The Dog Days and Sothic Cycles of August

The month of August is upon us once again, bringing with it humid days and sultry nights for North American observers.

You’ll often hear the first few weeks of August referred to as the Dog Days of Summer. Certainly, the oppressive midday heat may make you feel like lounging around in the shade like our canine companions. But did you know there is an astronomical tie-in for the Dog Days as well?

We’ve written extensively about the Dog Days of Summer previously, and how the 1460 year long Sothic Cycle of the ancient Egyptians became attributed to the Greek adoption of Sothis, and later in medieval times to the ‘Dog Star’ Sirius. Like the Blue Moon, say something wrong enough, long enough, and it successfully sticks and enters into meme-bank of popular culture.

Sirius (to the lower right) along with The Moon, Venus and Mercury and a forest fire taken on July 22, 2014. (Note- this was shot from the Coral Towers Observatory in the southern hemisphere). Image credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe
Sirius (to the lower right) along with The Moon, Venus and Mercury and a forest fire taken on July 22, 2014. (Note- this was shot from the Coral Towers Observatory in the southern hemisphere). Image credit and copyright: Joseph Brimacombe

A water monopoly empire, the Egyptians livelihood rested on knowing when the annual flooding of the Nile was about to occur. To this end, they relied on the first seasonal spotting of Sirius at dawn. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky, and you can just pick out the flicker of Sirius in early August low to the southeast if you know exactly where to look for it.

Sundown over Cairo during the annual flooding of the Nile river. Image Credit: Travels through the Crimea, Turkey and Egypt 1825-28 (Public Domain).
Sundown over Cairo during the annual flooding of the Nile river. Image Credit: Travels through the Crimea, Turkey and Egypt 1825-28 (Public Domain).

Sirius lies at a declination of just under 17 degrees south of the celestial equator. It’s interesting to note that in modern times, the annual flooding of the Nile (prior to the completion of the Aswan Dam in 1970) is commemorated as occurring right around August 15th. Why the discrepancy? Part of it is due to the 26,000 year wobbling of the Earth’s axis known as the Precession of the Equinoxes; also, the Sothic calendar had no intercalculary or embolismic (think leap days) to keep a Sothic year in sync with the sidereal year. The Sothic cycle from one average first sighting of Sirius to another is 365.25 days, and just 9 minutes and 8 seconds short of a sidereal year.

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The Djoser step pyramid outside of Cairo. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

But that does add up over time. German historian Eduard Meyer first described the Sothic Cycle in 1904, and tablets mention its use as a calendar back to 2781 BC.  And just over 3 Sothic periods later (note that 1460= 365.25 x 4, which is the number of Julian years equal to 1461 Sothic years, as the two cycles ‘sync up’), and the flooding of the Nile now no longer quite coincides with the first sighting of Sirius.

Such a simultaneous sighting with the sunrise is known in astronomy as a heliacal rising. Remember that atmospheric extinction plays a role sighting Sirius in the swampy air mass of the atmosphere low to the horizon, taking its usual brilliant luster of magnitude -1.46 down to a more than a full magnitude and diminishing its intensity over 2.5 times.

This year, we transposed the seasonal predicted ‘first sightings’ of Sirius versus latitude onto a map of North America:

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Optimal sighting dates for the heliacal rising of Sirius by latitude. Image credit: Dave Dickinson, adapted from data by Ed Kotapish.

Another factor that has skewed the date of first ‘Sirius-sign’ is the apparent motion of the star itself. At 8.6 light years distant, Sirius appears to move 1.3 arc seconds per year. That’s not much, but over the span of one Sothic cycle, that amounts up to 31.6’, just larger than the average diameter of a Full Moon.

Sirius has been the star of legends and lore as well, not the least of which is the curious case of the Dogon people of Mali and their supposed privileged knowledge of its white dwarf companion star. Alvan Graham Clark and his father discovered Sirius B  in 1862 as they tested out their shiny new 18.5-inch refractor. And speaking of Sirius B, keep a telescopic eye on the Dog Star, as the best chances to spy Sirius B peeking out from the glare of its primary are coming right up around 2020.

Sirius image Credit
The dazzling visage of Sirius. Image credit: Dave Dickinson

Repeating the visual feat of spying Sirius B low in the dawn can give you an appreciation as to the astronomical skill of ancient cultures. They not only realized the first sighting of Sirius in the dawn skies coincided with the annual Nile flooding, but they identified the discrepancy between the Sothic and sidereal year, to boot. Not bad, using nothing but naked eye observations. Such ability must have almost seemed magical to the ancients, as if the stars had laid out a celestial edge for the Egyptians to exploit.

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Man’s best (observing) friend… Image credit: Dave Dickinson

You can also exploit one method of teasing out Sirius from the dawn sky a bit early that wasn’t available to those Egyptian astronomer priests: using a pair of binoculars to sweep the skies. Can you nab Sirius with a telescope and track it up into the daytime skies? Sirius is just bright enough to see in the daytime against a clear blue sky with good transparency if you know exactly where to look for it.

Let the Dog Days of 2015 begin!

Astro-Challenge: Taming the Pup-Can You Glimpse Sirius B?

Astronomy is all about thinking big, both in time and space.

The Earth turns on its axis, the Moon passes through its phases, and the planets come into opposition and solar conjunction on a routine basis.

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, there are some events which traverse such colossal spans of time that the mere mortal life span of measly homo sapiens such as ourselves can never expect to cover them. Many comets have periods measured in centuries, or thousands of years. The axis of the Earth wobbles like a top, completing one turn every 26,000 years in what’s known as the Precession of the Equinoxes. Our solar system completes one revolution about the galactic center every quarter billion years…

Feeling puny yet? Sure, astronomy is also about humility. But among these stupendous cycles, there are some astronomical events that you just might be able to live through. One such instance is the orbits of double stars. And as 2015 approaches, we challenge you to see of the most famous white dwarf of them all, as it reaches a favorable viewing position over the next few years: Sirius B.

Sirius A and B in x-rays courtesy of Chandra. Credit: NASA/SAO/CXC.

Sirius itself is easy to find, as it’s the brightest star in Earth’s sky shining at magnitude -1.42. In fact, you can spot Sirius in the daytime sky if you know exactly where to look.

But it is one of the ultimate in cosmic ironies that the most conspicuous of stars in our sky also hosts such an elusive companion. The discovery of Sirius B awaited the invention of optics capable of resolving it next to its dazzling host. Alvan Clark Jr. and Sr. first spied the enigmatic companion on January 31st, 1862 while testing their newly constructed 18.5 inch refractor, which was the largest at the time. The discovery was soon verified from the Harvard College Observatory, adding Sirius A and B to the growing list of multiple stars.

Photo by the author.
A 19th century refractor similar to the one used to discover Sirius B. Photo by the author.

And what a strange companion it turned out to be. Today, we know that Sirius B is a white dwarf, the cooling dense ember of a main sequence star at the end of its life. We call the matter in such a star degenerate, not as a commentary on its moral stature, but the state the electrons and the closely packed nuclei within under extreme pressure. Our Sun will share the same ultimate fate as Sirius B, about six billion years from now.

A comparison of a white dwarf (center) and our Sun (right) Credit: RJHall/Wikimedia Commons.

The challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to spot Sirius B in the glare of its host. The contrast in brightness between the pair is daunting: shining at magnitude +11, the B companion is more than 63,000 times fainter than -1.46 magnitude Sirius A.

Created by the author.
The changing position angle of Sirius B. Note that the graphic is inverted, with north at the bottom. Created by the author.

A feat of visual athletics, indeed. Still, Sirius B breaks 10” in separation from its primary in 2015, as it heads towards apastron — its most distant point from its primary, at just over 11” in separation — in 2019. Sirius B varies from 8.2 and 31.5 AUs from its primary. Sirius B is on a 50.1 year orbit, meaning the time to cross this one off of your life list is over the upcoming decade. Perhaps making an animation showing the motion of Sirius B from 2015-2025 would present a supreme challenge as well.

Sirius culminates at local midnight right around New Year’s Eve, shining at its highest to the south as the “ball drops” ushering in 2015. Of course, this is only a fortuitous circumstance that is possible in our current epoch, and precession and the proper motions of both Sirius and Sol will make this less so millennia hence.

Credit: Stellarium.
Sirius crossing the meridian at local midnight on New Year’s Eve. Credit: Stellarium.

Newsflash: there’s a very special visual treat in the offing next week, as comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy is currently hovering around +6th magnitude and passes 19 degrees south of Sirius on Christmas Day… more to come!

Magnification and good seeing are your friends in the hunt for Sirius B. Two factors describe the position of a secondary star in a binary pair: its position angle in degrees, and separation in arc seconds. When it comes to stars that are a tough split, I find its better to estimate the position angle first before looking it up. A close match can often confirm the observation. Does a friend see the same thing at the eyepiece? A good star to “warm up” on is the +6.8 magnitude companion to Rigel in the foot of Orion, with a separation of 9”.

Nudging Sirius just out of view might allow the B companion to become apparent. Another nifty star-spliting tool is what’s known as an occulting bar eyepiece. Making an occultation bar eyepiece is easy: we’ve used everything from a small strip of foil to a piece of guitar string (heavy E gauge works nicely) for the central bar. An occulting bar eyepiece is also handy for hunting down the moons of Mars near opposition.

Sirius B also works its way into cultural myths and lore, not the least of which are the curious tales of the Dogon people of Mali. At the outset, it seems that these ancient people have knowledge of a small dense hidden companion star to Sirius, knowledge that requires modern technology to reproduce. Carl Sagan noted, however, that cultural contamination may have resulted in the late 19th century discovery of Sirius B making its way into the Dogon pantheon. The science of anthropology is rife with anecdotes that have been carefully fed to credulous anthropologists only to be reported later as fact, all in the name of a good story.

A comparison of Sirius B’s real versus apparent trajectory. Credit: SiriusB/Wikimedia Commons.

All amazing things to ponder as you begin your 2015 quest for Sirius B, a bashful but fascinating star.

– Read more on the curious case of the Dogon and Sirius B.

-Want more white dwarfs? Here’s a handy list of white dwarfs of backyard telescopes.



Observing Challenge: 6 White Dwarf Stars to See in Your Backyard Telescope

Looking for something off beat to observe? Some examples of curious astronomical objects lie within the reach of the dedicated amateur armed with a moderate-sized backyard telescope. With a little skill and persistence, you just might be able to track down a white dwarf star.  Unlike splashy nebulae or globular clusters, a white dwarf star will just appear as a speck, a tiny dot in the field of view of your telescope’s eyepiece. But just as in the case of observing other exotic objects such as red giants and quasars, part of the thrill of tracking down these astrophysical beasties is in knowing just what it is that you’re seeing. Heck, many amateur astronomers fail to realize that any white dwarf stars are within range of their instruments and have never tracked one down.

The astrophysical nature of white dwarf stars was first uncovered in the early 20th century. Most of the early white dwarf stars discovered were companions in binary star systems and this allowed astronomers to gauge their mass by following the orbital motion of such pairs over time. Soon, astronomers realized that they were looking at something peculiar, a new type of compact but massive stellar object that stubbornly refused to be pigeon-holed along the main sequence of the freshly conceived Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.

Today, we know that white dwarf stars are the remnants of stars which have long since passed the Red Giant stage. We say that a white dwarf is a degenerate star, and no, this not a commentary on its moral state. The Chandrasekhar limit gives us an upper limit in size for a white dwarf at about 1.4 solar masses, beyond which electron degeneracy pressure can no longer act against the inward pull of gravity. Our Sun will one day become a white dwarf, over 6 billion years from now. Think of cramming the mass of our star into the volume of the Earth and you have some idea just how dense a white dwarf is: a cubic centimetre of white dwarf weighs 250 about tons, and two cup fulls of white dwarf would weigh more than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

Think of a white dwarf as a cooling ember of a star long past its hydrogen fusing prime. And white dwarfs will cool down to infrared radiating black dwarfs over trillions of years, far longer than the present 13.7 billion year age of the universe. In fact, the age of white dwarfs currently observed is one on the underpinning tenets of modern Big Bang cosmology.

All amazing stuff. In any event, here is a baker’s half dozen of white dwarf stars that you can find with a telescope tonight. A more extensive list of the nearest white dwarfs to the Earth can be found on Sol Station.

The orbit of Sirius B. Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain.
The orbit of Sirius B. Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain.

Sirius B:  This is the nearest white dwarf to the Earth at 8.6 light years distant. Shining at magnitude +8.5, Sirius B would be a cinch to see, if only dazzling Sirius A — the brightest star in our sky at magnitude -1.5 — were not nearby. Sirius B orbits its primary once every 50 years and will reach a maximum separation of 11.5” from its primary in 2025, a prime time to cross it off of your life list in the coming decade. Blocking the primary just out of the field of view, or using an occulting bar eyepiece is key to finding Sirius B.

Sirius B was discovered by American telescope maker Alvan Graham Clark in 1862. The Dogon people of Mali also have some curious myths surrounding the star Sirius.

Constellation: Canis Major

Right Ascension: 6 Hours 45’

Declination: -16° 43’

The apparent orbit of Procyon B through 2039. Graphic created by the author.
The apparent orbit of Procyon B through 2039. Graphic created by the author.

Procyon B: Located 11.5 light years distant, Procyon B was discovered in 1896 by John Martin Schaeberle from the Lick observatory. Shining at magnitude +10.7, the chief difficultly with spotting this white dwarf, as with Sirius B, is that it has a companion about 10 magnitudes – that’s 10,000 times brighter – nearby just 4.3” away.

Constellation: Canis Minor

Right Ascension: 7 hours 39’

Declination: +5 13’

Credit: Starry Night Education Software.
The location of GJ 440 (HIP 57367) in the southern sky. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

-LP145-141: Also known as GJ 440, LP145-141 is one of the best southern hemisphere white dwarf stars on the list. LP145-141 is a solitary white dwarf shining at magnitude +11.5. Located 15 light years distant, LP145-141 is thought to be a member of the nearby Wolf 219 Moving Group of stars.

Constellation: Musca

Right Ascension: 11 Hours 46’

Declination: -64° 50’

Credit: Stellarium
The location of Van Maanen’s Star in the constellation Pisces. Credit: Stellarium

-Van Maanen’s Star: Shining at magnitude +12.4 and located 14.1 light years distant, Van Maanen’s star is the closest solitary white dwarf to Earth and the best example of a white dwarf for small telescopes. Discovered by Ariaan van Maanen in 1917, Van Maanen’s Star also has a very high proper motion of 3” per year.

Constellation: Pisces

Right Ascension: 00 Hours 49’

Declination: 05° 23’

Image by Author
The 40 Omicron Eridani system. Image by Author

-40 Omicron Eridani B: This is a great one to track down. The triple system of 40 Omicron Eridani b contains a fine example of a red and white dwarf orbiting a main sequence star. Located 16.5 light years distant and shining at magnitude +9.5, Omicron Eridani was the first white dwarf star discovered in 1783 by Sir William Herschel, although its true nature wasn’t deduced until 1910. Omicron Eridani B is currently 82” from its primary, an easy split.

Constellation: Eridanus

Right Ascension: 4 Hours 15’

Declination: 7° 39’

-Stein 2051: Rounding off the list and located just over 18 light years distant, Stein 2051 is another example of a red dwarf/white dwarf pair. Stein 2051 b shines at a similar brightest to Van Maanen’s star at magnitude +12.4.

Constellation: Camelopardalis

Right Ascension: 04 Hours 31’

Declination: +58° 59’

Let us know about your trials and triumphs in hunting down these fascinating objects!