Thursday, June 1, 2023

Starwatch: the hair and the dogs that became stand-alone constellations

The Starwatch chart for 8 May 2023, showing the constellations Canes Venatici and Coma Berenices

This week, we can track down two faint northern springtime constellations.

Canes Venatici is the Latin for “hunting dogs”. It is associated with the neighbouring constellation of Boötes, the herdsman, and sits below the handle of the plough asterism in the constellation of Ursa Major, the great bear.

On Ptolemy’s 2nd-century list of constellations, the stars of Canes Venatici were included as a part of Ursa Major. In 1687, the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius proposed that they become their own constellation, and suggested the name by which they are known today.

Below Canes Venatici is Coma Berenices, or Berenice’s hair. Although Ptolemy saw these stars as the tuft on the end of Leo’s tail, others named them after Queen Berenice II of Egypt, who cut off her hair as an offering to the goddess Aphrodite for the safe return of her husband from war. This makes Coma Berenices the only constellation named after an actual historical figure.

The chart shows the view looking south from London in the mid-evening this week. The constellations are visible from the southern hemisphere too, appearing in the northern sky.

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