Colorado Skies: Bernice's Hair shines in evening sky

Out of the strange collection of heroes, heroines, animals and other assorted entities that make up the “star pictures” we have formed as the constellations of the night sky, none is stranger than the constellation of Coma Bernices, or Bernice’s Hair, which can be found just to the southeast of overhead in this month’s early-evening Colorado sky.

This clustering of fainter stars is located about halfway between the bright stars Arcturus in Bootes and Regulus in the constellation of Leo the Lion. Indeed, at one time this faint asterism actually belonged to Leo as a “tuft” on a much more extended version of Leo’s “tail.”

Leo’s tail tuft became a casualty of history in the 3rd century B.C., when Egypt was ruled by the pharaoh Ptolemy III and his wife Bernice, who was possessed of legendary beauty—the highlight of which was her long, flowing hair.

During the course of his reign, Ptolemy waged a highly successful war against the Assyrians, and in gratitude for her husband’s safe and victorious return from battle, Bernice cut off her hair and offered the tresses to the goddess Aphrodite. That night, the tresses mysteriously disappeared, much to the consternation of the royal couple.

The court astrologer-astronomer Canon of Samos cleverly explained that the disappearance was because Aphrodite was so pleased with Bernice’s sacrifice that she transported the missing tresses to the starry firmament, so that all of humanity could admire them throughout the ages as the constellation of Bernice’s Hair.

The “hairy” or “tufty” appearance of Coma Bernices to the naked eye is actually due to a loose collection of several-dozen faint stars that form a type of object referred to by astronomers as an open or galactic star cluster. At a distance of 300 light years, the Coma star cluster is one of the nearest such objects to the earth, and as such has merited much observation and study from astronomers.

It is now believed that ages ago, the Coma star cluster was much more compact and contained many more stars. Throughout the millennia, however, the gravitational tidal forces from the massive center of our Milky Way Galaxy have reduced the Coma star cluster to its present status.

If we peer outward through the scattered remnants of what was once a mighty star cluster in the relatively close confines of our own galaxy, we find that the Coma star cluster is merely an overlay for a system of celestial objects that both literally and figuratively stands at the frontiers of contemporary astronomy. The system is called simply the Coma Cluster and is a monstrous array of well over 1,000 galaxies—each one of which is a system of gas, dust and stars comparable in size and mass to our own Milky Way Galaxy.

Astronomers have determined that the Coma Cluster is one of the most remote systems known to science, situated at a distance of some 9 billion light years away. This affords astronomers a significant backward look in time to an era when the universe and its constituents and dynamics were far younger and therefore much closer to our “Big Bang” beginnings.

Elsewhere in the sky: The planet Mercury is visible as a reddish-orange object to the northwest for about 45 minutes after sunset during the first 10 days of April.

The planet Mars sets about an hour or so after the sun throughout April. The Red Planet passes to the left of the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus during the middle of the month, and forms an attractive pairing with that cluster when viewed through binoculars or a small telescope.

The planet Jupiter reaches opposition to the sun on the evening of April 7. On that date, the Planet King will rise at sunset, set at sunrise, and will be visible as a yellowish-white object above and to the left of the fainter bluish Virgo star Spica all night long.

The planet Saturn rises about an hour after midnight and glows as a golden-hued object on the Scorpius-Sagittarius border.

After a seven-month run as an evening “star,” the planet Venus bursts into this month’s morning sky. The Twilight Queen rises less than an hour before sunrise on April 1, but by the end of the month the planet blazes for nearly two hours in the eastern predawn twilight.