One of the sky’s largest constellations and probably its most recognizable, Orion, is not just easy to see. It’s a must see. It is, for me at least, like the Grand Canyon. I never tire of its glory. Throughout March in the early evening it will be prominent to the southwest. This month, it is the perfect celestial object to focus upon. However, as easy as it might be to lose oneself within its enormous frame, and to dwell upon the bright stars that encircle its famous star nursery, it’s also very useful as a tool to zero in on a splendid nearby star, Procyon.
Astronomy is many things. Author and amateur astronomer Tim Hunter (see my review of his book, “The Sky at Night” on p. 8) says the sky can be like a friend. That is, perhaps, the best description one can give. A friend occupies a place where solace and comfort and laughter gather, where connections are not just maintained, but also increased. Orion, like the good friend it is, leads us to Procyon.
Mythologically, Orion is a hunter holding his shield aloft while his faithful dog, Canis Major, stands nearby. I tend to see Orion as an hourglass. Its “bottom” lies furthest to the west. Its “top” is anchored by the enormous red star, Betelgeuse, and by the not quite as bright Bellatrix, a blue giant.
Draw a line from Bellatrix to Betelgeuse and continue on for twice that length and you will reach Procyon, the white-yellow primary star of Canis Minor, the Lesser Dog. I’ve often overlooked it for the spectacular Sirius, the brightest star in not just Canis Major but also in the entire sky.
Procyon is a binary system, with a smaller star, a white dwarf called Procyon B, orbiting it and adding to its luminosity. Both are just over 11 light years from us, relative neighbors. Just as we often do with special sites that are close to home, we frequently pass them by for the more famous tourist traps hours away. Like many “second-placers,” Procyon doesn’t get the attention it rightly deserves.
It is the eighth brightest star in the sky and about twice the size of the Sun, while nearly seven times brighter. It was regularly used as a navigational tool by seafarers before modern technology took over.
Now, go back to the line you drew from Bellatrix to Procyon and turn it 90 degrees to the right, or north. You quickly come to Castor and Pollux: Gemini. Surrounded on three sides by the Twins, Orion, and Sirius, it seems all too easy to discount Procyon and the tiny constellation it inhabits. And yet, throughout time, stargazers from around the world have created numerous legends about it. Those tales would surely have grown if they had known that Procyon was really two objects and not just one.
Procyon B’s status as a white dwarf means that its best days are long gone. It is estimated that over one billion years ago, it used up its hydrogen and grew exceedingly large before blowing off most of its mass. It’s hotter than Procyon A, but considerably dimmer. It takes 40 years for it to orbit its companion at an average distance comparable to that of the Sun and Uranus.
All this month when I take a glance at Procyon I will think about the two stars that carry one name. I will think of their connectedness that has lasted nearly 2 billion years through much travail, and I will be reminded yet again of the wonder that exists in space.
Indeed, if anything, I will ask myself why all of us down here can’t be a little more like these ancient beauties circling above us, thriving in their timeless friendships.