Jimmy Westlake: How the lion lost its tail
March 24, 2014
Steamboat Springs — There are a number of star clusters visible to the unaided eye, such as the well known Pleiades and Beehive star clusters, but there is only one star cluster that forms a constellation all by itself.
You can see it high in the eastern sky on spring evenings as a splash of several dozen faint stars, not far from the familiar outline of the Big Dipper. This is our constellation called Coma Berenices, or Queen Berenice's Hair, and it is one of only a handful of constellations associated with a real person rather than a mythological one.
On ancient star charts, today's Coma Berenices constellation was shown instead as representing the tuft of hair on the end of the tail of Leo the Lion, located nearby. But, in 1602, the lion's tail was cut off and made into this new constellation by a man whose own nose was cut off in a duel by sword — famed Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.
Legend tells us that the constellation represents the hair of Egyptian Queen Berenice II, who lived around 245 BC. Apparently, she had made a vow to cut off her beautiful hair and place it in Aphrodite's temple if the goddess would return her husband, King Ptolemy III, safely from battle.
The king did return victorious from battle, and true to her vow, Berenice clipped off her beautiful locks and placed them in Aphrodite's temple as an offering. But, overnight, the tresses mysteriously disappeared. For some reason, the king suspected that the court astronomer, Conon of Samos, was responsible.
When questioned, the quick-thinking astronomer pointed skyward to an unnamed star cluster and explained that Aphrodite was so touched by the love offering that she had personally placed the queen's hair in the sky for all to see for eternity. It's a good thing that the king was unfamiliar with the starry sky or he might have recognized the star cluster as Leo's tail.
As it turned out, the king fell for this story and spared the astronomer's life. So, Leo loses his tail, but we gain Queen Berenice's hair.
The Coma Berenices star cluster is one of the nearest star clusters to Earth, lying only 280 light years away. For comparison, the more familiar Seven Sisters, or Pleiades star cluster, lies 440 light years away.
Far beyond the stars of our Coma Berenices star cluster, modern astronomers have discovered another kind of cluster — a cluster of over 3,000 galaxies, lying at a distance of 280 million light years. The Coma cluster of galaxies is one of the largest such clusters known to astronomers.
What we really have, then, is a cluster of galaxies hiding within a cluster of stars, disguised as Queen Berenice's beautiful hair. Look for the heavenly locks high in the eastern sky around 9 p.m. above the bright spring star Arcturus.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Westlake's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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