There are 88 constellations. All are named for mythological characters, animals and even machines. Except one — Coma Berenices. It’s the only constellation named for a real person. The name means “Berenice’s Hair” and refers to the locks of Queen Berenice II of Egypt. She lived in Cyrene near the modern-day city of Shahhat, Libya from 266-221 B.C.
When her husband, Ptolemy III Euergetes, went off to war in Asia, the queen made a vow to cut off her hair and offer it up to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and passion, should he return safely. A year later the king arrived home, Berenice got a haircut and the tresses were placed in a temple associated with the goddess. Only the next day, the hair went missing.
The whodunit tale is unrecorded, but Conon of Samos, an astronomer and mathematician living in Alexandria, offered up an ingenious explanation to the king — Berenice’s hair had ascended to the sky as a nebulous mass of stars behind the constellation Leo, an area that used to represent the lion’s tail. A darker reading of the tale suggest a more likely motivation: that the disappearance and supposed “reappearance” of the hair was cooked up to glorify the king and queen in the eyes of their subjects, proving once again there’s no escaping politics.
Much later, 16th and 17th century astronomers included the “hair of Berenices” in their catalogs and atlases, establishing Coma Berenices as an official constellation. Spring is a best time to find the group, located between Leo and the bright star Arcturus. Since “Coma” has no stars brighter than 4th magnitude, it’s rather faint, so be sure to look for it when the moon is either out of the sky or no thicker than a crescent.
Three stars connect to form a right-angle triangle 10° (one fist) to a side, but what really catches the eye is the spray of faint stars — the “hair” — a little more than a fist to the upper left of Denebola in Leo. This swarm is a true, gravitationally-bound star cluster. All of its members lie within a few dozen light years of one another and hang together as a unit in space as they orbit the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
Called the Coma Cluster or Mel 111 it contains more than 40 stars spread across 7° of sky. That’s big! Bigger than the Seven Sisters (Pleiades) and Hyades. But the stars are also more spread out. To see it best use the technique called averted vision, where you scan around the cluster rather than stare directly at it. You’ll see more stars that way. The Coma cluster has an unmistakable hazy, dare I say hairy, appearance.
Any pair of binoculars will show many more stars and fit about two-thirds of the cluster in the field of view. Don’t bother with a telescope — too much magnification will spread the stars out too much. Sometimes the lowest magnification is best. I wouldn’t go higher than 7x on this pretty object. Coma Berenices and cluster stand almost halfway up in the southeastern sky by 9:30 p.m. local time and reach their greatest height around 1 a.m.
Given the great sacrifice of Berenice II, I hope you’ll only consider it but a small sacrifice of your time to find the hair of hope that still flutters behind the lion’s tail the next clear night.