Coma Berenices: a stunner in summer sky

  • By Mike Lynch
  • Friday, May 11, 2012 2:59pm
  • Life

Even though the evening constellations of spring are not known for their flashiness, it’s still worth staying up a little late for a night of stargazing. Three planets, Venus, Mars and Saturn, are stretched across the sky.

As evening twilight fades, Venus is shining very brightly in the low western sky. If you point a small telescope or a good pair of binoculars at it you’ll see that it’s shaped like a tiny crescent moon. Venus goes through phases like the moon, because its orbit around the sun is within Earth’s orbit around our home star.

Meanwhile Mars begins the evening in the high south-southwestern sky with its distinctive reddish glow. Despite being the brightest starlike object in that part of the sky, Mars isn’t really much of telescope target.

Because it’s only 4,000 miles in diameter you can’t see a whole lot of detail unless you have a larger scope, and even with that all you can see most nights on Mars are a few fuzzy dark spots, which are part of its extensive valley and canyon network.

Saturn is up in the southeastern evening sky and also easy to see. Just look for two stars right next to each other, one on the lower right and the other on the upper left. Saturn is the one on the upper left.

Saturn is by far the best planet to view through even a small telescope. You should easily be able to see Saturn’s 130,000-mile-plus diameter ring system and maybe some of its moons that resemble tiny little stars.

Even with the three bright planets we’re definitely in the star watching doldrums between the big show in the winter sky and the delights of the summer sky. Coma Berenices is one of the exceptions though.

It’s small and dim when in the city, but get out in the countryside just a little ways and you’ll like what you see. It has a great story.

Coma Berenices is one of the newer constellations, listed in 1602 as a constellation to honor Tycho Brahe, the famous and somewhat infamous astronomer who had died a year earlier. Tycho was the son of wealthy Danish nobility and became fascinated with astronomy when he witnessed a partial solar eclipse at the age of 14.

He marveled at how accurate the predictions were for the time and the extent of the eclipse. His parents set him up in an observatory on a Danish island. Later he moved to Prague at the invitation of the monarchy. He recorded years and years of observations, without a telescope, that went on to help many future astronomers.

Tycho was a partierm owever, and arrogant and combative. At the age of 20 he got into a barroom sword fight and got his nose cut off. He replaced his nose with an artificial one made of solid gold.

The main part of his constellation Coma Berenices looks like faint strands of hair flowing high in the south-southeastern sky just below the overhead zenith in the early evening, not far from the Big Dipper’s handle.

The “hair” is known by astronomers as the Melotte Star Cluster 111. It’s actually one of the closest star clusters to Earth, a little over 250 light-years away. That’s still 16 hundred-trillion miles away.

Coma Berenices is composed of hundreds of stars that formed out of the same gaseous nebulae about 400 to 600 million years ago.

According to mythology, Coma Berenices is named after Queen Berenices, the wife of the famous Egyptian Pharaoh, Ptolemy III, who cut off her hair and dedicated it to the temple of Aphrodite for her husband’s safe return from war.

Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores. Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.

The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.

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