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Camelopardalis is both a large and faint northern constellation that represents a giraffe. It was first recorded by Jakob Bartsch in 1624, but was probably created by Petrus Plancius. Camelopardalis is the eighteenth largest constellation in the night sky and its brightest stars are of the fourth magnitude. In older astronomy books, one will sometimes see an alternative spelling of the name as Camelopardus. It is bordered by Draco, Ursa Minor, Cepheus, Cassiopeia, Perseus, Auriga, Lynx and Ursa Major and should be considered circumpolar.
There is no real mythology connected to Camelopardalis, since it is considered a “modern” constellation. The early Greeks considered this area of the sky to be empty – or a desert. But, if taken in its Latin term, it could be termed as a long necked animal with the neck of a camel and the spots of a panther – connected to the twelve labors of Hercules. The true nature of the “giraffe” is totally unclear in all references!
With 36 stars contained Bayer/Flamsteed designations, it’s small wonder the brightest star in Camelopardalis isn’t Alpha – but let take out binoculars and star with it any way. Alpha Cam is a rare blue-white class O bright super giant star which may very well be a runaway star from the associated cluster NGC 1502. It appears faint because it is dimmed by nearly a full magnitude by intervening interstellar dust and its true luminosity might be as much as 530,000 Suns!
Now take a look at slightly brighter Beta. At 40 million years old and about 1000 light years from our solar system, Beta has a mass of about 7 times greater than our Sun, but lying just over an arc minute away is a companion star which is in itself a double star. This small double takes at least a million years to orbit the super giant parent star! According to Jim Kaler, Beta Cam is also a double mystery. It is most likely making the transition from being a hydrogen fusing dwarf (of hot class B) to a larger helium-fusing red giant. Whatever its status, it falls into a zone of temperature and luminosity in which stars become unstable and pulsate as Cepheid variable stars. Beta Cam, however, does not vary, though some multiple pulsations are present with periods of tens of days. No one knows why the star is so stable. But is it? During aircraft observations of meteors in 1967, Beta Cam was seen suddenly to flash, brightening by about a magnitude over only a quarter of a second. A variety of “flashes” have been seen from two dozen stars, including Enif and Cursa. Beta Cam is an X-ray source, suggesting some kind of solar-like magnetic behavior, and perhaps the star popped something akin to a solar flare. So keep your eye on it… If you can find it!
For larger binoculars and small telescopes, check out NGC 1502. This small open cluster of approximately 45 stars is made even better by its proximity to an asterism known as “Kemble’s Cascade”. To find it, simply look around Polaris in a counterclockwise rotation moving outward by a field, twice. It is two full binocular fields from Alpha and Beta. The cluster itself is very attractive, but look closely in the telescope and you will see it also contains two double stars – Struve 484 and Struve 485!
Larger binoculars and small telescopes will also have no problem picking up NGC 2403 from a dark sky location. NGC 2403 is spiral galaxy discovered by William Herschel that belongs to the M81 galaxy group. At around 8 million light-years from Earth, larger telescopes will notice the northern spiral arm connects to NGC 2404 in a satellite galaxy interaction. Allan Sandage detected Cepheid variables in NGC 2403 using the Hale telescope, making it the first galaxy beyond our local group to have Cepheids found in it. As of late 2004, there had been two reported supernovae in the galaxy.
For larger telescopes and an observing challenge, try planetary nebula NGC 1501. Discovered in 1787 by Sir William Herschel and located about 4,890 light years away, this irregular disc has a great 14th magnitude central star hidden inside the dimpled structure which gives rise to its popular moniker – the “Oyster Nebula”. Find the pearl!
For a dim fuzzy, hunt down NGC 2715. At magnitude 13.6, this small barred spiral galaxy may have recently experienced a galaxy merger and as many as three supernovae events have been detected recently.
For a true test of your observing skills and equipment, try IC 342. IC 342 is a nearby giant spiral that has a significant dust light extinction. It averages about magnitude 9 and it’s quite large (20′)… and look for a very stellar nucleus. While the exact size and mass of this galaxy is still subject of controversy, there are strong indications that in many respects IC 342 resembles giant spiral similar to our own Galaxy and competes with two other near giant spirals – Milky Way and Andromeda (M 31) – for the gravitational influence in the Local Volume.
There is one meteor shower associated with the constellation of Camelopardalis – the March Camelopardalids. They occur on or about March 22 with no definite peak and the fall rate only averages about one per hour. They are the slowest known meteors at 7 kps.