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Hair Up High

Late spring constellations over Minnesota and Western Wisconsin are admittedly not the brightest or flashiest during the course of the year, but there are some celestial treasures if you dig a little deeper into the night sky and can get away from some of the light pollution. A good example is the springtime constellation Coma Berenices, both small and dim. Its one redeeming value is that it’s one of those few constellations that sort of looks like what it’s supposed to be, locks of long flowing hair being tossed in a cosmic breeze.

I may be overselling this constellation a bit, but if you look fairly high in the southwest sky you will see a loose triangular cluster of stars. It may be a bit of a challenge to see Coma Berenices. You really have to be observing from the country side or least the last ring or so of suburbs. You might have to comb the high southwest sky with a pair of binoculars, but you should be able to find the heavenly hair.

Coma Berenices is actually more of a star cluster than a constellation, and it’s one of the closest clusters to the Earth, about 250 light years away. The Declaration of Independence wouldn’t be signed for another dozen years when the light you see tonight originated from those stars. If you translate light years into miles that makes the heavenly hair about 14 hundred trillion miles from your eyes!

Like most open clusters Coma Berenices is a very extended family of hundreds of stars that formed out of the same gaseous nebulae about 400 to 600 million years ago. These young stars won’t leave the nest, rather, the nest will be ripped apart by gravity from other surrounding stars, and the adult stars will go their separate 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. According to this sordid tale the great Pharaoh was leading his troops into a fierce war and everyone knew it was going to get real ugly. Queen Berenices was scared to death! She prayed and prayed to every god she knew for his safe return. She was so desperate to see him again in one piece that she bargained her beautiful hair to the deities in return for the safe and sound return of her hubby.

The gods kept their end of the deal and about a year later Ptolemy returned victorious but a little worse for the wear. True to her word, the queen cut off all of her hair and dedicated it to the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Just when it looked like everything was done and dusted malicious scoundrels hoisted Berenices’ hair out of the temple. When the hair heist was discovered, Ptolemy and Berenices were ready to roll some heads, literally! All of the temple priests were in charge of security and they dropped the ball! They all were just hours away from a brutal execution.

Luckily while on death row one of the priests got the word out to some buddy astronomers in a neighboring town. They got the lowdown on what was going down and devised a scheme to save the lives of the priests. The noble and respected astronomers requested an audience with Ptolemy and Berenices. They conned the royal couple to go out with them that night to see a brand new pale cluster of lights high in the sky. “Look!” they exclaimed, “do you not see the clustered curls of the queen’s hair?” They continued, “Aphrodite and the other gods must have believed that the queen’s hair was just too beautiful for a single temple to possess, it more rightly belongs in the heavens for all to see!” The truth was that cluster was not new, but had always adorned that part of the night sky.

Much to the relief of the temple priests, Berenices and Ptolemy didn’t know the stars all that well and swallowed this line of bull. Consulting astronomers can be very convincing!

DIAGRAM OF Coma Berenices. Click here