Canis Major – the greater dog

December 3, 2017

Astronomy

Canis Major is one of the several constellations in the sky that represent dogs. It’s the greater dog of the two near Orion. This constellation was handed down to us from Ptolemy a couple thousand years ago.

Most of the time Canis Major is merely introduced as one of Orion’s two rabbit chasers. But there is a more interesting story from olden times that says the dog is actually Laelaps, a magical hound that was destined to always catch his prey. The capable critter was taken out for a walk by a trouble-making prince who was apparently fond of philosophical dilemmas. He set Laelaps the inescapable dog after the Teumessian Fox, who was destined to be uncatchable.

The two unbeatable opponents went ripping across the countryside. The fox couldn’t get away but also couldn’t be caught. It soon became obvious that the race would never end due to a superficial and linguistically contrived paradox. Zeus hates that sort of thing. He turned them both into stone, thus allowing philosophers to move on and elevate their debates to matters of consequence. Laelaps later got turned into stars and placed in the sky which surprised no one.

Sirius is Greek for “Super-Freakin-Hot” because when the Sun and Sirius get together in August they have hot weather in Greece, and those are the “dog days of summer.”

The bright star Sirius, sometimes called the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the whole damn sky, except for the sun of course. It’s actually two stars, Sirius A & B. They are only about 8.6 light-years away which is the main reason why A is so bright, although it is also 20x intrinsically brighter than the sun, which helps. The unseen companion B is a white dwarf in a tight orbit with A. The two orbit each other every 50 years. They were at their closest in 1993. They will be at their farthest apart between 2020 and 2025.

By an amazing coincidence Sirius is also a dog star in the starlore of the Cherokee people, and so is the star Mirzam, the second brightest star of the constellation. Together they guard the Milky Way which the tribe considered to be a starry highway to the “Land of the Souls.” Canis Major is the Cherokee on-ramp to the road of the dead.

So when Cherokee people died they were buried with two hunks of meat. Their souls could then toss the meat to the two dogs as a distraction while they slipped between and up the ramp. Woe to the poor soul who threw both hunks at the first dog because they would wind up trapped between the two dogs, I guess until some other soul happened along with more meat.

The Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy is a small galaxy which is being raided of its valuables by the Milky Way. As far as we know it is the closest dwarf galaxy to Earth. It is only 25,000 light years away.

While you are star hopping in the neighborhood of Canis Major be sure to check out Thor’s Helmet Nebula which is a nebula shaped like Thor’s Helmet.

Carpe Noctem

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