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The Hunting Dogs

March 16, 2015

Several hunting dogs bound across the evening sky right now. Canis Major, the big dog, is low in the south as darkness falls. It’s marked by Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. And Canis Minor, the little dog, is to its upper left, punctuated by another bright star, Procyon. They represent the dogs of nearby Orion, the hunter.

At the same time, two dogs who attended another mythological character are about a third of the way up the eastern sky. They form the constellation Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs. Unfortunately, though, they’re not nearly as impressive as Orion’s dogs — you need dark skies to see much of anything in this relatively barren patch of sky.

In fact, that area is so bereft of bright stars that Canes Venatici wasn’t created until the late 1600s. German astronomer Johannes Hevelius drew the constellation as a pair of dogs attending Bootes, the herdsman, which rises below the dogs.

While the constellation is quite bland to the eye alone, a telescope reveals several astronomical treasures. Perhaps the most impressive is M51, the Whirlpool galaxy. It consists of a bright spiral galaxy that we see face-on, revealing its beautiful arms in great detail. A smaller galaxy sits at the end of one of those arms. It skimmed quite close to the larger galaxy, causing giant clouds of gas there to collapse and give birth to new stars.

We’ll talk about another of the constellation’s deep-sky wonders tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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