As our old Earth orbits the sun, we’re treated to nearly 70 constellations as the nighttime side of Earth faces different directions of space through the course of the year. Some constellations are bigger and brighter than others and get most of the attention, but don’t ignore the smaller and fainter gems. One of those gems is Coma Berenices, visible in the spring and through the first half of summer. It’s a faint and dim constellation, but its redeeming value is that it’s one of the minority of constellations that actually looks like what it’s supposed to be, locks of long flowing hair being tossed in a nocturnal breeze.
Finding Coma Berenices in the Shamokin night sky is a definite stargazing challenge if you have a lot of city lights, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to spot if you can get away to the countryside or you’re living out there already. Around 10 p.m. or so, when it’s finally dark enough this time of year, lie back in a lawn chair and gaze fairly high in the south-southwest sky, just below the Big Dipper’s handle. A pair of binoculars always helps in seeking the heavenly hair. Without a doubt, you’ll need to wear your imagination.
The central attraction of the constellation Coma Berenices is what’s known in astronomy circles as the Star Melotte Cluster. That’s what the heavenly hair is made of. The first cataloging of Coma Berenices that we know of was done by the famous early astronomer Ptolemy around 138 A.D. Since then, we’ve learned that it’s one of the closest star clusters to Earth, a little over 280 light years away. Before you make your travel plans, that equates to about 16 trillion miles away.
Like most open clusters, Coma Berenices is a very extended family of hundreds of stars that formed out of the same gravitationally collapsing hydrogen gas cloud about 400 to 600 million years ago. Believe it or not, that makes these relatively young stars. Eventually, this youthful cluster of nuclear fusion-powered stars will be ripped apart by gravity from other surrounding stars and this celestial nest will be emptied.
If you’re really far away from city light, just for fun, take a small telescope and pan around the vicinity of the Melotte Cluster and Coma Berenices. You’ll probably run into what I call “little fuzzies” here and there. Those little fuzzies are actually entire other galaxies in the Virgo cluster of galaxies, the nearest large cluster of galaxies to our own home galaxy. Some of these galaxies make our Milky Way look puny. While not terribly impressive through the eyepiece of your scope, keep in mind you’re looking at galaxies that are around 60 million light years away, and just 1 light year equals nearly 6 trillion miles. You are definitely looking out a long ways!
Coma Berenices is the only constellation named after an actual person. Queen Berenices was the wife of Ptolemy III, a famous Egyptian pharaoh who lived around 200 B.C. Around that time, he was leading his troops into a fierce war. Queen Berenices very much loved her husband and prayed to the gods for his safe return. In return, she made many promises to the deities, including promising to cut off all of her gorgeous hair if her husband returned safe and sound.
The gods did their part and Ptolemy returned victorious and without a scratch. True to her word, the queen cut off all her hair and dedicated it to the Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. But just days later, scoundrels seeking souvenirs liberated Berenices’ hair out of the temple. I’m not sure what they were going to do with it. They certainly couldn’t sell it on eBay, even if it was around back then.
When the hair heist was discovered, Ptolemy and Berenices were ready to roll some heads, literally. All of the temple priests were on death row finishing their last meal, within hours of the axe. But at the last minute, a traveling group of Greek consulting astronomers literally saved their necks. They pulled quite a con job. They convinced Ptolemy and Berenices to go out with them that night to see a brand new pale cluster of light high in the evening sky. They claimed that faint flowing star cluster was actually the clustered curls of the queen’s hair, and also claimed that Aphrodite and the other gods believed that the queen’s hair was just too beautiful for a single temple to possess. Berenices’ hair belongs in the heavens for all to see. Much to the relief of the temple priests, Berenices and Ptolemy bought this farce.
This Thursday and Friday evening, the very bright planet Venus will be joined by the new crescent moon.
On Friday night, the very thin crescent moon will be hanging just below Venus and on Saturday night the moon will be suspended just to the upper left of Venus.
Don’t miss it as it will be quite a sight. You should also be able to see entire disk of the moon.
The bright crescent part is caused directly by sunlight. The rest of the moon’s disk, bathed in dark grey, is second-hand sunlight bouncing off our Earth and onto the moon. That’s called earthshine.