Celestial News: How Leo lost his tail | SteamboatToday.com

Celestial News: How Leo lost his tail

Jimmy Westlake
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
The modern constellation of Coma Berenices originally represented the tuft of hair on the end of the tail of Leo, the Lion. The Lion’s tail was cut off in the 3rd century BC in an effort to spare the life of Conon of Samos, who had been accused of stealing the queen’s hair in a late-night theft. Look for Leo and Coma Berenices high up in the eastern sky during the early evening hours this month.
Jimmy Westlake/Courtesy photo

There are a number of star clusters visible to the unaided eye, like the well-known Pleiades and Beehive star clusters, but there is only one naked-eye star cluster that forms a constellation all by itself. You can see it high in the eastern sky on spring evenings as a smattering of several dozen faint stars, not far from the familiar outline of the Big Dipper. This is the constellation we call Coma Berenices, or Queen Berenice’s Hair, and it is the only modern constellation associated with a real person rather than a mythological one. 

On ancient star charts, today’s Coma Berenices constellation is shown as representing the tuft of hair on the end of the tail of Leo the Lion, located nearby. But, in 1602, the lion’s tail was cut off and made into this new constellation by a man who had his own nose cut off in a duel by sword, famed Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. 

Legend tells us that the constellation represents the hair of Egyptian Queen Berenice II, who lived around 245 BC. The queen had made a vow to cut off her beautiful hair and place it in Aphrodite’s temple if the goddess would return her husband, King Ptolemy III, safely from battle. The King did return victorious from battle and so, true to her vow, Berenice clipped off her beautiful locks and placed them in Aphrodite’s temple as an offering.

Then, overnight, the tresses mysteriously disappeared from the temple. The King suspected that the court astronomer, Conon of Samos, was responsible. When questioned, the quick-thinking astronomer pointed skyward to an unnamed star cluster and explained that Aphrodite was so touched by the love offering that she had personally placed the Queen’s hair in the sky for all to see for eternity.

It’s a good thing that the King was unfamiliar with the starry sky, or he might have recognized the star cluster as Leo’s tail. As it turned out, the King fell for this story and spared the astronomer’s life. So, Leo lost his tail, but we gained Queen Berenice’s Hair. 

The Coma Berenices star cluster is one of the nearest star clusters to Earth, lying only 280 light years away. For comparison, the more familiar Seven Sisters, or Pleiades star cluster, lies 440 light years away.

Far beyond the stars of our Coma Berenices star cluster, modern astronomers have discovered another kind of cluster, a cluster of over 10,000 galaxies, lying at a distance of 300-million light years. The Coma cluster of galaxies is one of the largest such clusters known to astronomers. 

What we really have, then, is a cluster of galaxies hiding behind a cluster of stars, disguised as Queen Berenice’s beautiful hair. Look for the heavenly locks around 9 p.m. in mid-April, along the leading or western edge of the Spring Diamond asterism, composed of the four bright stars Arcturus, Spica, Denebola, and Cor Caroli.

For information about astronomy-related events in Steamboat Springs, including public star parties at CMC’s Ball Observatory, contact physics and astronomy instructor Paul McCudden, at pmccudden@coloradomtn.edu or 970-870-4537 or visit the SKY Club web page at http://www.coloradomtn.edu/skyclub. 

Jimmy Westlake is adjunct Professor of Physical Sciences at Colorado Mountain College and former Director of the Rollins Planetarium at Young Harris College in Georgia and the St. Charles Parish Library Planetarium, in Luling, Louisiana. His “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today newspaper. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at JWestlake.com.

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