Jimmy Westlake: Berenice's Hair

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Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

— There are a number of star clusters visible to the unaided eye, such as the well-known Pleiades and the Beehive 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 April evenings as a smattering of several dozen faint stars. This is the constellation we call Coma Berenices, or Queen Berenice's Hair, and it is one of only a few constellations associated with a real person rather than a mythological one.

On ancient star charts, the Coma Berenices star cluster is shown as representing the tuft of hair on the end of the tail of Leo the Lion, located nearby, but, in 1602, famed Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe designated it as a distinct and separate constellation on his star charts for the first time.

Legend tells us that the constellation represents the hair of Egyptian Queen Berenice II, who lived about 245 B.C. Apparently, she had made a promise to cut off her beautiful hair and place it in the temple of the goddess Aphrodite if Aphrodite would return her husband, King Ptolemy III, safely from battle. The king returned from battle unharmed and so, true to her vow, Berenice clipped off her golden hair and placed it 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 and, 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. Apparently, the king bought this story and spared the astronomer's life, so, Leo loses a tail, but we gain Queen Berenice's Hair.

When you gaze upward at Coma Berenices tonight, consider that you are looking straight up out of the top of our pancake-shaped Milky Way galaxy and into the depths of intergalactic space. The hazy band of the Milky Way encircles you along the horizon.

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 using large telescopes have discovered another kind of cluster, a cluster of more than 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 within a cluster, disguised as Queen Berenice's beautiful hair.

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