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Faint but beautiful heavenly hair

Believe it or not, there’s still a few winter constellations, most notably Gemini the Twins and Auriga the Charioteer hanging out in the western evening Marshall sky. Sharing that part of the heavens right now are the bright planets Venus and Mercury. They’re still putting on a great show in the low northwestern sky huddled close together after evening twilight. On Sunday night of this weekend the very thin crescent moon joined them. I hope the clouds don’t get in the way.

Most of the spring constellations are now mainly in the eastern evening sky, and to be honest they’re not as flashy as the winter constellations. There are still many celestial treasures to find though. You just need to dig for them a little visually, but that can be a lot of fun, especially if you can stargaze in the darker countryside skies.

A good example is the faint constellation Coma Berenices, or Berenice’s Hair. In darker skies you can really appreciate its beauty. The constellation actually resembles faint flowing hair. I think the best way to find it is to face south as darkness sets in and look for the brightest and highest star you can see. That’s Arcturus, a star that has a definite orange-reddish glow to it. Just hold your fist at arm’s length, and about two and a half of your fist-widths to the right of Arcturus is where to start looking for the heavenly hair. You may need binoculars to help find it. At first glance Coma Berenices may actually resemble a cluster of stars rather than a constellation. Most star clusters are populated by young stars, at least by astronomical standards. The stars of Coma Berenices are about 500 million years old overall. At 250 light-years away they’re just down the block from us, again by astronomical standards. Keep in mind that just one light-year equals nearly 6 trillion miles!

Coma Berenices has a distinction no other constellation has. The most well-known story about how the hair wound up in the heavens is based on a true story. It still processes quite a bit of malarkey though! Berenices was the queen of Egypt right around 200 B.C. and was madly in love with her husband, the famous Pharaoh Ptolemy III. Back in those days, there were many fierce battles but the upcoming battle against the Assyrians was expected to be especially bloody. Queen Berenices was scared to death that she may lose her king, so she promised the gods that she’d cut off all of her beautiful golden hair and offer it as a sacrifice if Ptolemy returned safely.

Her prayers were answered when Ptolemy returned just a week after he left. It was a tremendous military victory! True to her word, Berenices sheared off all of her hair and dedicated it to the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. A few nights later the temple priests pointed high in the sky at the lovely constellation or star cluster we know today as Coma Berenices. They convinced Ptolemy and Berenices that the gods placed her sacrificed hair into the heavens for everyone worldwide to enjoy.

Actually, this was a line of bull dreamed up by the priests to cover the theft of her hair. It was their job to guard the temple but they dropped the ball! A souvenir seeking scoundrel managed to break in and hurry off with the royal golden locks. Fearing immediate execution the priests made up the story about Berenice’s hair being elevated to the heavens. The priests knew this cluster of stars was nothing new in the sky, but Ptolemy and Berenices didn’t know that. The temple priests used their heads and kept their heads!

Comet Swan update

Comet Swan will be available both in the very early evening and the very early morning this week. Certain don’t expect it to be spectacular but you may it with the naked eye as a faint “fuzzy star” with a tail pointing to the upper right. You’re probably going to need to binoculars to see it. In both the morning and evening twilight is going to impede just how bright Comet Swan will be.

In the evening start looking for Comet Swan toward the end of evening twilight, around 9:30 p.m., in the very low north-northwestern sky about 10 degrees above the horizon. That’s no more than the width of your fist held at arm’s length. As the evening progresses it will get even lower in the sky.

In the early morning, look for it about 4-4:30 p.m. in the very low north-northeastern sky not more than 10 degrees above the horizon. After 4:30 p.m. the twilight will become much brighter and the comet will get lost in the glare.

Later this week you can use the bright star Capella to locate Comet Swan in both the morning and evening. In the evening the comet will be just to the lower right of Capella. In the early morning it will be just to the upper right of Capella.

Comets are dirty cosmic snowballs, a conglomeration of rock, dust, and frozen gases, including water vapor. Most of them are not much more than two to three miles in diameter and orbit the sun in the far distant outer solar system. Every once in a while collisions and gravitational forces change the orbits of comets dramatically and they head toward the direction of the sun. As they reach the inner solar system they at least partially melt, forming a huge coma cloud of gas. Some of the rock and dust is liberated. Strong solar wind causes the coma cloud to form a tail of gas and dust that can stretch out millions of miles. That’s what is now happening to Comet Swan.

I hope we all get to see it this week!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net.

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