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A Hair Raising Tale!

Coma Berenices is one of the newer constellations, listed in 1602 as a constellation to honor Tycho Brahe, the famous and somewhat infamous astronomer who had died just one year earlier. Tycho was the son of wealthy Danish nobility and became fascinated with astronomy when he witnessed a partial solar eclipse when he was 14 years old. He marveled at how accurate the predictions were for the time and the extent of the eclipse. He used mom and dad's money to set up a great astronomical observatory on a Danish island so he could make and perfect even more observations. When his money ran out and the king would not subsidize his operation, he moved to Prague at the invitation of the monarchy. He recorded years and years of observations, without a telescope, that went on to help many future astronomers. Tycho was not your run of the mill ivory tower type. He ate, drank, and partied hardy. He also was arrogant and combative. At the age of 20 he got into a bar room sword fight and got his nose cut off. He replaced his birth nose with an artificial one made of solid gold. Tycho and his gold nose met his demise at the age of 55, when he died of a bladder infection after boozing it up again at yet another party. He worked hard and played hard, a little too hard!

I guess I got a little side tracked here but I just love telling the story of Tycho Brahe. Anyway, the main part of his constellation Coma Berenices looks like faint strands of hair flowing high in the south-southeastern sky just below the overhead zenith in the early evening. It's not that far away from the Big Dipper's handle. The "hair" is known by astronomers as the Melotte Star Cluster 111. It's actually one of the closest star clusters to the Earth, a little over 250 light years away. That's still sixteen-hundred-trillion miles away! Like most open clusters, Coma Berenices is a very extended family of hundreds of stars that formed out of the same gaseous nebulae about 400 to 600 million years ago. Believe it or not, that makes these relatively young stars.

According to mythology, Coma Berenices is named after Queen Berenices, the wife of the famous Egyptian Pharaoh, Ptolemy III. The story goes that the great Pharaoh was leading his troops into a fierce war. Every night Queen Berenices prayed to the gods for his safe return and was so desperate to see him again that she promised to cut off all her beautiful hair if her husband returned safe and sound.

About a year later Ptolemy returned victorious and true to her word, the queen cut off all of her hair and dedicated it to the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Just days later some souvenir-seeking scoundrels hoisted Berenices' hair out of the temple. When the hair heist was discovered, Ptolemy and Bernices were ready to roll some heads, literally! All of the temple priests were within hours of execution when a traveling group of Greek consulting astronomers literally saved their necks. They convinced Ptolemy and Bernices to go out with them that night to see a brand new pale cluster of light high in the sky. "Look!" they exclaimed, "do you not see the clustered curls of the queen's hair?" They continued, "Aphrodite and the other gods believed that the queen's hair was just too beautiful for a single temple to possess. Berenices' hair belongs in the heavens for all to see!"

Much to the relief of the temple priests, Berenices and Ptolemy swallowed this line of bull. Consultants can be very convincing, even today!

Diagram of Leo the Lion...Click here