Last night was an amazingly good night for skywatching. The (earthbound) dog and I went for a walk a few blocks from the house. Temperature was in the teens and a bitter wind was cutting into my coat from the north and northwest. Our family dog is old, about fourteen or fifteen and getting pretty gray around the snout and paws. But she still leaps when it’s time for a walk and has a great affinity for snow.
Heading south in my neighborhood, there are fewer houses and only two streetlights. Once I was out from under their glare, I was seeing a lot in the sky. In between the constellations of Gemini and Leo, I saw the Crab holding its little beehive. Orion’s shield was clearly visible, and when I checked north to Ursa Minor, I could just make out the 5th magnitude star in the Little Dipper. Amazing. On a good night, I’m doing well to see down to magnitude 3. Even a bit of the Milky Way was discernible. I forgot about the cold for a few minutes and just enjoyed.
Magnitude 3 is usually good enough to make out Orion’s two dogs. Are they hunting the rabbit, or barking at Taurus the Bull? Who knows?
Here’s the chart for Canis Major (the Big Dog for those who prefer the vernacular). Sirius, the second-brightest star (after the Sun) we can see from Earth is dominant–even in city glare you can usually see it. All of the major stars linked by green lines were visible last night. This dog may be loyal to Orion, but it is faithless for deep sky observers: the band of dust in our own galaxy obscures distant galaxies, and only two star clusters, NGC 2362 and M41, provide any excitement. Perhaps the mythology of this dog is more interesting.
On the opposite bank of the Milky Way is Canis Minor, anchored by the star Procyon. Here’s the chart:
You were expecting more? Only two named stars make up the “little dog.”
The main stars of these two constellations share some similarities. Sirius and Procyon are both very close, eight and eleven light years away respectively. They are in turn numbers two and nine in terms of brightnes as seen from Earth. They each have a very small, dim white dwarf companion.
The young miss is home from school today, sick, and my wife hasn’t been feeling very well either. I’ve been catching up on laundry, baking bread, and fixing some reheatable meals for them this morning. We have the 10PM Thursday Mass tonight and after I get home, I’ll look forward to hopefully clear skies and a brisk stroll with the dogs of winter.