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March 14, 2015

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 just 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 above and to the left of the North Star as darkness falls, 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.

Despite its faintness, though, Camelopardalis is home to some interesting stars. In fact, it contains one of the most massive binary systems in the galaxy — two monster stars that are locked in a tight embrace. We’ll have more about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010, 2015

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