Camelopardalis


Transit Date of principal star:
4 December

If one were asked to name all the four-legged creatures found in the sky, the Ram and the Bull would come readily to mind, and the Bear and Dog (two of each actually: major and minor). A little more thought might produce the Hare (or Rabbit) and the Unicorn (however mythic it might be). Then some might recall that there is also a Fox and a Wolf. And yes, could there also be a Camel?

Not really. The Camel doesn't belong in our menagerie. Camelopardalis means Giraffe. It is also sometimes written Camelopardus, although the correct spelling is indeed CAMELOPARDALIS. At least that's the way Pliny the Elder wrote the animal's name in his Natural History.


The constellation does look like a giraffe, sort of, if you can manage to join together some rather faint stars. The map I've made this week is extremely distorted since the constellation is so far north (it's principle stars are circumpolar for all those living above a latitude of 30 degrees north). Thus the stars aren't nearly as far apart as shown on my flat rendition.

In the winter months the Giraffe appears upside down. You might want to study Camelopardalis in the summer, when it's right side up.

The constellation was probably invented by Petrus Plancius (1552-1622), a Dutchman who made his name in cartography while working for the Dutch East India Company. His world maps of 1592 and 1594 became very popular, while his contribution to the heavenly maps was awarded in 1624 when Camelopardalis was included in Jakob Bartsch's book on the constellations. (Some historians believe Bartsch to have invented the constellation.)
While Camelopardalis sits between Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, the best way to begin studying it is to first find your bearings. With the naked eye locate Capella (alpha Aurigae). If you aren't sure which of the bright stars is Capella, start from the Big Dipper. Now instead of moving north to the Pole Star, move across the top part of the dipper (a line from delta Ursae Majoris drawn through alpha Ursae Majoris) and continue straight into the southern portion of the skies. As you approach the Milky Way, the very bright star you see is Capella.

Moving northwest from Capella you enter Perseus. Half way between Capella and Algenib (alpha Persei) and five degrees north of this last star, are the feet of the Giraffe. Roughly half way between Algenib and the North Pole is gamma Camelopardalis, the haunch of the giraffe.

Return to Capella; move west three degrees and north seven degrees. This is 7 Cam, a binary (Struve 610) which serves as the giraffe's front foot.

Now that we've got his backside and front foot sorted out, let's move from 7 Cam to the first bright star, about seven degrees north. This is beta Cam, also a binary (see below).

Beta Cam is the brightest star in Camelopardalis, at 4.03 visual magnitude, a yellow supergiant roughly a hundred times the size of the Sun, and about 1700 light years away.

Further north another six degrees and you encounter alpha Cam, which is nearly as bright at 4.3. This is a blue supergiant 4000 light years distant, with a diameter about half that of beta Cam.

Northwest of alpha Cam is gamma, with a visual magnitude of only 4.63. This star is only twice the size of our Sun, and is about 180 light years away.

These are the only Bayer stars in the constellation. But that's not to say there aren't other stars of great interest.


Double stars:

Camelopardalis boasts of several little known but very attractive double star systems.

Struve 485 is an outstanding binary surrounded by a host of glittering 10- and 11-magnitude stars which make up the open cluster NGC 1502. This is a wide and easy binary, and a lovely sight.

NGC 1502 is found half way between alpha and beta Cam, and about 55 arc minutes west. The brightest star in this group is the primary of Struve 485, found at the centre. The binary's vital statistics are AB: 6.1, 6.2; PA 304 degrees, at separation 18.1".

At virtually the same location is a second binary, Struve 484, which is much fainter: AB: 9.0, 9.5; PA 132, 5.3".

Struve 1051 is a striking triple system of similar stars. AB: 6.5, 7.7; PA 284 degrees, separation 1.1"; C: 7.8, PA 82 degrees and separation 31.5".

This very nice system is found in an otherwise desolate region: 7h, 26m, 35s; +73 degrees, 4', 58". It's well worth the detour.

Struve 1694 is a wide pair of nearly equal stars (5.0, 5.5; PA 326 degrees, separation 21.6")

Beta Camelopardalis features a pale yellow primary and a very wide, much fainter, companion: 4.0, 9.0; PA 208 degrees, separation 80".

Component B has a closer companion, named "b", an 11-magnitude star at 14.8" and PA 168 degrees.

Variable stars:

R Cam is a Mira-type variable with a period of 270.22 days, rising from 14.4 visual magnitude only to about 7, which makes it a telescopic variable all throughout its cycle.
VZ Cam is a semi-regular with an average period of 23.7 days, varying from 4.80 to 5. This is a popular semi-regular for binoculars.

Deep Sky Objects:

Although there are no Messier objects in Camelopardalis, there are many galaxies and star clusters (most of which however are quite faint).

NGC 1502 is the finest star cluster, a small group of perhaps fifteen stars with the binaries Struve 484 and Struve 485 at its centre (see above).

Kemble's Cascade is a string of mostly eighth-magnitude stars (nicely seen in binoculars) which seem to "splash" into the cluster.

The asterism is named for Father Lucian Kemble, a Franciscan and avid Canadian amateur astronomer who first drew attention to it in the late 1970s. (We regretfully note that Father Luc died of heart failure in the early hours of the 21st of February 1999.)

NGC 2403 is a fine spiral galaxy about 10 million light years away. At ninth magnitude it's easily seen in medium sized telescopes, although greater detail is of course obtained in larger scopes.

NGC 2523 is an extremely faint barred spiral galaxy with very curious features. With a visual magnitude of 13, it is only accessible to larger telescopes.


For a closer appreciation of Camelopardalis, visit the Binocular Section.


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