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.

Image credit:
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:

Image credit:
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.

Image credit:
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.



The Astronomy of the Dog Days of Summer

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


August 3rd


August 4th


August 5th


August 6th


August 7th


August 8th


August 9th


August 10th


August 11th


August 12th


August 13th


August 14th


August 15th


August 16th


August 17th


August 18th


August 19th


August 20th


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!