Astronomy EssentialsConstellations

Coma Berenices: How Leo the Lion lost his tail

Chart with dots for stars and lines drawing the constellations of Coma Berenices and Leo.
To spot Coma Berenices, look behind Leo the Lion. Coma Berenices also contains a famous grouping of stars, the Coma star cluster.

The constellation of Coma Berenices

Coma Berenices is a constellation readily visible in April skies that represents the hair of Queen Berenice. The constellation itself may not be very bright – you’ll need a dark sky to see most its stars – but its location is easy enough to find. It trails Leo the Lion, with the Big Dipper high above it and Virgo with bright Spica below.

Detailed chart of Coma Berenice constellation with stars in black on white.
View larger. | The constellation Coma Berenices via Wikipedia.

How to find Coma Berenices

Do you know how to use the pointer stars in the Big Dipper to locate Polaris, the North Star? Instead of going northward from the pointer stars to Polaris, go southward to find the constellation Leo.

Then use the constellation Leo to find the constellation Coma Berenices, as shown at top.

A line through the Big Dipper pointer stars leads to Leo.
An imaginary line drawn between the pointer stars in the Big Dipper - the 2 outer stars in the Dipper's bowl - points in one direction toward Polaris, the North Star, and in the opposite direction toward Leo.

The stars of Berenice’s Hair

The three main stars in Coma Berenices are Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Comae Berenices. They form the upper left portion of a square. The brightest of these stars is Beta, at magnitude 4.2. Beta lies at the corner of the partial square.

Near the star Gamma, at the top of the half-box, is a famous star cluster. Under dark skies, you can find Melotte 111, although it is more familiarly known as the Coma Star Cluster.

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.

Read more about the Coma star cluster.

A scattering of several dozen closely spaced stars against a star field.
The Coma Star Cluster as captured in by Scott MacNeill of the Frosty Drew Observatory and Sky Theatre. The Coma Star Cluster is about 288 light-years away and has at least 37 known stars that are 400 million years old.
Line through stars Regulus and Zosma in Leo points to a group of closely spaced stars.
Stars in Leo the Lion pointing to the Coma Star Cluster, captured by Zhean Peter Nacionales in the Philippines.

There is another Coma cluster in the constellation, but that one is a cluster of galaxies. The names of the two are easily confused.

Numerous glowing ovals with one detailed much larger spiral galaxy.
There’s also a vast cluster of galaxies located in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices. Here is a majestic face-on spiral galaxy located deep within it. Read more about the Coma Galaxy Cluster. Image via NASA.

Formerly part of Leo the Lion

On old star charts like the one below, the tail of the constellation Leo the Lion has a curve. 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 – as the tuft at the end of Leo’s tail. It was only a few hundred years ago that Coma Berenices became a separate constellation.

Old-fashioned drawing of a big yellow Lion with the constellation's stars throughout it.
Leo the Lion via Constellation of Words.

Mythology of Coma Berenices

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.

Back view of Queen Berenice's loose blonde hair, with stars scattered through it.
The constellation Coma Berenices (Berenice’s Hair), via Constellation of Words.

Bottom line: Coma Berenices is the constellation of Queen Berenice’s Hair. It used to be the tail of Leo the Lion before it became its own constellation.

Star-hop from Leo to the Coma star cluster

Posted 
April 29, 2022
 in 
Astronomy Essentials

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