THE HUNTING DOGS OF ORION
Orion, the hunter, has two smaller constellations following him through the night sky from late December until late March each year. Legend from the Greek and Roman tradition tells us that they are his hunting dogs. Both are assigned Latin names: one is Canis Major (Large Dog). The other is Canis Minor (Small Dog.)
In late March, both constellations should be easy to find if you have a clear view to the south-west. To find the Large Dog, first find brilliant Orion in the south-west, still fairly well-placed above the southwest horizon. Orion, as you will remember, has ruby-colored Betelgeuse (Beetle Juice) for one shoulder and brilliant Rigel for one foot.
To find the Large Dog, locate the three bright stars that form Orion’s belt. Now, consider that these stars make a straight line. Now follow the line down to the LEFT. The line will take you to Sirius which represents the right eye of Canis Major.
Sirius is the second closest star to our solar system (the closest is Alpha Centauri, only 4 ½ light years away.) Sirius is 8.6 light-years (L.Y.) distant. It is considered the brightest of all the stars in the sky, making it easy to locate. Because it is quite low in the night sky, it sparkles, shooting off red flashes, also green and other colors. It is really awesome to see Sirius sparkle, especially if you watch it with binoculars.
A teacher friend of mine was also an amateur astronomer. One night, he was on the sidewalk with his telescope. He was enjoying his view of Sirius with all its sparkles.
A neighbor boy, a curious chap, asked my friend what he was looking at.
My friend said, “I’m looking at something called Sirius.”
The boy looked through the scope and saw the bright star. He ran home in a rush and said, “Hey, something serious is going on in the sky.”
I need to clarify: the colors shooting from this star do not originate from Sirius. The colors are made by our earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere shakes when heat from the ground rises and shakes the air. The shaking air is said to shake because of “convection currents.” As the currents rise, the shaking becomes less. (That is why the best earth-based telescopes are located as high as possible where the air shakes less, preferably on the top of a mountain.)
The shaking air acts like a prism, breaking the light from super-bright Sirius into all those colors. The flashing colors as we see in Sirius are still fun to see even if we know where the colors come from.
The Big Dog can be considered to be running on his two hind legs, so as to catch up to his master, Orion. A star to the right of Sirius represents his nose, and stars to the left represent his ears. Stars down from Sirius and somewhat to the left represent the legs on which the Big Dog runs.
A good star map will help you visualize a running dog. A free star map can be obtained by going to www.skymaps.com.
To get more information, purchase the AUDUBON SOCIETY FIELD GUIDE TO THE NIGHT SKY.
Canis Minor, the Small Dog, is really a pipsqueak constellation. It has only two stars on most star maps. How does one make a hunting dog out of that? Just do your best!
Its bigger star is Procyon, meaning “the star that rises before the Big Dog.” It makes an almost perfect equilateral triangle with Sirius and Betelgeuse. Locate it by going to the left of Betelgeuse. It is the first bright star that you come to. It is only 11.4 light years distant, making it almost as bright as Sirius.
Get out to see Orion and his hunting dogs before they sink into the southwest horizon in April. Happy Star Gazing!