A Star to Mark a New Year

Sirius (bottom) and the constellation Orion (right) with its 3-star “belt.”                        (Hubble European Space Agency Image by Akira Fujii – spacetelescope.org)

Sirius is the brightest star in the sky.  Its common name is the Dog Star because it’s part of the constellation Canis Major (Greater Dog). “Sirius” means sparkling or scorching – a name given for its brightness in the night sky.  Sirius is almost twice as bright as Canopus, the next brightest star.

It reaches its highest point in the sky around the stroke of midnight every year and so tonight we can think of it as the New Year’s Star. Astronomers call this a midnight culmination of Sirius. What a cosmically strange coincidence it is that as we ring in the New Year, Sirius peaks in the sky. Is it a coincidence?

To find Sirius, I look North in Paradelle but at midnight I’m really looking up above. You should be able to find Orion’s three belt stars. Follow the belt’s line down to the left (west) and there is bright Sirius.

Like the sun, the stars rise in the east and travel westward across the sky.  Midway between rising and setting, the sun or any star reaches its highest point in the sky. Tonight, for Sirius, it will be at midnight.

At a distance of 2.64 parsecs (Yes, that’s a real thing), the Sirius system is one of Earth’s nearest neighbors. Sirius is gradually moving closer to our Solar System, so it will slightly increase in brightness over the next 60,000 years and then the distance will increase, and it will become fainter. Even then, astronomers say that it will still be the brightest star in the Earth’s night sky for the next 210,000 years.

Sopdet
A bust of Sopdet, the Egyptian goddess of Sirius

The heliacal rising of a star occurs annually when it briefly becomes visible above the eastern horizon at dawn just before sunrise after it has spent a season behind the sun rendering it invisible. Historically, the most important such rising is that of Sirius.

It was an important feature of the Egyptian calendar and marked the flooding of the Nile in Ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians worshipped the star as the goddess Sopdet, the guarantor of the fertility of their land. The Egyptian civil calendar was apparently initiated to have the New Year “Mesori” coincide with the appearance of Sirius.

Sirius (Spdt) in hieroglyphs

The rising meant the “dog days” of summer for the ancient Greeks. To the Polynesians, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, the star’s rise marked winter and was an important reference for their navigation around the Pacific Ocean.

All hail, Sirius!

Published by

Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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