by Messier's associate Méchain in 1780. About 50,000 light years distant, it is seen as an object of just under tenth magnitude, about 9 arcminutes across.

These images of the globular cluster M79 are from the Astro-1 Space Shuttle mission (STS-35). On the left, the object is seen in visible light, while the image on the right is in ultraviolet.

Binoculars and small telescopes will show the open star cluster NGC 2017 as five stars of a multiple star system. The brightness of the stars range from 6th to 10th magnitude. Two of the stars are close binaries, but to split the components a telescope with an aperture of at least six inches is required. So the total number of stars of this group is seven.

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