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Comb the spring evening sky for the heavenly locks of hair

Stolen hair leads to lore behind Coma Berenices constellation.

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SW DIAGRAM A FOR MAY 20-22, 2022.jpg
The constellation Coma Berenices near the star Arcturus.
Contributed photo

Stargazing is always a lot of fun year-round, but if there's a slow time of year, this is it. The spring constellations just don't have the same razzmatazz that the winter constellations do. As soon as it's dark enough, and that's not until about 9:30 these nights, you'll find what’s left of the great winter shiners in the western and southwestern sky.

The bright stars of Gemini the Twins, Auriga the Charioteer, and Canis Minor are still hanging high above the horizon, saying their long goodbye from our evening sky.

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There are only three bright stars in the southeastern portion of the sky these late spring evenings; Arcturus in the constellation Bootes the Hunting Farmer, Spica in the faint constellation Virgo the Virgin, and Vega in Lyra the Harp. The rest of the stars in the eastern heavens are definitely a little ho-hum.

The spring constellation Coma Berenices, or Berenice's Hair, is also a little ho-hum when it comes to brightness, but if you can view it in the dark skies of the countryside, you'll come to appreciate its true beauty. It really does resemble flowing hair, and the tale about how it wound up in the heavens is based on a true story. No other constellation can really claim that.

To find Coma Berenices in the dark rural skies, face south as darkness sets in.

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Look for the brightest star you can see. That’s Arcturus, about halfway from the horizon to the overhead zenith. The flowing celestial hair will be about 25 degrees to the upper right of Arcturus, about two and a half fist-widths held at arm's length. The darker the sky, the lovelier the locks of heavenly hair will be.

Coma Berenices is more of a star cluster than a constellation. Open star clusters are super large families of young stars born together out of the same gigantic cloud of hydrogen gas. The stars of Coma Berenices are around 250 light-years away. Close, but not exactly a hop, skip and jump either.

The story of the faint constellation, or star cluster, is based on Queen Berenices of Egypt, the wife of the famous Pharaoh Ptolemy III, who lived around 200 B.C. Around that time, Ptolemy was leading his troops into a fierce war. Queen Berenices, a very devoted spouse, prayed to the gods for his safe return. She loved her hubby so much that she promised the gods to cut off all of her beautiful hair if her husband returned safely.

Her prayers were answered as Ptolemy returned victoriously. True to her word, Berenices sheared off all of her hair, and dedicated it to the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Days later, however, souvenir-seeking scoundrels stole Berenices’ hair out of the temple. When the hair heist was discovered, Ptolemy and Berenices were out to roll some heads, and they meant that literally.

The temple priests were on death row when a traveling group of Greek consulting astronomers literally saved their necks. After dark, they convinced Ptolemy and Berenices to join them 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 believed that the queen’s hair was just too beautiful for a single temple to possess. Berenices’ hair belongs in the heavens for all to see!”

It worked. Berenices and Ptolemy bought it, and the temple priests were released. Everybody won, including us, as we still enjoy this lovely constellation/star cluster.

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SW DIAGRAM B FOR MAY 20-22, 2022.jpg
The planets Venus, Jupiter and Mars lined up with the crescent moon near the end of May.
Contributed photo

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Send questions to mikewlynch@comcast.net .

The Rochester Astronomy Club welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Their website is rochesterskies.org .

Starwatch — Mike Lynch column sig

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