Astronomy is going to the dogs. Did you know that there are four dog constellations in the sky, and that all four of them are visible at this time of year? Would you like to learn how to find them?
Let’s start with the two constellations in the night sky that almost everybody recognizes and both of them are visible in our clear and cold winter evenings. The first, which technically is an asterism, not a constellation, is the Big Dipper. This large ladling device is part of a greater grouping called Ursa Major, the Great Bear. It circles the northern skies as the seasons go by, scooping up water in the fall that it will dump on us again with the spring rains. The other easily recognizable constellation is the bright, broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted Orion, who carries his club, sword, and shield (even though it’s his belt that everyone notices) across the semi-southern sky every winter. That means he’s a prime-time performer these days. You knew all of this, of course. But, did you also know that all of the dog stars and dog constellations are closely associated with these two, and only these two, pop celestial icons?
The Great Bear is chased across the heavens, never being given any time to rest, by two hunting dogs, known as Canes Venatici, who are constantly nipping at the unnaturally long tail. The hunting dogs are owned by Bootes, the plowman. How appropriate that they’re chasing an asterism that in Europe is called a plough (which we would spell p-l-o-w), not a dipper. Unfortunately, for our casual star gazers, these two dogs don’t really look like dogs. They’re not even decent stick figures, like the twins, Castor and Pollux, in Gemini. They’re just stars — one for each dog. Are those their beady little eyes or their shiny little noses? Or are they drops of drool from the lather they slather as they chase and race across the sky?
Canis Major and Canis Minor
When it comes to looking sort of like what they’re supposed to look like, the other two constellations, Canis Major and Canis Minor, the big dog and the little dog, do a lot better. If you use your imagination to its fullest, Canis Major, home to Sirius, the dog star, can be seen to have a head, a body, forelegs, hind legs, and a tail. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, aside from our own sun. When it lines up with the sun, their combined heat gives us the dog days of summer. At least, that’s what the ancients thought as they sweated their way through them, looking forward to the falling temperatures of Fall. Knowing that the big dog is composed of a really bright star and a supporting cast of lesser luminaries allows celestial sightseers to see the little dog in Canis Minor, which is also made up of a bright star (Procyon, the eighth-brightest) and one or two not-quite-so-brights. Otherwise, it’s not nearly as easy for us to see man’s best friend in this one. Both of these dogs belong to Orion, who is known as a great hunter. Unlike Bootes’ dogs, these hounds aren’t used to give chase. Presumably, their job is to scare up game, like Lepus, the hare, hiding at Orion’s feet. They certainly don’t mind standing in the background, as they’re currently doing, watching from a safe distance while their master is locked in a life and death battle with a red-eyed, hard-charging bull, Taurus.
Puppies, Mythical Creatures or Mascots?
The rest of the sky is devoid of dogs. That may come as a surprise, since the next constellation in line to rise after the Big Dog is called Puppis. That name refers to the poop deck of the ship called Argos, of Jason and the Argonauts fame. Everyone and everything up there in the classic set of constellations is a famous figure of mythic proportion. A simple mis-spelling of the word puppies this is not, even though, with so many dogs running loose, you might expect to find a litter or two of young ones hanging around somewhere. But, no. No more dogs and no puppies at all.
There are, on the other hand, all sorts of other animals: magical, mythical, and even some that might be considered run-of-the-mill. There are birds of all kinds: eagles, swans, crows; there are horses: plain horses, horses with wings, horses with horns; there are bulls, lions, and rams (a regular cornucopia of sports mascots); there are fearsome creatures, like dragons and sea monsters; there are even nasty little ones, like snakes, crabs, and scorpions. There’s one thing you won’t find enshrined in the classical constellations that came down to us from the Greeks and Romans and Persians, and that’s cats! Take that! The sky (while the snow flies, at least) belongs to the canines, not to the felines!
Next time you’re out under a clear dark sky with your dogs, whether they are hunters, pointers, or just fine companions, you should look up, hunt down, and point out these immortal heroes of hound-dog history. The latter may be gone, but they’re not forgotten.