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February 22, 2015

Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, arcs across the south this evening. And if you live in the far southern latitudes of the United States — south of about Phoenix or Atlanta — the second-brightest star sneaks into view as well. Canopus is due south around 9 o’clock, just a few degrees above the horizon. It’s so bright, though, that you shouldn’t have much trouble spotting it.

Canopus is the brightest star of Carina. The constellation represents the bulk of the Argo, the ship that carried Jason and the Argonauts on their adventures.

Canopus may be named for a sailor with another mythological vessel. According to the story, Canopus was the helmsman for Menelaus, the king of Sparta. Canopus piloted the boat on the expedition to retrieve the king’s wife, Helen of Troy. On the way back, a storm blew the boat off course, and it landed in Egypt. When Canopus went ashore, he was bitten by a cobra and died. Helen and Menelaus buried him, and Menelaus established a town there. He named both the town and a bright star that was in the night sky then in the helmsman’s honor.

Although the star Canopus looks only about half as bright as Sirius, that’s only because of its greater distance — it’s more than 300 light-years away, compared to nine light-years for Sirius. If you lined them up at the same distance, Canopus would shine more than 500 times brighter.

It took awhile to lock down the distance to Canopus, though; more about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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