Popular Astronomy

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Coma Berenices, Berenices' Hair

If you draw a line between the bright star Arcturus in Boötes across to Denebola in Leo, roughly in the middle of that line you will come to the faint constellation of Coma Berenices (Berenice’s Hair). It wasn’t always a constellation in its own right, and was originally part of Leo as the tuft of hair on the lion’s tail.

Berenice was the beautiful wife of Ptolemy III of Egypt. She was famous for her long hair which she promised to cut off if her husband returned safely from fighting the Assyrians. He did, and she put her hair on the altar in the temple of the goddess Aphrodite. The next day the hair wasn’t there. To save everyone’s neck, the quick-thinking court astronomer, Conon of Samos, came up with an explanation for the missing hair. He pointed to a cluster of stars in Leo’s tail and said that the gods had been so pleased with the sacrifice that this was where the hair could now be found. That's the story, but in actual fact it was the famous Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, who first identified Coma Berenices as a constellation in its own right.

Map of Coma Berenices
For hints on understanding the star map, please click here

Things to look for in Coma

Coma Star Cluster
There are no bright stars worth mentioning, but there are a couple of interesting things to look for. One is so large and obvious that it didn't get into the main catalogues of fuzzy objects – the Coma Star Cluster (also known as Melotte 111). Though you can see it with the naked eye on a good night this is a really fine object in binoculars and contains about 40 stars in a ‘V’ shape (right). The cluster is about 280 light years away. Another object visible in binoculars is the globular cluster M53, which appears as a tiny smudge of light.

Other than that, the area is rich in galaxies being at the northern part of the Virgo Cluster but you will need a detailed star map, a good telescope and a dark sky to hunt them down.

Text by Geoff Knight