Stargazers: Sometimes the sky comes alive


Just about every indigenous culture on Earth established a unique set of constellations in their sky. We in the West recognize those created primarily by the Greeks and early European astronomers and explorers. They cover the entire celestial sphere from pole to pole, and represent objects, animals and even people from mythological stories.

But every once in awhile we come across one that's actually associated with a real person. Such is the case this week if we head outdoors shortly after dark and look skyward.

There, high in the northeastern sky, you should easily spot the Big Dipper, which is not really a constellation, but an asterism: a group of stars that seems to outline something familiar. Follow the curve of the Dipper's handle away from its bowl, and you will encounter the bright yellowish-orange star Arcturus, and eventually the bluish-white star Spica low in the southeast.

It is within the arc formed by these three celestial points that we find the small faint constellation known as Coma Berenices, which represents the beautiful amber hair of the ancient Egyptian Queen Berenice II, the wife of King Ptolemy III (also known as Ptolemy Euergetes).

The story of Coma Berenices tells that Ptolemy, in order to avenge the murder of his sister, waged a long war against the Assyrians. To honor his safe return, Berenice had her beautiful tresses ceremoniously clipped and laid out on the temple altar to present to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty.

Later that evening as the celebration continued, someone discovered that the hair was missing. To prevent terrible panic, the astronomer Conon of Samos proclaimed that Aphrodite had graciously accepted the gift, and that she had honored the beautiful hair by placing it in the heavens. And sure enough, we can now see it there in the sky, right where Aphrodite placed it so many centuries ago.

While the story of Berenice's hair is old, the constellation itself is relatively new. In fact, it wasn't even created until the 16th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe sketched it on his sky maps.

The brightest star in this constellation is known as Beta Comae. It's about one-and-a-half times larger and more than three times more luminous than our own sun, but it appears quite faint in our sky.

Today, astronomers recognize that Coma Berenices contains a star cluster visible to the eye as a hazy cloud of stars. If you have a dark sky that's unpolluted with light, aim binoculars in its direction and you'll easily see more than three dozen stars making up the beautiful open cluster known as the Coma Star Cluster. At a distance of 270 light-years, this swarm is one of the nearest to Earth.

Though the constellation is small and faint, it is quite a fertile region for stargazers with optical help. At least eight galaxies beyond our own Milky Way appear in this direction, and all are well within range using small backyard telescopes.

During the next month or so, Coma Berenices will appear higher in the early evening sky, so be sure to get out and search for this delicate and beautiful stellar tribute to Egypt's Queen Berenice!

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