I hope you have been having better clear-sky observing opportunities than me. Recently, my free evenings have been appallingly coincident with overcast skies.
Last month, I wrote about Cancer. Although it is one of the dimmest constellations, most people have heard about it because it is part of the zodiac.
This month, I want to focus on Coma Berenices, another dim constellation now high in the sky, but one that many people haven’t heard of. The translation of the name means Berenice’s Hair.
Queen Berenice of Egypt was a real person, the wife of Ptolemy III. When Ptolemy went to fight a war, Berenice swore to sacrifice her (apparently very beautiful) hair to the goddess Aphrodite if Ptolemy returned safely. He did, so she cut off her hair and placed it on the altar.
Sometime during the night, someone stole the hair. Ptolemy was furious. Conon of Samos, the court astronomer (and accomplished mathematician), was supposedly watching the altar. He might have been killed by Ptolemy if he hadn’t been a quick thinker. He pointed to the faint cluster of stars and said the sacrifice was accepted, and the hair was now in the sky!
Coma Berenices did not appear on celestial maps as a separate constellation until the 16th century. Before that, the faint stars were considered to be the tuft at the end of the tail of Leo. You can find Coma Berenices by looking from Leo to the east, toward the bright star Arcturus. But look under dark skies – the brightest star is only magnitude 4.2.
What it lacks in bright stars, Coma Berenices makes up for in interesting telescope targets. It is home to eight Messier objects. M53 is a globular cluster very close to one of the brighter stars in the constellation, so relatively easy to find in a telescope. M64, the Black Eye galaxy, is near the center of the constellation. The edge of the Virgo cluster of galaxies crosses into Coma Berenices. Beside those galaxies that have Messier numbers, many more can be seen with even a modest 6-inch or 8-inch telescope. Unfortunately, most will appear only as fuzzy blobs.
Venus and Jupiter are still dominating the evening sky. If you stay up past midnight, the summer Milky Way is finally showing itself. Saturn is now in Scorpius, so it will be rising later, never getting very high above the southern horizon this year.
Look for Mercury in the western sky at sunset around May 7, when it will be at its greatest angle from the sun.
email@example.com. Charles Hakes is an assistant professor in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College and is director of the Fort Lewis Observatory.