The night sky is a starry menagerie that has captured the imaginations of sky watchers for centuries. You may already know about the many animal constellations: bears, dogs, a lion, a lynx, a wolf, a swan … But, unless you’re a dedicated stargazer, you’ve probably never seen the giraffe.
Camelopardalis is a modern constellation, introduced in about 1612 by Dutch astronomer Petrus Plancius. The name camelopardalis comes from the Greek (and Latin) word for giraffe, which was literally known as a “camel leopard,” due to its long camel-like neck and leopard-like spots.
Camelopardalis is our 18th largest constellation, but is not well known because it is not very bright. It sits in the northern sky near Draco, Ursa Minor, Cepheus, Cassiopeia, Perseus, Auriga, Lynx, and Ursa Major. It contains 36 stars, eight of which make up its’ giraffe shape.
Of these, Alpha Cam is notable because, at 5,000 light-years from Earth, it is one of the most distant stars that can be seen with the naked eye. The constellation’s brightest star, Beta Cam, is actually a double star system.
Camelopardalis was mentioned in the news in 2011, when 10-year-old Kathryn Aurora Gray, of New Brunswick, Canada, spotted a supernova within the boundaries of the constellation, becoming the youngest person ever to discover a supernova.
Camelopardalis is notable for being home to many distant galaxies, including NGC 1501, NGC 1502, NGC 1569, NGC 2403, and NGC 2655, among others.
Unlike the many constellations that were named in ancient times, Camelopardalis does not figure heavily in Greek mythology. When German astronomer Jacob Bartsch included the constellation in his 1624 star chart, he said it represented the camel that carried the Biblical figure Rebecca to her wedding with Isaac. Though this back story makes sense in light of the fact that Plancius was a clergyman, as well as an astronomer, it has since been dismissed, because the constellation is named for a giraffe, not a camel.