With the corona virus feeling like the arrival of doom thank goodness the sky is still open for business. I’m feeling the seriousness and sadness of the pandemic like many of you. Classes are cancelled and events suspended, and I worry about my daughters making ends meet should more businesses decide to shut down. But while we sit tight I want to encourage you to get outside and enjoy nature, in particular the night sky. Rarely has its seemed more relevant — or soothing — than now.
For me it’s always been a place to look up and let go. I write many words about the sky, but when I stand under it I am often without words. Mostly I listen.
Last night, Venus was pure radiance and a hopeful yellow beacon in the west. Orion’s Belt twinkled over the roof, and even Betelgeuse has finally awakened from its dusty slumbers, shining a fifth of a magnitude brighter than its neighbor Bellatrix. As I turned this way and that to take in favorite constellations my stress escaped like air let out of a balloon.
Pets are often comfort during a crisis. I know because I used to have a dog and loved to rub her behind the ears and scratch under her chin. It made us both feel better. Sammy’s no longer with us, but Canis Major the Greater Dog reminds me of her. Let me introduce you. We’ll start at Orion’s Belt. Shoot a line through the belt to the left, and it will take you to the brilliant star Sirius, a.k.a. the Dog Star. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky and visible across both hemispheres. For skywatchers in mid-northern latitudes it’s about a third of the way up in the southern sky, but from La Paz, Bolivia you’d best lie on your back to see it as Sirius shines directly overhead.
The next group of stars in the constellation are all second magnitude and easy to see with wonderful Arabic names: Mirzam, Wezen, Aludra and Adhara. The last three connect to form a triangle that dangles directly below Sirius. Together these five stars form the constellation’s basic outline which in no way resembles a dog. But if you include the fainter ones, which take a little more effort and preferably a dark sky, you have a reasonable facsimile of a canine. Binoculars can help discern these fainter stars that give life to the figure.
Canis Major stands on his hind legs facing Orion the hunter as if jumping for joy at the sight of its owner like our dog used to when I’d bring out food or indicate we were going for a walk. Once you get to know the constellation give it a “pat on the head” every so often. Get familiar with its outline and poke around in there with binoculars. If you “scratch” just below Sirius with your glass you’ll see a small swarm of stars called M41, the 41st entry in the 18th French astronomer Charles Messier’s catalog of objects not to be confused with comets.
M41 is an open cluster located 2,300 light years away that boasts 100 stars. 190 million years ago it was a mess of gas and dust much like the Orion Nebula is today. Gravity compressed the denser pockets of material, gradually converting the potent mist into a buzzing swarm of suns. So goes the universe in an unending cycle of regeneration … and hope. As darkness seems to gather, gather a few friends or your family under the stars. Exhale — at a socially safe distance of course — and watch a dog dance for joy.