Last call for the winter dogs

The constellations Canis Major and Canis Minor are Orion the Hunter’s faithful companions in our Marshall starry skies. Orion is one of the best known and most recognized characters in the night sky. He’s certainly the king of the cold winter heavens, surrounded by a gang of bright stars and companion constellations like the hounds of winter. Get a good look at them now in the low western sky after sunset because a month or so from now they’ll already be below the western horizon in the early evening.

According to Greek and Roman mythology, Orion was a nocturnal hermit hunter who was the son of Zeus, the king of the gods. Because of his father’s genes, Orion had super human strength and abilities that gave him a huge advantage over the beasts he hunted down. His only weapon was his mighty club, which he would use to take out the critters he skillfully stalked. Of course every good hunter has his faithful hunting dogs, and Orion’s best friends were his big dog, Canis Major, and his little dog, Canis Minor, which are Latin for big and little dog respectively. They’re also seen as constellations adjacent to the great hunter Orion.

Orion’s big dog, Canis Major, is easy to find. From our view it’s just to the left of Orion, and as you can see it really resembles a dog. The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, marks the dog’s nose. Just use the three stars in a row that outline Orion’s belt as a pointer to the left, and you’ll run right into Sirius. To the lower right of Sirius is Mirzam, a dimmer but distinct star that marks the hound’s elevated paw. To the lower left of Sirius you can’t help but notice the triangular pattern of stars that outlines Canis Major’s hind end, hind leg, and tail. As Canis Major journeys across the sky from east to west in response to Earth’s rotation, the big doggy appears to be begging from his master.

At either end of Canis Major are noteworthy stars. Sirius, at the nose, is not only the brightest star of the constellation, but is also the brightest star in the night sky. Its brilliance is partially due to the fact that it’s a star larger than our sun, but is mostly because it’s so much closer to us than most other stars. It’s only 8 light-years away, while most other stars we see at a glance are an average of 100 light- years away. By the way, just one light- year equals almost 6 trillion miles!

At the other end of Canis Major is Aludra, the star at the end of the big dog’s tail. It’s certainly nowhere near the brilliance of Sirius, but it’s one heck of a star! It’s estimated by astronomers that Aludra is almost a billion miles in diameter, over 10 times the diameter of our sun. The reason it has a reasonably humble appearance in our sky is that it’s over 3,000 light years away! The light that you see from Aludra tonight left that great star before the year 1000 B.C.

As majestic as the constellation Canis Major is, Orion’s little hunting dog Canis Minor is kind of a joke by comparison, at least in my opinion. It’s basically just two stars, Procyon and Gomeisa, and that’s it. It’s easy to find. Just look for the next brightest star you can see directly above Sirius. That’s Procyon, the brightest star in Canis Minor. Gomeisa is a fainter star just to the upper right of Procyon. How those two stars outline a dog is anybody’s guess. Maybe it’s a wiener dog!

The constellation Orion and his hunting dogs all make contributions to one of the coolest configurations in the sky, the “Winter Triangle.” In your mind’s eye draw a line from the bright star Betelgeuse at the armpit of Orion the Hunter to Sirius in Canis Major, and then up to Procyon in Canis Minor. You’ll easily see that those three bright stars make up a perfect equilateral triangle from our vantage here on Earth.

Enjoy the hounds of heaven before they go into summer hiding!

CELESTIAL HUGGING THIS WEEK: On Tuesday evening right after evening twilight the new crescent moon will be just the left of the bright planet Venus below the Pleiades Stars Cluster in the constellation Taurus the Bull. On Wednesday evening the crescent moon will be fatter and parked to upper left of Venus. Don’t miss it!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at  adventurepublications.net.

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