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The Camel Leopard

January 4, 2011

You might expect a constellation that bears the names of three different animals to be a bold one. Unfortunately, though, Camelopardalis isn't. It is one of the largest constellations, covering a large wedge of the northern sky. But it isn't very bold. All of its stars are so faint that you need to get away from city lights to see them.

A literal translation of the name "Camelopardalis" is "the camel leopard." And one astronomer who wrote about the constellation soon after its creation in the early 1600s said that it was a camel -- the camel that Rebecca rode into Canaan in the biblical Book of Genesis.

But the writer was a bit confused. That's because "Camelopardalis" is actually a form of the Latin word for giraffe -- a combination of the long neck of the camel and the spots of the leopard.

For the casual skywatcher, the semantics probably are more interesting than the constellation itself. At this time of year it stands directly above the North Star by mid-evening, so it's in fine view. From light-polluted cities, and even the suburbs, about the most you can expect to see is a couple of the camel-leopard's spots -- perhaps one or two of its brightest stars.

That's largely because those stars are far away. One of its leading lights, for example, may be one of the most-distant stars that's visible to the unaided eye. And that makes it one of the brightest stars in the galaxy. We'll have more about that tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

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