The Astronomy of the Dog Days of Summer

by David Dickinson on August 2, 2013

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Looking east from latitude 30 north on August 3rd, 30 minutes before sunrise. (Created by the author in Stellarium).

Looking east from latitude 30 north on August 3rd, 30 minutes before sunrise. (Created by the author using Stellarium).

Can you feel the heat?

It’s not just your imagination. The northern hemisphere is currently in the midst of the Dog Days of Summer. For many, early August means hot, humid days and stagnant, sultry nights.

The actual dates for the Dog Days of Summer vary depending on the source, but are usually quoted as running from mid-July to mid-August. The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists the Dog Days as running from July 3rd through August 11th.

But there is an ancient astronomical observation that ties in with the Dog Days of Summer, one that you can replicate on these early August mornings.

The sky was important to the ancients. It told them when seasons were approaching, when to plant crops, and when to harvest. Ancient cultures were keen observers of the cycles in the sky.  Cultures that were “astronomically literate” had a distinct edge over those who seldom bothered to note the goings on overhead.

The flooded Temple of Isis on the island of Philae circa 1905. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons under an Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license. Author H.W. Dunning).

The flooded Temple of Isis on the island of Philae circa 1905. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons under an Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 license. Author H.W. Dunning).

Sirius was a key star for Egyptian astronomers. Identified with the goddess Isis, the Egyptian name for Sirius was Sopdet, the deification of Sothis. There is a line penned by the Greco-Roman scholar Plutarch which states:

“The soul of Isis is called ‘Dog’ by the Greeks.”

Political commentary? A mis-translation by Greek scholars? Whatever the case, the mythological transition from “Isis to Sothis to Dog Star” seems to have been lost in time.

These astronomer-priests noted that Sirius rose with the Sun just prior to the annual flooding of the Nile. The appearance of a celestial object at sunrise is known as a heliacal rising. If you can recover Sirius from behind the glare of the Sun, you know that the “Tears of Isis” are on their way, in the form of life-giving flood waters.

Sopdet as the personification of Sirius (note the star on the forehead)

Sopdet as the personification of Sirius (note the star on the forehead) Wikimedia Commons image under an Attribution Share Alike 3.0 license. Author Jeff Dahl).

In fact, the ancient Egyptians based their calendar on the appearance of Sirius and what is known as the Sothic cycle, which is a span of 1,461 sidereal years (365.25 x 4) in which the heliacal rising once again “syncs up” with the solar calendar.

It’s interesting to note that in 3000 BC, the heliacal rising of Sirius and the flooding of the Nile occurred around June 25th, near the summer solstice. This also marked the Egyptian New Year. Today it occurs within a few weeks of August 15th, owing to precession. (More on that in a bit!)

By the time of the Greeks, we start to see Sirius firmly referred to as the Dog Star. In Homer’s Iliad, King Priam refers to an advancing Achilles as:

“Blazing as the star that cometh forth at Harvest-time, shining forth amid the host of stars in the darkness of the night, the star whose name men call Orion’s Dog”

The Romans further promoted the canine branding for Sirius. You also see references to the “Dog Star” popping up in Virgil’s Aenid.

Over the years, scholars have also attempted to link the dog-headed god Anubis to Sirius. This transition is debated by scholars, and in his Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard Hinckley Allen casts doubt on the assertion.

Sirius as the shining "nose" of the constellation Canis Major. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

Sirius as the shining “nose” of the constellation Canis Major. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

Ancient cultures also saw the appearance of Sirius as signifying the onset of epidemics. Their fears were well founded, as summer flooding would also hatch a fresh wave of malaria and dengue fever-carrying mosquitoes.

Making a seasonal sighting of Sirius is fun and easy to do. The star is currently low to the southeast in the dawn, and rises successively higher each morning as August rolls on.

The following table can be used to aid your quest in Sirius-spotting.

Latitude north

Theoretical date when Sirius can 1st be spotted

32°

August 3rd

33°

August 4th

34°

August 5th

35°

August 6th

36°

August 7th

37°

August 8th

38°

August 9th

39°

August 10th

40°

August 11th

41°

August 12th

42°

August 13th

43°

August 14th

44°

August 15th

45°

August 16th

46°

August 17th

47°

August 18th

48°

August 19th

49°

August 20th

50°

August 21st

Thanks to “human astronomical computer extraordinaire” Ed Kotapish for the compilation!

Note that the table above is perpetual for years in the first half of the 21st century. Our friend, the Precession of the Equinoxes pivots the equinoctial points to the tune of about one degree every 72 years. The Earth’s axis completes one full “wobble” approximately every 26,000 years. Our rotational pole only happens to be currently pointing at Polaris in our lifetimes. Its closest approach is around 2100 AD, after which the north celestial pole and Polaris will begin to drift apart. Mark your calendars—Vega will be the pole star in 13,727 AD. And to the ancient Egyptians, Thuban in the constellation Draco was the Pole Star!

Near Luxor (Photo by author).

The Colossi of Memnon Near Luxor, just one of the amazing architectural projects carried out by the ancient Egyptians. (Photo by author).

Keep in mind, atmospheric extinction is your enemy in this quest, as it will knock normally brilliant magnitude -1.46 Sirius a whopping 40 times in brightness to around magnitude +2.4.

Note that we have a nice line-up of planets in the dawn sky (see intro chart), which are joined by a waning crescent Moon this weekend. Jupiter and Mars ride high about an hour before sunrise, and if you can pick out Mercury at magnitude -0.5 directly below them, you should have a shot at spotting Sirius far to the south.

And don’t be afraid to “cheat” a little bit and use binoculars in your quest… we’ve even managed on occasion to track Sirius into the broad daylight. Just be sure to physically block the Sun behind a building or hill before attempting this feat!

Sirius as seen via Hubble- can you spy Sirius B? (NASA/ESA Hubble image).

Sirius as seen via Hubble- can you spy Sirius B? (Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble image).

Of course, the heliacal rising of Sirius prior to the flooding of the Nile was a convenient coincidence that the Egyptians used to their advantage. The ancients had little idea as to what they were seeing. At 8.6 light-years distant, Sirius is the brightest star in Earth’s sky during the current epoch. It’s also the second closest star visible to the naked eye from Earth. Only Alpha Centauri, located deep in the southern hemisphere sky is closer. The light you’re seeing from Sirius today left in early 2005, back before most of us had Facebook accounts.

Sirius also has a companion star, Sirius B. This star is the closest example of a white dwarf. Orbiting its primary once every 50 years, Sirius B has also been the center of a strange controversy we’ve explored in past writings concerning Dogon people of Mali.

Sirius B is difficult to nab in a telescope, owing to dazzling nearby Sirius A. This feat will get easier as Sirius B approaches apastron with a max separation of 11.5 arc seconds in  2025.

Some paleoastronomers have also puzzled over ancient records referring to Sirius as “red” in color.  While some have stated that this might overturn current astrophysical models, a far more likely explanation is its position low to the horizon for northern hemisphere observers. Many bright stars can take on a twinkling ruddy hue when seen low in the sky due to atmospheric distortion.

Let the Dog Days of Summer (& astronomy) begin! (Photo by author).

Let the Dog Days of Summer (& astronomy) begin! (Photo by author).

All great facts to ponder during these Dog Days of early August, perhaps as the sky brightens during the dawn and your vigil for the Perseid meteors draws to an end!

About 

David Dickinson is an Earth science teacher, freelance science writer, retired USAF veteran & backyard astronomer. He currently writes and ponders the universe from Tampa Bay, Florida.

lcrowell August 3, 2013 at 2:27 PM

I saw this planetary lineup this morning. It is pretty stunning.
The early appearance of Orion these days marks the coming of the school term, or at least it used to for me, and over a longer time period the march towards autumn and winter.

LC

Dave Dickinson August 3, 2013 at 2:40 PM

Very cool… I could just barely sight Sirius with binocs here this morning from latitude 28.5 north near Tampa Bay, still not quite a naked eye object yet. Mercury, Mars & Jupiter near the Moon were easy.

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