With days frequently topping 100 degrees, the dog days of summer are officially here. These sweltering days gained their nickname from the position of Sirius, the Dog Star, during the summer months.
Canis Major or the Big Dog is one of those constellations that actually looks like what it is supposed to be — a dog. During the winter months Canis Major can be seen just east of Orion in the night sky. Sirius is the star that makes up the dog's head and is one of the easiest to spot because it is the brightest star in the northern hemisphere. While this star shines brilliantly in the winter, it is not visible during the summer months because of its location behind the sun. It was once thought that the hot summer days of July and August were the result of Sirius adding its heat to that of the sun.
Another noteworthy animal in the sky is Scorpio the scorpion. It is somewhat harder to find something that looks like a scorpion in this collection of stars, but with a good guide and a better imagination, it can be done. Most people find it much easier to see a teapot in the stars that make up Scorpio. The reason I like this constellation is not because of its zoological connections or its story of endless turmoil but because of what can be found within. When you look at Scorpio, you are looking at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. On a very dark night, you can even see the stream of white trailing away from it that is actually billions of stars light years away.
A remarkable number of our constellations represent animals, and each one has its own fascinating story. Modern astronomers largely use ancient Greek constellations to divide up the sky, but every culture has had its own stories about the stars. In Australia, the early Aboriginals identified an emu in the sky. Native North Americans told stories of bears, spiders and snakes, and the people of China referred to the tiger, bird and tortoise of the sky. Many different cultures around the world once looked at the night sky and saw a large bear, which we still refer to today as Ursus Major or the Big Bear, though in North America today this is often known as the Big Dipper.
Animals play such a large role in our lives that they can't help but end up in our mythology and astronomy. All you need to do is sit and watch the animals at the zoo for a few minutes and you can see how these stories formed. Next time you find yourself stargazing, see if you can find an otter, elephant or red panda up there. I'm sure they are all represented. You just have to look.