The Brightest Star in the Sky, Sirius, was Hiding a Cluster of Stars. Found by Gaia

In December of 2013, the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission took to space. Since that time, this space observatory has been studying a billion astronomical objects – including stars, planets, comets, asteroids and galaxies – for the sake of creating the most precise 3D space catalog ever made. By the time the mission wraps up (later this year, barring extensions), it is expected to reveal some truly amazing things about our Universe.

In fact, with the first release of its data, the Gaia probe revealed something that has gone completely unnoticed until now. While viewing Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, Gaia revealed a stellar cluster that had previously been obscured by Sirius’ bright light. This cluster – now known as the Gaia 1 Cluster – is now available to the public thanks to a picture that was taken by an amateur astronomer from Germany.

Given its brightness and the fact that it is visible from just about anywhere on the planet, Sirius has been known since antiquity, and was featured prominently in the astrological and astronomical traditions of many cultures. To the ancient Egyptians, the star was used to keep track of time and agriculture, since its return to the sky was linked to the annual flooding of the Nile.

Artist’s impression of a white dwarf star in orbit around Sirius (a main sequence white dwarf). Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

In Ancient Greek mythology, Sirius represented the eye of the Canis Major constellation. Along with Canis Minor, it formed the Great Dog that diligently followed Orion, the Hunter. In Chinese astronomy, the star is known as the star of the “celestial wolf” and lies in the Mansion of Jing. And when Ptolemy created his influential astronomical tract in the 3rd century CE (the Almagest), he used Sirius as the location for the globe’s central meridian.

By the mid-19th century, astronomers determined that Sirius is actually a binary star system. Essentially, the star system consists of a main sequence white dwarf that is roughly two Solar masses and a white dwarf that is slightly more massive than our Sun. Sirius’ bright appearance means that astronomers have had plenty of light to study the star’s properties, but also causes it to outshine other celestial objects in its vicinity.

However, in the course of counting the stars around Sirius, Gaia’s sophisticated instruments managed to detect the Gaia 1 Cluster for the first time. News of both this cluster and another newly-discovered one (the Gaia 2 Cluster) became public after the first release of Gaia data, which took place in September 2016. News of this discovery sent ripples through the astronomical community and has led to much research into this cluster and its companion.

News of the discovery also prompted attempts to visually capture the cluster. Roughly a year ago, Harald Kaiser – an amateur astronomer from Karlsruhe, Germany – attended a public talk about the Gaia mission, where he learned about the Gaia 1 Cluster being spotted near Sirius. Kaiser then eagerly waited for the next clear night so he could find the cluster himself using his 30 cm telescope.

The ESA’s Gaia mission is currently on a five-year mission to map the stars of the Milky Way. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab; background: ESO/S. Brunier.

After snapping a picture of Sirius and correcting for its bright glare, he was able to capture some of the brightest stars in the cluster. As you can see from the image he took (at top), the cluster lies slightly to the left of Sirius and shows a smattering of some of its largest and brightest stars. In addition to revealing the location of this cluster, Kaiser’s efforts are also part of a larger effort to capitalize on the Gaia mission’s progress.

According to a study released in February of last year – led by Sergey Kopsov of Carnegie Melon University – Gaia 1 is a particularly massive cluster. In essence, it weighs in at an impressive 22,000 Solar Masses, is about 29 light-years (9 parsecs) in diameter, and is located 15,000 light years (4.6 kiloparsecs) from Earth. In addition to its size and the fact that it was previously undiscovered, it’s proximity also makes it an opportune target for future research.

The announcement of this cluster has also caused a fair degree of excitement in the scientific community since it validates the capabilities of Gaia and serves as an example of the kinds of things it is expected to reveal. Astronomers are now looking forward to Gaia’s second data release (planned for April 25th) which is expected to provide even more possibilities for new and exciting discoveries.

And be sure to check out this video about the Gaia mission, courtesy of the ESA:

Further Reading: ESA

Messier 41 – the NGC 2287 Open Star Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the double star known as Messier 41. Enjoy!

During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noted the presence of several “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Having originally mistaken them for comets, he began compiling a list of them so that others would not make the same mistake he did. In time, this list (known as the Messier Catalog) would come to include 100 of the most fabulous objects in the night sky.

One of these objects is the open star cluster known as Messier 41 (aka. M41, NGC 2287). Located in the Canis Major constellation – approximately 4,300 light years from Earth – this cluster lies just four degrees south of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Like most open clusters, it is relatively young – 190 million years old – and contains over 100 stars in a region measuring 25 to 26 light years in diameter.


Running away from us at a speed of about 34 kilometers per second, this field of about 100 stars measures about 25 light years across. Born about 240 million years ago, it resides in space approximately 2300 light years away from our solar system. Larger aperture telescopes will reveal the presence of many red (or orange) giant stars and the hottest star in this group is a spectral type A.

View of the night sky in North Carolina, showing the constellations of Orion, Hyades, Canis Major and Canis Minor. Credit: NASA

As G.L.H. Harris (et al) explained in a 1993 study:

“We have obtained photoelectric UBV photometry for 100 stars, uvbyb photometry for 39 stars and MK spectral types for 80 stars in the field of NGC 2287. After combination with data from other sources, several interesting cluster properties are apparent. Both the UBV and uvbyb photometry point to a small but nonzero reddening, while our spectral types confirm previous results indicating a high binary frequency for the cluster. Based on our spectral and photometric data for the cluster members, we find a minimum binary frequency of 40% and discuss the possibility that the results may imply a binary frequency closer to 80%. The cluster age is found to be based on both the main-sequence turnoff and the red giant distribution; the width of the turn up region can probably be explained by a combination of duplicity and a range in stellar rotation.”

But there’s more than just red giant stars and various spectral types to be found hiding in Messier 41. There’s at least two white dwarf stars, too. As P.D Dobbie explained in a 2009 study:

“[W]e use our estimates of their cooling times together with the cluster ages to constrain the lifetimes and masses of their progenitor stars. We examine the location of these objects in initial mass-final mass space and find that they now provide no evidence for substantial scatter in initial mass-final mass relation (IFMR) as suggested by previous investigations. This form is generally consistent with the predictions of stellar evolutionary models and can aid population synthesis models in reproducing the relatively sharp drop observed at the high mass end of the main peak in the mass distribution of white dwarfs.”

Messier 41 and Collinder 121. Image: Wikisky

As you view Messier 41, you’ll be impressed with its wide open appearance… and knowing it’s simply what happens to star clusters as they get passed around our galaxy. As Giles Bergond (et al.) stated in their 2001 study:

“Taking into account observational biases, namely the galaxy clustering and differential extinction in the Galaxy, we have associated these stellar overdensities with real open cluster structures stretched by the galactic gravitational field. As predicted by theory and simulations, and despite observational limitations, we detected a general elongated (prolate) shape in a direction parallel to the galactic Plane, combined with tidal tails extended perpendicularly to it. This geometry is due both to the static galactic tidal field and the heating up of the stellar system when crossing the Disk. The time varying tidal field will deeply affect the cluster dynamical evolution, and we emphasize the importance of adiabatic heating during the Disk-shocking. During the 10-20 Z-oscillations experienced by a cluster before its dissolution in the Galaxy, crossings through the galactic Disk contribute to at least 15% of the total mass loss. Using recent age estimations published for open clusters, we find a destruction time-scale of about 600 million years for clusters in the solar neighborhood.”

That means we’ve only got another 360 million years to observe it before it’s completely gone (though some estimates place it at about 500 million). Either way, this star cluster is destined to disappear, perhaps before we are!

History of Observation:

Messier 41 was “possibly” recorded by Aristotle about 325 B.C. as a patch in the Milky Way… quite understandable since it is very much within unaided eye visibility from a dark sky location. Said Aristotle:

“.. some of the fixed stars have tails. And for this we need not rely only on the evidence of the Egyptians who say they have observed it; we have observed it also ourselves. For one of the stars in the thigh of the Dog had a tail, though a dim one: if you looked hard at it the light used to become dim, but to less intent glance it was brighter.”

Messier 41 and Sirius. Image: Wikisky

However, Giovanni Batista Hodierna was the first to catalog it in 1654, and the star cluster became a bit more astronomically known when John Flamsteed independently found it again on February 16, 1702. Doing his duty, Charles Messier also logged it:

“In the night of January 16 to 17, 1765, I have observed below Sirius and near the star Rho of Canis Major a star cluster; when examining it with a night refractor, this cluster appeared nebulous; instead, there is nothing but a cluster of small stars. I have compared the middle with the nearest known star; and I found its right ascension of 98d 58′ 12″, and its declination 20d 33′ 50″ north.”

Following suit, other historical astronomers also observed M41 – including Sir John Herschel to include it in the NGC catalog. While none found it particularly thrilling… their notes range from a “coarse collection of stars” to “very large, bright, little compressed”, perhaps you will feel much differently about this easy, bright target!

Locating Messier 41:

Finding Messier 41 isn’t very difficult for binoculars and small telescopes – all you have to know is the brightest star in the northern hemisphere, Sirius, and south! Simply aim your optics at Sirius and move due south approximately four degrees. That’s about one standard field of view for binoculars, about one field of view for the average telescope finderscope and about 6 fields of view for the average wide field, low power eyepiece.

The location of Messier 41 in the Canis Major constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine/Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg

Because Messier 41 is a large star cluster, remember to use lowest magnification to get the best effect. Higher magnification can always be used once the star cluster is identified to study individual members. M41 is quite bright and easily resolved and makes a wonderful target for urban skies and moonlit nights!

Because you understand what’s there…

Object Name: Messier 41
Alternative Designations: M41, NGC 2287
Object Type: Open Galactic Star Cluster
Constellation: Canis Major
Right Ascension: 06 : 46.0 (h:m)
Declination: -20 : 44 (deg:m)
Distance: 2.3 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 4.5 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 38.0 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.


The Canis Major Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we will be dealing with the “big dog” itself – the Canis Major constellation!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

One of these constellations included in Ptolemy’s collection was Canis Major, an asterism located in the southern celestial hemisphere. As one of two constellations representing “the dogs” (which are associated with “the hunter” Orion) this constellation contains many notable stars and Deep Sky Objects. Today, it is one of the 88 constellations recognized by the IAU, and is bordered by Monoceros, Lepus, Columba and Puppis.

Name and Meaning:

The constellation of Canis Major literally translates to “large dog” in Latin. The first recorded mentions of any of the stars associated with this asterism are traced back to Ancient Mesopotamia, where the Babylonians recorded its existence in their Three Star Each tablets (ca. 1100 BCE). In this account, Sirus (KAK.SI.DI) was seen as the arrow aimed towards Orion, while Canis Major and part of Puppis were seen as a bow.

Artist's impression of a white dwarf star in orbit around Sirius (a white supergiant). Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)
Artist’s impression of a white dwarf star in orbit around Sirius (a white supergiant). Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

To the ancient Greeks, Canis Major represented a dog following the great hunter Orion. Named Laelaps, or the hound of Prociris in some accounts, this dog was so swift that Zeus elevated it to the heavens. Its Alpha star, Sirius, is the brightest object in the sky (besides the Sun, the Moon and nearest planets). The star’s name means “glowing” or “scorching” in Greek, since the summer heat occurred just after Sirius’ helical rising.

The Ancient Greeks referred to such times in the summer as “dog days”, as only dogs would be mad enough to go out in the heat. This association is what led to Sirius coming to be known as the “Dog Star”. Depending on the faintness of stars considered, Canis Major resembles a dog facing either above or below the ecliptic. When facing below, since Sirius was considered a dog in its own right, early Greek mythology sometimes considered it to be two headed.

Together with the area of the sky that is deserted (now considered as the new and extremely faint constellations Camelopardalis and Lynx), and the other features of the area in the Zodiac sign of Gemini (i.e. the Milky Way, and the constellations Gemini, Orion, Auriga, and Canis Minor), this may be the origin of the myth of the cattle of Geryon, which forms one of The Twelve Lab ours of Heracles.

Sirius and the "Summer Triangle", . Credit: Greg Bacon/ STScI/ESA/NASA
Artist’s impression of Sirius and the “Summer Triangle”. Credit: G. Bacon (STScI)/ESA/NASA

Sirius has been an object of wonder and veneration to all ancient peoples throughout human history. In fact, the Arabic word Al Shi’ra resembles the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian names suggesting a common origin in Sanskrit, in which the name Surya (the Sun God) simply means the “shining one.” In the ancient Vedas this star was known as the Chieftain’s star; and in other Hindu writings, it is referred to as Sukra – the Rain God, or Rain Star.

Sirius was revered as the Nile Star, or Star of Isis, by the ancient Egyptians. Its annual appearance just before dawn at the Summer Solstice heralded the flooding of the Nile, upon which Egyptian agriculture depended. This helical rising is referred to in many temple inscriptions, where the star is known as the Divine Sepat, identified as the soul of Isis.

To the Chinese, the stars of Canis Major were associated with several different asterisms – including the Military Market, the Wild Cockerel, and the Bow and Arrow. All of these lay in the Vermilion Bird region of the zodiac, on of four symbols of the Chinese constellations, which is associated with the South and Summer.  In this tradition, Sirius was known Tianlang (which means “Celestial Wolf”) and denoted invasion and plunder.

This constellation and its most prominent stars were also featured in the astrological traditions of the Maori people of New Zealand, the Aborigines of Australia, and the Polynesians of the South Pacific.

Isis depicted with outstretched wings in an ancient wall painting (ca. 1360 BCE). Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Ägyptischer Maler
Isis depicted with outstretched wings in an ancient wall painting (ca. 1360 BCE). Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Ägyptischer Maler

History of Observation:

This constellation was one of the original 48 that Ptolemy included in his 2nd century BCE work the Amalgest. It would remain a part of the astrological traditions of Europe and the Near East for millennia. The Romans would later add Canis Minor, appearing as Orion’s second dog, using stars to the north-west of Canis Major.

In medieval Arab astronomy, the constellation became Al Kalb al Akbar, (“the Greater Dog”), which was transcribed as Alcheleb Alachbar by European astronomers by the 17th century. In 1862, Alvan Graham Clark, Jr. made an interesting discovery while testing an 18″ refractor telescope at the Dearborn Observatory at Northwestern University in Illinois.

In the course of observing Sirius, he discovered that the bright star had a faint companion – a white dwarf later named Sirius B (sometimes called “the Pup”). These observations confirmed what Friedrich Bessel proposed in 1844, based on measurements of Sirius A’s wobble. In 1922, the International Astronomical Union would include Canis Major as one of the 88 recognized constellations.

Canis Major as depicted in Urania's Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825. Credit: Library of Congress
Canis Major as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825. Credit: Library of Congress

Notable Features:

Canis Major has several notable stars, the brightest being Sirius A. It’s luminosity in the night sky is due to its proximity (8.6 light years from Earth), and the fact that it is a magnitude -1.6 star. Because of this, it produces so much light that it often appears to be flashing in vibrant colors, an effect caused by the interaction of its light with our atmosphere.

Then there’s Beta Canis Majoris, a variable magnitude blue-white giant star whose traditional name (Murzim) means the “The Heralder”. It is a Beta Cephei variable star and is currently in the final stages of using its hydrogen gas for fuel. It will eventually exhaust this supply and begin using helium for fuel instead. Beta Canis Majoris is located near the far end of the Local Bubble – a cavity in the local Interstellar medium though which the Sun is traveling.

Next up is Eta Canis Majoris, known by its traditional name as Aludra (in Arabic, “al-aora”, meaning “the virgin”). This star shines brightly in the skies in spite of its distance from Earth (approx. 2,000 light years from Earth) due to it being many times brighter (absolute magnitude) than the Sun. A blue supergiant, Aludra has only been around a fraction of the time of our Sun, yet is already in the last stages of its life.

Another “major” star in this constellation is VY Canis Majoris (VY CMa), a red hypergiant star located in the constellation Canis Major. In addition to being one of the largest known stars, it is also one of the most luminous ever observed. It is located about 3,900 light years (~1.2 kiloparsecs) away from Earth and is estimated to have 1,420 solar radii.

VY Canis Majoris. The biggest known star.
Size comparison between the Sun and VY Canis Majoris, which once held the title of the largest known star in the Universe. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Oona Räisänen

Canis Major is also home to several Deep Sky Objects, the most notable being Messier 41 (NGC 2287). Containing about 100 stars, this impressive star cluster contains several red giant stars. The brightest of these is spectral type K3, and located near M41’s center. The cluster is estimated to be between 190 and 240 million years old, and its is believed to be 25 to 26 light years in diameter.

Then there’s the galactic star cluster NGC 2362. First seen by Giovanni Hodierna in 1654 and rediscovered William Herschel in 1783, this magnificent star cluster may be less than 5 million years old and show shows signs of nebulosity – the remains of the gas cloud from which it formed. What makes it even more special is the presence of Tau Canis Major.

Easily distinguished as the brightest star in the cluster, Tau is a luminous supergiant of spectral type O8. With a visual magnitude of 4.39, it is 280,000 times more luminous than Sol. Tau CMa is also brighter component of a spectroscopic binary and studies of NGC 2362 suggest that it will survive longer than the Pleiades cluster (which will break up before Tau does), but not as long as the Hyades cluster.

Then there’s NGC 2354, a magnitude 6.5 star cluster. While it will likely appear as a small, hazy patch to binoculars, NGC 2354 is actually a rich galactic cluster containing around 60 metal-poor members. As aperture and magnification increase, the cluster shows two delightful circle-like structures of stars.

The Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy - the Milky Way's current dinner. Image Credit: APOD
The Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy – currently recognized as being the closet neighbor to the Milky Way. Credit: APOD

For large telescopes and GoTo telescopes, there are several objects worth studying, like the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy (RA 7 12 30 Dec -27 40 00). An irregular galaxy that is now thought to be the closest neighboring galaxy to our part of the Milky Way, it is located about 25,000 light-years away from our Solar System and 42,000 light-years from the Galactic Center.

It has a roughly elliptical shape and is thought to contain as many stars as the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy, which was discovered in 2003 and thought to be the closest galaxy at the time. Although closer to the Earth than the center of the galaxy itself, it was difficult to detect because it is located behind the plane of the Milky Way, where concentrations of stars, gas and dust are densest.

Globular clusters thought to be associated with the Canis Major Dwarf galaxy include NGC 1851, NGC 1904, NGC 2298 and NGC 2808, all of which are likely to be a remnant of the galaxy’s globular cluster system before its accretion (or swallowing) into the Milky Way. NGC 1261 is another nearby cluster, but its velocity is different enough from that of the others to make its relation to the system unclear.

Finding Canis Major:

Finding Canis Major is quite easy, thanks to the presence of Sirius – the brightest star to grace the night sky. All you need to do is find Orion’s belt, discern the lower left edge of constellation (the star Kappa Orionis, or Saiph), and look south-west a few degrees. There, shining in all it glory, will be the “Dog Star”, with all the other stars stemming outwards from it.

The location of the Canis Major constellation in the southern sky. Credit: IAU
The location of the Canis Major constellation in the southern sky. Credit: IAU

Unfortunately, Sirius A’s luminosity means that the means that poor “Pup” hardly stands a chance of being seen. At magnitude 8.5 it could easily be caught in binoculars if it were on its own. To find it, you’ll need a mid-to-large telescope with a high power eyepiece and good viewing conditions – a stable evening (not night) when Sirius is as high in the sky as possible. It will still be quite faint, so spotting it will take time and patience.

Between Sirius at the northern tip, and Adhara at the south, you can also spot M41 residing almost about halfway. Using binoculars or telescopes, all one need do is aim about 4 degrees south of Sirius – about one standard field of view for binoculars, about one field of view for the average telescope finderscope, and about 6 fields of view for the average wide field, low power eyepiece.

Thousands of years later, Canis Major remains an important part of our astronomical heritage. Thanks largely to Sirius, for burning so brightly, it has always been seen as a significant cosmological marker. But as our understanding of the cosmos has improved (not to mention our instruments) we have come to find just how many impressive stars and stellar objects are located in this region of space.

We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates.

Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it!

For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Canes Venatici and Constellation Families.



What is the Brightest Star in the Sky, Past and Future?

Brightest Star

What’s the brightest star you can see in the sky tonight?

If you live below 83 degrees north latitude, the brightest star in the sky is Canis Alpha Majoris, or Sirius. Seriously, (bad pun intended) the -1st magnitude star is usually the fifth brightest natural object in the sky, and sits high to the south on February evenings… but has it always ruled the night? Continue reading “What is the Brightest Star in the Sky, Past and Future?”

What Are The Most Famous Stars?

While there are untold billions of celestial objects visible in the nighttime sky, some of them are better known than others. Most of these are stars that are visible to the naked eye and very bright compared to other stellar objects. For this reason, most of them have a long history of being observed and studied by human beings, and most likely occupy an important place in ancient folklore.

So without further ado, here is a sampling of some of the better-known stars in that are visible in the nighttime sky:

Also known as the North Star (as well as the Pole Star, Lodestar, and sometimes Guiding Star), Polaris is the 45th brightest star in the night sky. It is very close to the north celestial pole, which is why it has been used as a navigational tool in the northern hemisphere for centuries. Scientifically speaking, this star is known as Alpha Ursae Minoris because it is the alpha star in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear).

The Polaris star system, as seen within the Ursa Minor constellation and up close. Credit: NASA, ESA, N. Evans (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), and H. Bond (STScI)
The Polaris star system, as seen within the Ursa Minor constellation and up close. Credit: NASA, ESA, N. Evans (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), and H. Bond (STScI)

It’s more than 430 light-years away from Earth, but its luminosity (being a white supergiant) makes it highly visible to us here on Earth. What’s more, rather than being a single supergiant, Polaris is actually a trinary star system, comprised of a main star (alpha UMi Aa) and two smaller companions (alpha UMi B, alpha UMi Ab). These, along with its two distant components (alpha UMi C, alpha UMi D), make it a multistar system.

Interestingly enough, Polaris wasn’t always the north star. That’s because Earth’s axis wobbles over thousands of years and points in different directions. But until such time as Earth’s axis moves farther away from the “Polestar”, it remains our guide.

Because it is what is known as a Cepheid variable star – i.e. a star that pulsates radially, varying in both temperature and diameter to produce brightness changes – it’s distance to our Sun has been the subject of revision. Many scientific papers suggest that it may be up to 30% closer to our Solar System than previously expected – putting it in the vicinity of 238 light years away.

Time exposure centered on Polaris, the North Star. Notice that the closer stars are to Polaris, the smaller the circles they describe. Stars at the edge of the frame make much larger circles. Credit: Bob King
Time exposure centered on Polaris, the North Star. Notice that the closer stars are to Polaris, the smaller the circles they describe. Stars at the edge of the frame make much larger circles. Credit: Bob King

Also known as the Dog Star, because it’s the brightest star in Canis Major (the “Big Dog”), Sirius is also the brightest star in the night sky. The name “Sirius” is derived from the Ancient Greek “Seirios“, which translates to “glowing” or “scorcher”. Whereas it appears to be a single bright star to the naked eye, Sirius is actually a binary star system, consisting of a white main-sequence star named Sirius A, and a faint white dwarf companion named Sirius B.

The reason why it is so bright in the sky is due to a combination of its luminosity and distance – at 6.8 light years, it is one of Earth’s nearest neighbors. And in truth, it is actually getting closer. For the next 60,000 years or so, astronomers expect that it will continue to approach our Solar System; at which point, it will begin to recede again.

In ancient Egypt, it was seen as a signal that the flooding of the Nile was close at hand. For the Greeks, the rising of Sirius in the night sky was a sign of the”dog days of summer”. To the Polynesians in the southern hemisphere, it marked the approach of winter and was an important star for navigation around the Pacific Ocean.

Alpha Centauri System:
Also known as Rigel Kent or Toliman, Alpha Centauri is the brightest star in the southern constellation of Centaurus and the third brightest star in the night sky. It is also the closest star system to Earth, at just a shade over four light-years. But much like Sirius and Polaris, it is actually a multistar system, consisting of Alpha Centauri A, B, and Proxima Centauri (aka. Centauri C).

Artist’s impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B. Credit: ESO

Based on their spectral classifications, Alpha Centauri A is a main sequence white dwarf with roughly 110% of the mass and 151.9% the luminosity of our Sun. Alpha Centauri B is an orange subgiant with 90.7% of the Sun’s mass and 44.5% of its luminosity. Proxima Centauri, the smallest of the three, is a red dwarf roughly 0.12 times the mass of our Sun, and which is the closest of the three to our Solar System.

English explorer Robert Hues was the first European to make a recorded mention of Alpha Centauri, which he did in his 1592 work Tractatus de Globis. In 1689, Jesuit priest and astronomer Jean Richaud confirmed the existence of a second star in the system. Proxima Centauri was discovered in 1915 by Scottish astronomer Robert Innes, Director of the Union Observatory in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In 2012, astronomers discovered an Earth-sized planet around Alpha Centauri B. Known as Alpha Centauri Bb, it’s close proximity to its parent star likely means that it is too hot to support life.

Pronounced “Beetle-juice” (yes, the same as the 1988 Tim Burton movie), this bright red supergiant is roughly 65o light-year from Earth. Also known as Alpha Orionis, it is nevertheless easy to spot in the Orion constellation since it is one of the largest and most luminous stars in the night sky.

Betelgeuse, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA
Betelgeuse, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope, and in relation to the Orion constellation. Credit: NASA

The star’s name is derived from the Arabic name Ibt al-Jauza’, which literally means “the hand of Orion”. In 1985, Margarita Karovska and colleagues from the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, announced the discovery of two close companions orbiting Betelgeuse. While this remains unconfirmed, the existence of possible companions remains an intriguing possibility.

What excites astronomers about Betelgeuse is it will one day go supernova, which is sure to be a spectacular event that people on Earth will be able to see. However, the exact date of when that might happen remains unknown.

Also known as Beta Orionis, and located between 700 and 900 light years away, Rigel is the brightest star in the constellation Orion and the seventh brightest star in the night sky. Here too, what appears to be a blue supergiant is actually a multistar system. The primary star (Rigel A) is a blue-white supergiant that is 21 times more massive than our sun, and shines with approximately 120,000 times the luminosity.

Rigel B is itself a binary system, consisting of two main sequence blue-white subdwarf stars. Rigel B is the more massive of the pair, weighing in at 2.5 Solar masses versus Rigel C’s 1.9. Rigel has been recognized as being a binary since at least 1831 when German astronomer F.G.W. Struve first measured it. A fourth star in the system has been proposed, but it is generally considered that this is a misinterpretation of the main star’s variability.

Rigel A is a young star, being only 10 million years old. And given its size, it is expected to go supernova when it reaches the end of its life.

Vega is another bright blue star that anchors the otherwise faint Lyra constellation (the Harp). Along with Deneb (from Cygnus) and Altair (from Aquila), it is a part of the Summer Triangle in the Northern hemisphere. It is also the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, the fifth brightest star in the night sky and the second brightest star in the northern celestial hemisphere (after Arcturus).

Characterized as a white dwarf star, Vega is roughly 2.1 times as massive as our Sun. Together with Arcturus and Sirius, it is one of the most luminous stars in the Sun’s neighborhood. It is a relatively close star at only 25 light-years from Earth.

Vega was the first star other than the Sun to be photographed and the first to have its spectrum recorded. It was also one of the first stars whose distance was estimated through parallax measurements, and has served as the baseline for calibrating the photometric brightness scale. Vega’s extensive history of study has led it to be termed “arguably the next most important star in the sky after the Sun.”

Artist's concept of a recent massive collision of dwarf planet-sized objects that may have contributed to the dust ring around the star Vega. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)
Artist’s concept of a recent massive collision of dwarf planet-sized objects that may have contributed to the dust ring around the star Vega. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)

Based on observations that showed excess emission of infrared radiation, Vega is believed to have a circumstellar disk of dust. This dust is likely to be the result of collisions between objects in an orbiting debris disk. For this reason, stars that display an infrared excess because of circumstellar dust are termed “Vega-like stars”.

Thousands of years ago, (ca. 12,000 BCE) Vega was used as the North Star is today, and will be so again around the year 13,727 CE.

Also known as the “Seven Sisters”, Messier 45 or M45, Pleiades is actually an open star cluster located in the constellation of Taurus. At an average distance of 444 light years from our Sun, it is one of the nearest star clusters to Earth, and the most visible to the naked eye. Though the seven largest stars are the most apparent, the cluster actually consists of over 1,000 confirmed members (along with several unconfirmed binaries).

The core radius of the cluster is about 8 light years across, while it measures some 43 light years at the outer edges. It is dominated by young, hot blue stars, though brown dwarfs – which are just a fraction of the Sun’s mass – are believed to account for 25% of its member stars.

Pleiades by Jamie Ball
Pleiades, also known as M45, is a prominent open star cluster in the sky. Image Credit: Jamie Ball

The age of the cluster has been estimated at between 75 and 150 million years, and it is slowly moving in the direction of the “feet” of what is currently the constellation of Orion. The cluster has had several meanings for many different cultures here on Earth, which include representations in Biblical, ancient Greek, Asian, and traditional Native American folklore.

Also known as Alpha Scorpii, Antares is a red supergiant and one of the largest and most luminous observable stars in the nighttime sky. It’s name – which is Greek for “rival to Mars” (aka. Ares) – refers to its reddish appearance, which resembles Mars in some respects. It’s location is also close to the ecliptic, the imaginary band in the sky where the planets, Moon and Sun move.

This supergiant is estimated to be 17 times more massive, 850 times larger in terms of diameter, and 10,000 times more luminous than our Sun. Hence why it can be seen with the naked eye, despite being approximately 550 light-years from Earth. The most recent estimates place its age at 12 million years.

A red supergiant, Antares is about 850 times the diameter of our own Sun, 15 times more massive, and 10,000 times brighter. Credit: NASA/Ivan Eder
A red supergiant, Antares is over 850 times the diameter of our own Sun, 15 times more massive, and 10,000 times brighter. Credit: NASA/Ivan Eder

Antares is the seventeenth brightest star that can be seen with the naked eye and the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius. Along with Aldebaran, Regulus, and Fomalhaut, Antares comprises the group known as the ‘Royal stars of Persia’ – four stars that the ancient Persians (circa. 3000 BCE) believed guarded the four districts of the heavens.

Also known as Alpha Carinae, this white giant is the brightest star in the southern constellation of Carina and the second brightest star in the nighttime sky. Located over 300 light-years away from Earth, this star is named after the mythological Canopus, the navigator for king Menelaus of Sparta in The Iliad. 

Thought it was not visible to the ancient Greeks and Romans, the star was known to the ancient Egyptians, as well as the Navajo, Chinese and ancient Indo-Aryan people. In Vedic literature, Canopus is associated with Agastya, a revered sage who is believed to have lived during the 6th or 7th century BCE. To the Chinese, Canopus was known as the “Star of the Old Man”, and was charted by astronomer Yi Xing in 724 CE.

An image of Canopus, as taken by crewmembers aboard the ISS. Credit: NASA
Image of Canopus, as taken by crew members aboard the ISS. Credit: NASA

It is also referred to by its Arabic name Suhayl (Soheil in persian), which was given to it by Islamic scholars in the 7th Century CE. To the Bedouin people of the Negev and Sinai, it was also known as Suhayl, and used along with Polaris as the two principal stars for navigation at night.

It was not until 1592 that it was brought to the attention of European observers, once again by Robert Hues who recorded his observations of it alongside Achernar and Alpha Centauri in his Tractatus de Globis (1592).

As he noted of these three stars, “Now, therefore, there are but three Stars of the first magnitude that I could perceive in all those parts which are never seene here in England. The first of these is that bright Star in the sterne of Argo which they call Canobus. The second is in the end of Eridanus. The third is in the right foote of the Centaure.”

This star is commonly used for spacecraft to orient themselves in space, since it is so bright compared to the stars surrounding it.

Universe Today has articles on what is the North Star and types of stars. Here’s another article about the 10 brightest stars. Astronomy Cast has an episode on famous stars.

Are All the Stars Really Dead?

Have you ever heard that meme, “When looking at stars, you’re actually looking into the past. Many of the stars we see at night have already died.” Is this true?

While you’re flipping through your Pinterest collection of cat-based inspirational posters, you might come across the saying, “When looking at stars, you’re actually looking into the past. Many of the stars we see at night have already died. Like your dreams.”

Aww, that’s mean and sad. But is it true, Squidward? Are all these beautiful stars in our night sky long gone? Like our dreams?

Light travels at about 300,000 km/s, which is incredibly fast. Stars are so far away, even light from the closest stars will take years to get to us travelling at that speed. Most of the stars we see with the naked eye are actually pretty close. The brightest in the night sky is Sirius in the constellation Canis Major. It’s only about 8.6 light years away.

Which means if you crashed a whole bunch of spaceships into it tomorrow, we here on Earth wouldn’t see it happen for almost a decade. Long after people had stopped wondering where you’d picked up all those spaceships, and why had you decided to crash them into a star instead of trading for gold pressed latinum, the spice Melange, or magical space cheese.

One of the most distant naked eye stars is Deneb in the constellation Cygnus, which is almost 3,000 light years away. The light we’re seeing from Deneb started its journey towards us when ancient Rome was just a few hamlets and not even on the map for real estate speculators.

Cygnus. Credit: Stellarium
Cygnus. Credit: Stellarium

This might seem like a really long time for those of us without immortal robot bodies, but a few thousand years is negligible to the age of a typical star, which is on the order of billions of years. So, Deneb, barring removal for an interstellar bypass, is probably still there.

There are a few stars that could possibly explode in the near future, such as the red giant star Betelgeuse in the constellation of Orion.

It’s about 650 light years away, if it had exploded a couple centuries ago, we still wouldn’t know. There are a few galaxies that can be seen with the naked eye, such as Andromeda, which is about 2.5 million light years away. Given that Andromeda has somewhere between 200 and 400 billion stars, it is almost certain that some of them have exploded in the last 2 and a half million years. But the vast majority of them have are still there, twinkling away.

So it is possible that you could look up in the night sky and see a “dead” star, but almost all of the stars you see are perfectly active main-sequence stars, and will be for quite some time. Telescopes allow us to see much further out into space, billions of light years away. Given that a star like our Sun has a lifetime of about 10 billion years, many stars in most of the distant galaxies we observe died long ago.

This cluster is 27,000 light-years away and lies farther than the center of our galaxy in the constellation Sagittarius. Credit: NASA/ESA/I. King, Univ. of Calif., Berkeley/
This cluster is 27,000 light-years away and lies farther than the center of our galaxy in the constellation Sagittarius. Credit: NASA/ESA/I. King, Univ. of Calif., Berkeley/

But don’t be sad, we’re not running out of stars. Because of this huge passage of time, it means many new stars have been born, and we just aren’t able to see them yet. There are some stars even in the most distant galaxies that are still around.

Smaller stars live longer than larger stars, and red dwarf stars can live for trillions of years. So when you look at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, the most distant galaxies are around 13 billion years old, and the smaller stars in those galaxies are still shining. So don’t worry. Those stars are still there, and so are your dreams.

What do you think? If you go get a closeup look and see which stars were still around, where would you go look first? Tell us in the comments below.

And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

Amazing Manual Trailing of Sirius and More Astrophotos from Pakistan

Ever notice how the brilliant star Sirius appears to change colors right before your eyes? Astrophotographer Roshaan Bukhari from Pakistan wanted to see for himself how this twinkling star changes in color due to the effects of our atmosphere as its light gets refracted and he did a little experiment with his telescope and camera. What resulted was a unique and colorful astrophoto!

“I pointed my telescope to sharply focus on Sirius and put my DSLR camera to 2 second exposure while holding it near the eyepiece and focusing Sirius from the camera viewfinder as well,” Roshaan told Universe Today via email. “I started shaking the telescope in a circular manner by holding it from the eyepiece so that Sirius was dancing all over the eyepiece in an ‘O’ shape. That’s when I pressed the camera shutter button and the shutter remained open for 2 seconds, recording the colours and the pattern of Sirius within the eyepiece.”

Roshaan said he did enhance the contrast to bring the trails out more clearly, but the color saturation and hues have not been altered in any way. The changes in color in just a two-second exposure are really amazing!

Roshaan shared how astronomy and astrophotography in Pakistan is becoming a “blooming field now” — which we are very happy to hear! “And I’m very happy to say that I am a part of it!” he said, adding, “I’m one of the biggest fans of Universe Today and have been listening to it’s podcasts on iTunes since i got my first iPhone back in 2008.”

Here are few more images from Roshaan Bukhari under Pakistan skies:

Two views of the the 13-day old Moon on  June 11, 2014 at  7 pm and 2 am local time, as seen from Lahore, Pakistan.  Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.
Two views of the the 13-day old Moon on June 11, 2014 at 7 pm and 2 am local time, as seen from Lahore, Pakistan. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.

How does the look of the Moon change during the night? These images of the Moon — taken 7 hours apart — were shot through Roshaan’s telescope with his mobile phone camera using the handheld afocal method!

Phase of the moon at 7 pm was 96.8%, while at 2 am it was 97.5% (rate of change of lunar phase turns out to be 0.7% in 7 hours, figures estimated from Stellarium).

Roshaan said the quality of the images is not that great since he took them while there a lot of dust was up in the atmosphere due to some strong winds, but we think they look great!

The phases of Venus from November 2013 to January 2014. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.
The phases of Venus from November 2013 to January 2014. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.
A closeup of four craters that appear on the limb of the Moon. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.
A closeup of four craters that appear on the limb of the Moon. Credit and copyright: Roshaan Bukhari.

Thanks to Roshaan for sharing his images from Pakistan.

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Why Does Sirius Twinkle?

At this time of year, after dark we in the northern hemisphere are able to see the mighty constellation of Orion rise high in the sky with a very bright companion in a nearby constellation: Sirius – The Dog Star.

Sirius is the brightest star in the sky and can easily be found in the faint constellation of Canis Major to the left and below Orion. Its name comes from ancient Greek meaning “glowing” or “scorcher.”

Sirius (α CMa) is the alpha star in this trusty hound and is roughly 8.5 light years away from Earth, making it one of the closest stars to us. It has a tiny companion star making it a binary system composed of “Sirius A” the main component (which is a white main sequence star) and “Sirius B,” a white dwarf star. As seen with the naked eye, Sirius can be seen to twinkle many different colours low in the winter evening sky.

Sirius A
Sirius. Image credit: Hubble

So why does Sirius twinkle?

It’s not just Sirius that twinkles; all stars twinkle. Light travels many light years from stars and right at the end of its journey, it hits Earth’s atmosphere, which consists of nitrogen, oxygen and other gasses.

Earth’s atmosphere is constantly swirling around, and wind and air currents etc distort light travelling through it. This causes the light to slightly bend or shimmer and the light from distant stars twinkle. An extreme, more down-to-Earth example of this would be heat rising off of a road or a desert causing objects behind it to distort, shimmer and change colour.

Sirius appears to twinkle or shimmer more than other stars for some very simple reasons. It is very bright, which can amplify atmospheric effects and it is also very low down in the atmosphere for those in the northern hemisphere. We are actually looking at it through a very dense part of the atmosphere which can be turbulent and contain many different particles and dust. The lower towards the horizon an observer is looking, the thicker the atmosphere. The higher an observer is looking, the thinner the atmosphere. This is also the cause of colourful sunrise and sunsets.

(Addition due to the questions in the comment section: planets don’t usually twinkle because they are closer and therefore bigger — they are disks of light instead of faraway points of light. The larger disks of light usually aren’t distorted; however if you are looking through especially turbulent areas of our atmosphere, and even sometimes when looking at planets that are low in the thicker parts of the atmosphere, they will twinkle. Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer explains it very well on his website.)

This optical illusion is a big pain for astronomers and some very large telescopes such as those in Chile and Hawaii use special equipment and techniques to reduce the effects of the atmosphere.

One of most famous telescope of them all, the Hubble Space Telescope doesn’t get affected at all by our atmosphere as it is in space, making the light from stars crystal clear.

Twinkle, twinkle little star, now we know what you are (and why you are twinkling!)