Courtesy of EarthSky
A Clear Voice for Science
What we are about to describe requires a dark sky to be seen: a faraway cluster of stars known as “Coma Berenices.”
How can you spot it? One way is to use the famous constellation Leo the Lion, now in the east each evening. Leo is relatively easy to see. The front part of the Lion looks like a backwards question mark, and the back part is a little triangle, which includes the star Denebola, marked on today’s chart. The word Deneb in a star name always means tail, and this star marks the tail of Leo.
Imagine that Leo is holding his tail out. In the place where you might see a “puff” at the end of the Lion’s tail, you will notice a fuzzy patch not too far away from Denebola. This is the constellation Coma Berenices, or Berenice’s Hair. Indeed, the constellation Coma Berenices once was considered part of the constellation Leo.
The constellation Coma Berenices contains the Coma star “cluster.” This is an open cluster, a loose collection of stars held together by gravity.
The Coma cluster is estimated to be about 288 light years away and has at least 37 known stars that are 400 million years old. It is the third-closest open cluster to our Earth and sun. Only the Ursa Major cluster (the bowl stars of the Big Dipper) and the Hyades cluster (the head of Taurus) are closer.
Viewing Tip: To enhance your view of the Coma star cluster, take a paper towel tube or roll up some dark paper into a tube and place it to your eye. The tube will shield your eye from the glare of any ground lights. Binoculars or opera glasses will also lead to a better viewing experience.
Written by Deborah Byrd