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April 2004: Tail of Two Constellations

Many people tell me that the only star formation they can identify is the Big Dipper. My gosh, if you can do that, you can springboard from the Big Dipper to almost any constellation in the sky.

To find the Big Dipper at eveningtime, simply remember this little ditty: spring up; fall down. Now that it's early spring, the Big Dipper shines rather high in your northeast sky at nightfall. In the month of May, the Big Dipper springs even higher yet as darkness falls -- reaching its highest elevation for the year.

Some of you may know how to find Polaris, the North Star, by drawing a line through the two "top" Big Dipper bowl stars. Be mindful that the North Star is NOT the brightest star in the sky as is commonly thought -- roughly the same brightness as the Big Dipper stars. Click here for a star chart of the Big Dipper & Polaris.

The North Star is like the center of a clock, always staying in the same place in the sky. Like an hour hand, the Big Dipper circles around the North Star (though in a counter-clockwise direction) in about 24 hours -- or more precisely, 23 hours and 56 minutes. No matter where the Big Dipper may be, its "pointer stars" always point to the North Star.

Leo, the Lion

These same two "pointer stars" also escort you to the zodiacal constellation Leo, the Lion. Go in the direction opposite of the North Star. You'll notice what looks like an extremely bright star, which is actually the planet Jupiter. Jupiter resides in Leo till late August. (Look for the Moon near Jupiter on the evenings of April 2 and April 29.)

Click here for a star chart of Leo. Its easternmost star, Denebola (meaning "tail of the Lion") helps to guide you to two often overlooked yet intriguing constellations: Canes Venatici and Coma Berenices.

Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs

Alkaid, the end star of the Big Dipper handle is also the tail star of Ursa Major, the Big Bear. By drawing a line from the tail star of the Big Bear to the tail star of Leo, the Lion, you can find Canes Venatici's place in the sky everytime. Note that the constellation's brightest star, Cor Caroli, is about one-third the way from Alkaid to Denebola.

Cor Caroli, which means "Heart of Charles," honors the memory of King Charles II of England. After Oliver Cromwell's death in 1658, the English yearned for the restoration of the monarchy. The star, according to a popular tale, brightened at Charles' return from exile, on the eve of May 29, 1660.

A small telescope shows that Cor Caroli is a binary star -- two stars sharing a common center of gravity. It's easy to envision the two stars as the departed spirits of King Charles I and King Charles II, father and son sitting together in the heavens!

Chara, Canes Venatici's second brightest star, is rather unique, in that it's a yellow Sun-like star. If you wonder what our Sun might look like from some 30 light years away, Chara gives you a good idea.

Coma Berenices, Berenice's Hair

You can find Coma Berenices -- and the Coma Berenices star cluster -- between these tail stars, too. The cluster stands about one-third the way from Denebola to Alkaid. (See star chart). A casualty of light pollution, Coma Berenice's beautiful star cluster once enraptured people in the ancient world. Nowadays, stargazers must seek out the inky darkness of night to recover its lost glory. A relatively modern constellation, stargazers of olden times saw the cluster's wispy luminescence as the tufted tail of Leo, the Lion, or a sheaf of wheat waved by Virgo, Goddess of the Harvest.

The diffuse star cluster -- described as "a curious twinkling, as if gossamers spangled with dewdrops"* -- has provided much yarn for sky lore. Of the many tales handed down, the story of "Berenice's Hair" wins modern acclaim. When, in the third century B.C., Berenice's husband safely returned home to Egypt after battle, Queen Berenice (who never had a bad hair day) cut off her gorgeous locks, to offer thanksgiving to the gods. According to legend, Venus became so pleased that she placed Berenice's golden tresses amidst the stars.

copyright 2004 by Bruce McClure

* Serviss, as quoted in Richard Hinkley Allen's Star Names Their Lore and Meaning, page 170.
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