Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Coma Berenices

As first appeared in the April 2010 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

I continue to groom the Eastern sky in this month's Constellation presentation by spending some time conditioning you to appreciate the subtle shapeliness and glowing highlights just a short clip from last month's subject, Canes Venatici (I will endeavor to refrain from additional dry hair humor in the rest of the article). Coma Berenices, or "Berenice's Hair," is an unusual constellation in many respects. It is one of the few constellations that owes its name (and history) to an actual person, is one of the constellations that was promoted from a lowly asterism, it marks the location of the North Galactic Pole, and, as one of the edge-sharing constellations with Virgo, Coma Berenices contains a plethora of Messier Objects (and is an excellent constellation to have memorized if binocular viewing is in your future and you just don't wanna wait to find something). As has been a general theme with many of these past articles, even the most simple constellations have weaved into them a wealth of astronomical treasures.

"The lives of the priests were almost cut as short as Queen Berenice's hair." I have to assume this line has been told in one form or another over the course of the last few millennia as part of the discussion of this simple right angle. Queen Berenice II was the wife of King Ptolemy III Euergetes of Egypt, perhaps best known as the monarch under whom the great port city of Alexandria, home to such notable Greek mathematicians as Euclid and Pappus (you did know what I meant by a "right angle," didn't you?) rose to prominence. As history tells us, Ptolemy rode off to seek revenge for the death of his sister, Berenice promised the goddess Aphrodite her hair upon Ptolemy's safe return, Aphrodite saw fit to collect on said offering, and Berenice offered her golden locks to Afro, er, pardon, Aphrodite's temple. As if her bad hair day were not enough, the next morning found her offering gone from the temple. The court astronomer Conon of Samos offered the most logical explanation (much to the relief of the temple priests, who were close to getting a far-too-close shave of their own), one which was so convincing that it remains with us today. Aphrodite, well, washed that hair right away from those men, and sent it on its way… skyward. What we now know as Coma Berenices had, at one time (and likely for some amount of time after), been the furry end of the tail of Leo the Lion, Berenice's close and equally blonde companion. It is believed that Come Berenices graduated from asterism (simply any collection of stars that are NOT official constellations) to constellation with the help of Tycho Brahe in his 1602 star catalogue (reinforced by Johann Bayer in his 1603 work, Uranometria).

The dwarf planet Makemake.

It is a testament to the changing times that I can mention the presence of a planetary neighbor tangled in Coma Berenices that I would not have known to mention when the new SAS newsletter began its membership cycle only two years ago. The dwarf planet Makemake (shown above from a Hubble image and provided to wikipedia by Mike Brown, its discoverer) is currently veryvery close to the south-most bright star, gamma-Com. While helping to provide a marker for one of the smallest catalogued objects in the Night Sky, Coma Berenices also marks an important location for our most important source of observables in the same Sky. The North Galactic Pole (position shown below), is the point 90 degrees above us with respect to the galactic plane (the discussion of the Galactic Coordinate System is far too, well, large to include here, so I refer you to its wikipedia entry HERE).

The North Galactic Pole

Coma Berenices hosts a single Messier Object that is not a galaxy, although, like hair, detail is based on proximity. M53 is a bino-visible (7.7 magnitude) globular cluster approximately 65,000 light years away. As is often the case, our terran view (especially in CNY) does not do this object the justice provided by our tax dollars in the form of Hubble images (shown below). Looking at the constellation image at the top of this article, you may notice a bit of a knot just to the right of Makemake. As it happens, the density of stars in this region of Coma Berenices is high enough that is does have a designation as the very open cluster Melotte 111 in the less well known "other-M" Melotte catalogue. We are far too close to it for the cluster to appear to us as something like the densely-packed Pleiades, but there may be a close-by planet to the Pleiades saying the same thing about the region around our gamma-Com!


The rest of the Messier Objects in Coma Berenices are galaxies, with all but one of them bright (close-by) members of the Virgo Cluster, the gigantic collection of up-to 2000 galaxies discussed briefly in last month's newsletter. Coma Berenices and its border with Virgo are regions that all Messier Marathoners cannot wait to have appear prominently in their early-morning March skies, as finding and checking-off these objects in your race-to-the-finish search as fast as two-in-one shampooing. The six Virgo members are (listed top-down) M85, M100, M98, M99, M88, and M91. You will note that M86, M84, M90, M89, M87, M58, M59, and M60 (phew!) are also in very close proximity in Virgo. Your problem is not finding smudge patches in your binoculars. You're problem is finding out which one you're looking at!

The lenticular (a morphological hybrid between elliptical and spiral galaxy shapes) galaxy M85 (NGC 4382) marks the northernmost edge of the Virgo cluster. Admittedly, the detail in the Hubble image is a bit lacking (shown below), one of the signs of an old elliptical galaxy where star formation is no longer ongoing in any significant amount). This galaxy lies 60 million light years away and is the 94th MOST distant Messier Object. With M85 centered in your Telrad, you'll find M100 just at the edge of your outer ring.


M100 (NGC 4321, shown at below-left from ESO) has a shape to it that all likely think of when they picture a galaxy in their mind's eye. One of the most prominent members of the Virgo cluster, this "grand design spiral" galaxy is 55 million light years away and has been observed intensely enough for us to know that it hosts the satellite galaxy NGC 4323. As galaxies go, M100 is jumpin' with supernovae, with five catalogued since 1901. Centering your Telrad on M100, M99 approaches your outer ring by about the amount that M98 and M88 sits beyond it.


We see the spiral galaxy M98 (NGC 4192, shown below, from Astrofotografia) almost edge-on, making for a view similar to, but less interesting that, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). If you're keeping excellent track of your Doppler shifting, you'll note that M98 is racing towards us at 125 km/sec which, at 60 million light years away, gives us plenty of time to hit the salon before its arrival.

The image of the pinwheel-looking (a name that already has the galaxy M33 associated with it) M99 (below), was taken by amateur astronomer Hunter Wilson and is currently the choice image at wikipedia for this galaxy (no small feat considering the telescope competition both on the ground AND in orbit). The slight unwinding (well, slight to our eyes, but tens of thousands of light years fit into that gap) of the right-most arm is attributed to VIRGOHI21, a region of hydrogen gas and a massive amount of presumed dark matter.


The spiral galaxy M88 (NGC 4501, shown below and also by Hunter Wilson) is racing towards the center of the Virgo cluster (in the direction of M87). This galaxy is noteworthy for its very tight and very regular spiraling that falls smoothly all the way to the galaxy core, home of a supermassive black hole 80 million times the mass of the Sun.


The last Messier member of the Virgo cluster in Coma Berenices is M91 (NGC 4548, shown below). Messier (in 1781) and Herschel (in 1784) both lay claim to its discovery despite the gap in timing. The linked picture for this image is as noteworthy for the soft blending of nebulosity and starry regions as for the multitude of small galaxies also contained in the field of view. Well worth a look.


Finally, the outlier Messier galaxy in this region is M64 (NGC 4826, shown below), known to amateur astronomers as the Black Eye Galaxy. This view is obvious even in our telescopes! Not only is the galaxy interesting for the dark band pointed towards us, but it has become doubly-interesting recently with the discovery that the black band is spinning in the opposite direction of the rest of the galaxy, with the current hypothesis being that the black band is the remains of a companion galaxy that may have collided with the central galaxy one billion years ago. when you next see it, think of the astronomer Conon and the priests he saved from a similar fate.


Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Taurus

As first appeared in the November 2009 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

This month's constellation is one of the best in the Night Sky for combining ancient tradition, mythology, modern astronomy, world history, stellar eye candy, and even modern engineering into one reasonably small bordered pen of celestial real estate. The early evening sight of the constellation Taurus the Bull in the November southeast sky at Darling Hill might appear to CNY viewers as a snow divining rod pointing to the western Great Lakes in anticipation of winter and the upcoming lake-effect snow. Taurus is a distinctive constellation and very easy to identify once its central asterism is identified. The brightest star in the constellation is almost equidistant from the easily identified Pleiades and the shoulder of the constellation Orion, the celestial hunter Taurus is running from as the sky appears to move (or, from the most commonly drawn orientation, right towards him!). While Taurus is mildly sparse in quantity when it comes to dark sky objects, it more than makes up for it in quality, hosting two of the most significant stellar sights in the Night Sky.

Like its neighbor Orion, Taurus the Bull is a very, very old constellation and has been recognized as a bull for the duration of its existence in Middle Eastern and European traditions. Earliest records of any kind place the birth of Taurus in the Copper (Chalcolithic) Age (4500 – 3500 B.C.E.), although some records support its existence even earlier. The presence of a bull and what appears to be a Pleiades-like star formation exists on a wall in the Lascaux Caves of France (see right). Although the interpretation of the Constellation set is controversial, this arrangement may date back as far as 16,500 years. Personally, I find even the thought of that kind of continuity between what we might see in the winter skies and what our ancestors also saw at night both comforting and humbling. Many of the same stand-out patterns we know today no doubt stood out immediately to them as the brightest objects in the sky marked out regular places as the Sun set, and the great distance we've traveled in history might be barely perceptible to an ancient astronomer going simply by the positions of stars.

Lascaux Cave bull and star pattern. From the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies and

We begin the tour by aiming our sights at the bright eye of the bull, the star Aldebaran. This orange giant is 44 times the diameter of our own Sun and has already used its hydrogen fuel, leaving this fusion engine to now graze on a steady diet of helium. Its name is derived from the Arabic for "the follower," often reported as in reference to its position below the Pleiades (so "following" this open cluster as we progress into winter). The other stars in Taurus are easy to see in darker skies but not otherwise noteworthy for their brightness at either naked-eye or binocular viewing magnification. Several of the bright stars closest to Aldebaran make up an asterism that a new observer might confuse with the complete constellation. The V-shaped Hyades (center of the image below and shown at right with white border) are composed of five stars, with Aldebaran the brightest tip. I'll admit that the first time I marked out the space for Taurus, I confused this asterism (and lambda-Tau to the west) with the entire object before double-checking the size. No bull. The Hyades star closest to Aldebaran, theta-Tau, is actually a pair of pairs, although they only appear as a single bright pair in binoculars and telescopes.

The Hyades (white) and Pleiades (red). From Lynn Laux,

Caught within the bull pen is the Pleiades (M45, shown labeled below from a Hubble image). This Tiny Dipper is visible year-round during the daytime in parking lots and slow-moving traffic everywhere (as the object embedded within the emblem on every Subaru, the Japanese name for this asterism) and is one of the treats of winter viewing in CNY (unless VERY early morning viewing is your game or you've been trying to see Mars in the late Summer skies, in which case you've been enjoying the pre-dawn sight of M45 since August). The amount of information available on the Pleiades online and as part of space research could easily (and very likely has) fill an entire book. While the seven bright stars are identified from Greek mythology as the Seven Sisters (Sterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygete, Celaeno, and Alcyone), the counting aid that comes from a pair of binoculars easily reveals nine stars. The two stars that make up the handle of this tiny dipper are the proud parents Atlas and Pleione, placed to the east of the dipper to protect their daughters from either Taurus (for being a bull) or Orion (for being a male). Given the long history of this asterism, it is perhaps not surprising that the parents decided not to stop at seven. In fact, there are over 1,000 distinct stars in the Pleiades that have been revealed as part of multiple high-resolution studies. This density of stars makes the Pleiades a unique open cluster, as there is a wealth of stars and patterns visible at virtually any magnification, from small binoculars to the largest ground-based telescopes. For my first proper viewing session, I spent one full hour simply looking at this cluster through my Nikon 12×50's, amazed at just how little we really see of the Night Sky using the 1×7 binoculars built into our heads (and, perhaps, corrected by horn-rimmed glasses).

The Pleiades in detail. Image from and

On the opposite side of Taurus and caught between the horns is the first of the categorized Messier objects, the Crab Nebula. M1 to its friends, this nebula is a supernova remnant with a remarkable history. As documented in both Arab and Chinese texts (Europe was just coming out its, er, Dark Ages at the time), this supernova was so bright on July 4, 1054 that it was visible during daylight hours (and, as you can guess by the date, visible without any magnification). The supernova remnant we know today as the Crab Nebula was discovered (and correlated to the original supernova) first by John Bevis in 1731, then by Charles Messier in 1758 while, as it happens, observing a comet (that Messier is known best for his catalogue of objects that were NOT comets instead of the comets he worked so diligently to discover is one of the great fun ironies of astronomy). The NASA images of the Crab Nebula reveal a dense sponge-like structure full of filaments of all sizes. The image above shows a remarkable sight – the full cycle of the pulsar at the heart of the crab that continues to magnetically drive the expansion of the nebula (in the series of frames, the pulsar lies below and to the right of a constant-brightness star).

The Crab Nebula pulsar. Image from

Stepping forward several hundred years, Taurus also marks the present locations of Pioneer 10 and COSMOS 1844. Pioneer 10 is currently speeding in the direction of Aldebaran, having been successfully steered through the asteroid belt to make a series of images of Jupiter. At its current velocity, this trip to Aldebaran's current location would take 2 million years, about the same amount of time it might take most of the world to decipher the meaning of the emblematic plaque attached to its exterior (below). Perhaps someday we'll have to explain to the aliens how a civilization that could launch a complicated probe into space couldn't see the multitude of planets in their own Solar System, then perhaps have to explain what happened to Pluto hat it no longer appears in our Solar System images. COSMOS 1844 is one of over 2440 satellites launched by the Soviet Union (and now Russia) since the first of the COSMOS series in 1962. At mag. 5, this satellite makes for a fun artificial viewing target (with a good map in hand).

The Pioneer 10 plaque. From

The final sights for telescope viewers include four NGC objects. NGC 1746, 1647, and 1807 are open clusters with magnitudes between 6 and 7. NGC 1514 (below) is a mag 10 planetary nebula just at the far edge of the Taurus border that should be increasingly good viewing as Taurus works its way towards our zenith (1514 will be the closest it will get to our zenith by midnight, a perfect last-good-look before Darling Hill completely freezes over).

NGC 1514. From Martin Germano,

Phenomenal viewing at a reasonably safe distance. Just be mindful not to wave your red flashlights at Aldebaran!