Astro Bob: Don't look now, but there's a giraffe over your head
Meet Camelopardalis, the giraffe that never sleeps.
I confess I've never seen the giraffe constellation. I know the general area and have hunted galaxies and star clusters there but have yet to take the time to connect its faint stars into the improbable-sounding Camelopardalis. Pronounced kah-MEL-oh-PAR-dal-is, it means camel-leopard (kamelos-pardalis), the ancient Greek name for a giraffe. But the constellation itself is a relatively recent invention.
Dutch astronomer and cartographer Peter Plancius created the figure in 1612 by stringing together random stars in the large, vacant region of sky between the Big Dipper's bowl and the bright stars of Cassiopeia and Auriga. The resulting figure only vaguely resembles a giraffe. Soon other celestial mapmakers adopted his constellation, and the creature survived to the current day after making the official cut by the International Astronomical Union in 1922.
Its brightest star, Beta Camelopardalis (abbreviated Beta Cam), shines at magnitude 4.0. Both Alpha and Gamma are slightly fainter. All three plus several others that outline the giraffe, are visible from darker suburban areas and the countryside. If you have difficulty finding them break out the binoculars.
Maybe the easiest way to get to Camelopardalis is to start with Cassiopeia, located high in the northwestern sky at nightfall. In fall it looks like the letter W, but in winter it's tipped on its side and more resembles an M or a simple zigzag. Cassiopeia lies on the opposite side of the Pole Star from the Big Dipper.
A line extended out of Cassiopeia to the right (see map) will take you to Gamma Cam. From there, work your way up to find Alpha and Beta. An alternative route is to start in Perseus at Mirfak and Gamma Persei and triangulate to Beta. If you find Alpha, Beta and Gamma Cam give yourself a pat on the back — you've done well!
Camelopardalis hosts several fine galaxies and star clusters, but given the paucity of bright stars in the area they take some effort to find. However, one object I think you'll like is Kemble's Cascade, a tumble of stars that looks positively picturesque in binoculars. It's not a true star cluster but a 3-degree-long string of colorful but unrelated stars that trickles from the belly of the giraffe. Father Lucien Kemble , a Franciscan friar and amateur astronomer, discovered the asterism with a pair of 7x35 binoculars in 1980.
Seeing it from a dark sky is best but some of the stars will show even in moderate light pollution. At the top of the cascade look for a fuzzy star with a few faint sprinkles around it. That's NGC 1502, a true star cluster. Its members were born from the same dust-and-gas cloud and travel through space together like a pack of bikers.
And now that I've asked you to go out and find Camelopardalis it's only right I should do the same. You have my word — the next clear night I'll look for that giraffe. I hope you will, too. Lucky for us, it's circumpolar, meaning that from mid-northern latitudes, the "camel leopard" is visible all night every night of the year.