See how – on old star charts like the one above – the tail of the constellation Leo the Lion curves around? There’s a star there, Beta Leonis or Denebola, whose name means tail. Yet – on the dome of the sky – the Lion’s Tail used to extend out straight behind Leo, and the constellation of the Lion encompassed a much-larger area of the sky. The Greek-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy and others considered a modern-day constellation – which we call Coma Berenices, site of an actual star cluster visible in a dark sky – as the tuft at the end of Leo’s tail. Coma Berenices was considered a part of Leo until only a few hundred years ago, when it was first listed as a separate constellation.
You need a dark sky to appreciate the constellation Coma Berenices. If you have one, you’ll find that the star cluster in its midst – designated Melotte 111 but usually called simply the Coma Star Cluster – is very beautiful.
The official constellation is relatively new, but the lore behind the constellation is old. The story goes that an ancient Egyptian queen, Berenice, feared for her husband’s life as he went into battle. She prayed to Aphrodite, promising to cut off her long, luxurious curls if the king returned safely. He did, and Berenice kept her promise and cut off her hair, placing it as a sacrifice on Aphrodite’s altar.
But the next day the hair was gone!
The king was enraged that the temple priests had not protected the precious locks. A quick-thinking astronomer saved the day, or rather night, by pointing to the cascading stars at the end of Leo’s tail. He told the king that these were the queen’s tresses placed in the sky by Aphrodite for all to see.
The king and queen were appeased, and no priests were beheaded.
Leo lost his tail … and, ultimately, we gained a constellation.
How can you see these wonderful stars?
Then use the constellation Leo to find the constellation Coma Berenices, as shown on the chart below:
Viewing Tip: To enhance your view of the Coma Star Cluster, take a paper towel tube or roll up some dark paper into a tube and place it to your eye. The tube will shield your eye from the glare of any ground lights. Binoculars or opera glasses will also lead to a better viewing experience.
Bottom line: The constellation Leo once had a tail, a clump of faint stars. Now these same stars are known as Coma Berenices, the hair of a queen.
Larry Sessions has written many favorite posts in EarthSky's Tonight area. He's a former planetarium director in Little Rock, Fort Worth and Denver and an adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He's a longtime member of NASA's Solar System Ambassadors program. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including Space.com, Sky & Telescope, Astronomy and Rolling Stone. His small book on world star lore, Constellations, was published by Running Press.