Exploring the hounds of the heavens

  • By Mike Lynch
  • Friday, March 11, 2016 5:23pm
  • Life
Exploring the hounds of the heavens

Without a doubt, one of the best group of constellations in the night sky is what I lovingly call “Orion and his Gang.” The majestic constellation Orion is surrounded by a bevy of bright stars and constellations. I’ll say without any hesitation that it’s my favorite part of the night sky and makes winter stargazing worth bundling up for.

Even if you don’t notice much of the starry show going on over your head every clear night, you still have to be at least mildly impressed with Orion’s gang in the southern evening sky. Surrounding the mighty hunter with his cinched belt of three bright stars in a row are the bright constellations like Taurus the Bull, with the bright Pleiades star cluster; Auriga the Chariot Driver turned goat farmer; Gemini the Twins; and Canis Major and Canis Minor, the Big and Little Dogs. The hounds of the heavens are found to the lower left of Orion.

Canis Major and Minor are not the only doggy constellations in the sky. There’s also Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs, but it’s a very minor constellation that is very low in the northeastern sky this time of year, just a little to the right of the Big Dipper’s handle. Canis Major and Minor will give you a lot more bark and bite, especially the big dog of the sky, Canis Major.

Canis Major is one of those select constellations that actually resembles what it’s supposed to be. It really looks like a dog up on its hind legs, begging for food at the foot of his master, Orion. Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, marks the cold nose of the big pooch. The next brightest star you see just to the right of Sirius is Mirzam, which denotes the elevated front paw. To the lower left of Sirius there’s a nearly perfect triangle of stars that marks Canis Major’s hind end, his back paw, and his tail.

The star Aludra at the tip of the tail is one of the more distant naked eye stars in the night sky at over 3,200 light-years away, with just one light-year clocking in at nearly 6 trillion miles. If you see a star like Aludra that’s so far away, common sense tells you straight away that you’re looking at one gargantuan star, and in fact, most astronomers believe Aludra is over 28 million miles in diameter. Our own sun isn’t even 1 million miles in diameter. Aludra also kicks out more than 100,000 times the light of our sun.

As impressive as Aludra’s stats are, the star that really gets your attention in Canis Major is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Sirius is a Greek name that translates into English as “the scorcher”. Its brilliance is chiefly due to its close proximity to us, relatively speaking. The big shiner is only 8.6 light-years away, or about 50 trillion miles away. Sirius is about twice the mass and twice the diameter of our sun. A fun thing to do with Sirius is to look at it with a small telescope or even a pair of binoculars, especially when it’s really low in the sky and its light has to pierce through more of Earth’s atmosphere. That causes the light to scintillate violently, making it flicker with all of the colors of the rainbow, kind of like a cosmic kaleidoscope.

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