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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.
This cluster of stars – known as Berenice’s Hair – is named for Queen Berenice II of Egypt, wife of Ptolemy III. In 243 BC, Ptolemy went to war. His newlywed bride, Berenice, swore to the goddess Aphrodite to sacrifice her long, blonde hair, of which she was extremely proud, if her husband returned safely. He did, and she had her hair cut and placed it in the goddess’ temple. The next morning, the hair had disappeared. To appease the furious king and queen, and save the temple priests, the court astronomer is said to have indicated a fuzzy patch of stars in the heavens – and said that the gods were so pleased with Berenice’s offering that they had placed her hair in the heavens, for all to see.
Today as in ancient times, the cluster known as Berenice’s Hair is one of the most beautiful sights in the heavens. You must have a dark sky to see it.
by Deborah Byrd
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