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Sky Watch: Finding the celestial giraffe

Every week, I try to write about a feature of the night sky that's fairly easy for stargazers to spot. Sure, it might take a little effort, but there's nothing wrong with that. So this week, I thought I'd start off the new year by presenting you with a bit of a challenge.

Just after dark this week, there's a group of stars in the northern sky that I'll bet most experienced stargazers have neither seen nor heard of. Its name is Camelopardalis, and it has to rank right up there with the most obscure constellations in all of the heavens.

It is named for the giraffe, or the "leopard camel," as the ancient Greeks knew it.

the left and you should find Polaris, the North Star. Polaris is much fainter than Capella, but it forms the end of the Little Dipper's handle. The stars of the Giraffe lie about midway between Capella and Polaris. Now appearing nearly upside down, Camelopardalis can be traced with two stars that mark its legs, four that form its body, and two more that mark its neck and face.

Camelopardalis never appears to rise or set from mid-northern latitudes. As a "circumpolar" constellation, it's visible every night to stargazers throughout North America. The brightest star there -- Beta Camelopardalis, as it's known by astronomers -- forms the top of the giraffe's front leg. It's a yellow supergiant star some 100 times larger than our own sun but because of its tremendous distance of 1,700 light years, it appears rather faint.

Once you find these stars, tracking down the others of the giraffe shouldn't be too tough. I hope you'll let me know if you see it, and perhaps offer me some better tips on how to find or trace its stars.

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