Believe it or not, there are still a few winter constellations, most notably Gemini the Twins and Auriga the Charioteer, hanging out in the western evening sky.
The spring constellations have taken over across the rest of the heavenly dome, but honestly, they’re not as flashy as the winter shiners. There are still many celestial treasures to find though. You just need to dig for them a little visually, but that can be a lot of fun, especially if you can stargaze in the darker countryside skies.
A good example is the faint constellation Coma Berenices or Berenice’s Hair. In darker skies you can really appreciate its beauty. The constellation actually resembles faint flowing hair. I think the best way to find it is to face southeast as darkness sets in and look for the brightest and highest star you can see. That’s Arcturus, a star with a definite orange-reddish glow. Just hold your fist at arm’s length, and about two and a half of your fist-widths to the upper right of Arcturus is where to start looking for the heavenly hair. You may need binoculars to help find it. At first glance Coma Berenices may actually resemble a cluster of stars rather than a constellation. Most star clusters are populated by young stars, at least by astronomical standards. The stars of Coma Berenices are about 500 million years old overall. At just 250 light-years away, that puts them astronomically just down the celestial block. Keep in mind that just one light-year equals nearly six trillion miles!
Coma Berenices has a distinction no other constellation has. The most well-known story about how the hair wound up in the heavens is based on a true story. It’s not entirely fiction but close! It still processes quite a bit of malarkey though! Berenices was the queen of Egypt right around 200 B.C.E. and was madly in love with her husband, the famous Pharaoh Ptolemy III. Back then, there were many fierce battles but the upcoming battle against the Assyrians was expected to be incredibly bloody. Queen Berenices was scared to death that she might lose her king, so she promised the gods that she’d cut off all of her beautiful golden hair and offer it as a sacrifice if Ptolemy returned safely.
Her prayers were answered when Ptolemy returned just a week after he left. It was a tremendous military victory! True to her word, Berenices sheared off all of her hair and dedicated it to the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. A few nights later the temple priests pointed high in the sky at the lovely constellation or star cluster we know today as Coma Berenices. They convinced Ptolemy and Berenices that the gods placed her sacrificed hair in the heavens for everyone worldwide to enjoy.
This line of bull the priests dreamed up to cover the theft of her hair. It was their job to guard the temple but they dropped the ball! A souvenir-seeking scoundrel managed to break in and hurry off with the royal golden locks. Fearing immediate execution, the priests made up the story about Berenice’s hair being elevated to the heavens. The priests knew this cluster of stars was nothing new in the sky, but Ptolemy and Berenices didn’t know that. The temple priests used their heads and kept their heads!
Celestial Happening this week: While the planets Mars and much brighter Venus dominate the early evening western sky, the giants of the solar system, Jupiter and Saturn, are making their presence known in the early morning. Just before morning twilight really kicks in, look for Jupiter and Saturn in the low east-southeast sky. They’re the two brightest star-like objects in that area. Jupiter is the brighter of the two, barely above the horizon with Saturn higher up to the upper right. Next Saturday morning, May 13, the waning crescent moon will be camped just to the upper left of Saturn. It’ll be a great way to start the weekend!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.