Coma Berenices is a constellation that had a hard time establishing its identity. There it sits in the eastern sky in the spring, a simple triangle framed by the Big Dipper to the north, Leo to the southwest, Bootes to the east, and Virgo to the southeast.
In late March and early April, I usually find it by looking in the southern sky almost straight overhead for the constellation Leo. Then I look just to the northeast for the faint patch of about half a dozen stars that define the western corner of the triangular shape of Coma.
Coma’s greatest attribute is that scattered cluster of naked-eye stars, marked MEL 111 on most star maps. This cluster gives the constellation its name, which means “Berenice’s hair.” In binoculars it expands to many more than the 6 or 7 naked-eye stars. The stars look so spread out because MEL 111 is one of the closest star clusters to Earth. It is in our Milky Way galaxy, at only 250 lights years away, about 1,500 trillion miles.
Coma’s identity problem is that it has almost always been thought of as part of another constellation. The ancients thought of it as a sheaf of wheat or ivy being held by Virgo to the southeast. Arab astronomers named it Al Dafirah, “the tuft of hair” at the end of Leo the lion’s tail. But then came along an astrologer by the name of Conon (with an “O”— no relation to the famous barbarian), and Coma Berenices became famous forever as the patron constellation of liars and con men the world over. Here’s what happened.
Berenice was the wife of Ptolemy III, divine ruler of Egypt around 240 BC. Ptolemy was always off on some war or another, and Berenice sat home worrying about him. She offered her beautiful amber-colored hair to the Greek goddess of beauty Aphrodite (called Venus by the Romans) to insure her husband’s safe return. But the hair mysteriously disappeared, and Ptolemy and Berenice weren’t too happy about it. Their wrath fell upon court astrologer Conon, whose responsibility it must have been to keep the “amber tresses” safe. Let’s transport back to 240 BC and imagine the scene.
Setting: Conon, Ptolemy, and Berenice are standing just outside the temple of Aphrodite at Zephyrium. It is a brilliant starlit night in early spring.
Berenice: Where’s my hair, dude. The bald look won’t come in for at least 2,000 years.
Conon: Er, ah, um.
Ptolemy: (pensively, to himself) Now let’s see … tortures … hmmm.
Berenice: It had better not be stolen, Conon, baby. I don’t want locks of my hair sold in paperweights with “Souvenir of your glorious trip down the Nile” stamped all over them.
Ptolemy: The rack? No, not painful enough. Water torture? Too messy. Iron maiden? No, that hasn’t been invented yet.
Conon: (rolls his eyes up to heaven and has an inspiration) Well, of course, there’s your hair, my queen. Up in the sky, just to the west of Bootes, the herdsman. Yeah, that’s it. That patch of stars. Aphrodite so loved your sacrifice that she took your amber tresses and put them among the stars.
So Conon saved his skin, and Berenice became the only real, non-mythological person to have a constellation named after her. Oh, and Leo lost the tuft of hair at the end of its tail.
Planet lovers, take note. The conjunction between Jupiter and Venus continues in the western sky after sunset in evening twilight. Venus is the brighter one. It has climbed above Jupiter, which is bad news for Jupiter fanatics. Soon the solar System’s largest planet will be too close to the sun to see for a while.
Mars is high in the south around midnight. Look for the distinctly orange invader in the constellation Leo, the Lion.
About the same time, yellowish Saturn is lower in the southeast in the constellation Virgo. To its left is the bright star Spica. They make nearly as handsome a pair as Jupiter and Venus.
Tom Burns is director of Ohio Wesleyan University’s Perkins Observatory in Delaware, Ohio, and he’s glad to hear from you. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.