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Canopus, Orion, and his Best Friend | A Sirius Story


February Evening View of Canopus, Sirius, and Orion in Night Sky
Three Objects in the Night Sky


Do you know which stars and constellations are great to view during this time of year?



Object #1

  • I am 310 light years away and an F-Type Star. According to apparent magnitude, I am the second brightest star in the Earth’s night sky. Oh, I’ve even been used for spacecraft navigation. Who am I?


Object #2

  • All but one of my main stars are bright young blue giants or supergiants. The nebula next to my belt consists of dust, hydrogen, helium, and ionized gasses. Who am I?


Object #3

  • I am 25 times brighter than the sun and 8.611 light years away from Earth. I also have a little sibling, my companion star. Who am I?


Follow along with clues in this rarely told legend below and read the facts to figure out the answer to each of the three different objects.


The Gathering


“Hurry now, gather round” — the town leaders ushered the children and adults alike around to stone seats in the town square’s open air amphitheater. It was picturesquely nestled along the westernmost branch of the Nile River delta. As everyone hastily chose a spot, they then eagerly waited for the figure dressed in the long cloak to begin the story. Once every four years, the town of 1,000 inhabitants along the eastern outskirts of modern-day Alexandria listened to the famous narration given by an elder member, and this year marked the special occasion of the great sacrifice.


Eventually, the murmurs among the crowd dwindled as the last seats were taken, leaving a solemn silence sweeping throughout the brisk night. The last few lights flickered giving way to the stars above in the night sky.


The figure in the middle lowered his hood, and began the journey with the familiar opening.


In the 6th century BCE, there was a small group of explorers searching for new land after a long, devastating drought. Canopus was piloting the boat of the great King Menelaus of Sparta. They were navigating on the Nile River past the southern region of town when a surprising sound startled them. Cracking the boat in half along the keel, chaos ensued as the crew scrambled over fallen bodies to figure out the impetus of the destruction. It was night and difficult to see what had caused the sudden disarray and despair. Just as Canopus swam to reach the shoreline, he turned around just in time to see something colossal and ominous slither out of the starboard side of the ship heading downstream. Within minutes, the ship had completely sunk.


Tears of Tragedy


The town assumed all must have died due to their long absence, but a few of the explorers returned back to the town several weeks later to tell the tale. The survivors, including King Menelaus and Canopus were overwhelmed with emotion as they relieved the tragedy again, as too many innocent lives were lost. Yet, rumors spread of the calamity and their town’s ominous future. As the dog days of Summer were approaching, the king and Canopus felt their newly settled town’s situation of inevitable starvation weigh on them heavily. Their sunken ship’s failed southern expedition suffocated them with fewer and fewer options. They could either attempt to retreat back north to Greece or travel further south back up the Nile in search for the fertile lands once more. The idea of retreat sounded attractive to some of the Greeks, but the Spartans knew they had other dangerous enemies lurking in the Mediterranean waiting to crush any Spartan expedition that came across it’s path.


Days and days dragged on. As the king tried to rally more men to volunteer for the mission, the town grew weary and food became more scarce. Despite the voyage being necessary, even the bravest remaining among them were afraid of the beast that lurked in the water. Canopus contemplated the options at hand, knowing his life was at stake if he vowed to go on another expedition in harm’s way up the Nile. Being known by exhibiting the four F’s, having foresight, being faithful, fearless and focused on family, Canopus knew what choice he had to make for his kin and fellow Spartans. He claimed the head of the expedition once more, piloting a new ship this time provided by the king. The king sent 309 people and one dog with him to help aid in his pursuit of finding fertile land again and slaying any monsters along the way.


Hopeful Hearts


Before the four ships sailed off up the Nile, the town gathered around to wish them well. Canopus gave hugs to his children and boarded the ship as his wife looked at him dolefully. With a tear running down her cheek, she made him promise to return alive. He knew he could do no such thing, but motioned her to look up, on a clear night just like this one, and let her know he will be up there, always guiding them from above. As the ship disappeared, the villagers returned to the town’s square, and toasted to the people who had begun the treacherous journey.


Meanwhile on the boat, a figure walked up to Canopus and introduced himself as Orion. The king had specifically summoned, many weeks before, that the legendary warrior, Orion, come from afar, across the Mediterranean. He was hired to help with the expedition and to defeat any monsters they encountered along the way. Standing by his right foot, sat his trusted 8 year old companion, his dog Sirius. Legend had it that Sirius could sense a monster 25 times better than the next best dog. The two young lads chatted jubilantly over the next several days and became good friends. Sharing stories of previous battles and encounters with monsters, they discussed the values they embraced and people they helped along the way.


Eventually, as fate would have it, after a few days, they came across land that resembled something worth exploring further off the river. It appeared to have deep green grass and even lush plants. Cautious of their whereabouts they approached one side of the Nile with a sense of hope. Yet, just as the boat neared the edge of the Nile, Sirius started barking. Something stirred in the water below them.



Land is most fertile along the Nile River and river delta
Satellite View of the Nile River

River of Regret


Realizing their worst fear had materialized before their eyes, Canopus quickly ordered the crew to assemble and prepare for the mysterious creature to attack. The haunting memories flashed before Canopus’s eyes as he gazed in the water. Rising from the river bed, a serpent creature swiftly plunged into the side of the wooden boat, crushing everything in its path. Oars along the left flank broke in several parts, as the boat began taking on water. The serpent’s mouth was large enough that it could swallow a person whole. Feasting on unfortunate members of the expedition, it wreaked havoc on the expedition’s numbers.


Screams of agony could be heard as the boat began collapsing on itself. Just as the crew would seem to seize the snake, it would release deadly venom in their direction, slip beneath the water, and reappear on the other side of the boat. The other three vessels were soon in the same situation, sinking quickly. The crews were shocked to see the hysteria unraveling before them. Many were too afraid to dive in the water, leaving them to sink slowly to their peril. As soon as the first boat started sinking, the serpent collected their souls and all those who swam in its vicinity.


In hopes of giving them a fighting chance, Canopus ordered the crew on his boat to swim to the nearby shore. Of the forty still alive under his command, only ten were able to reach solid ground. The short lived reprieve lasted a mere matter of seconds before the serpent erupted from the muddy sand, meandering its way over to them,


The ten men gasped for air, coughing up water. The ten abruptly turned to six, as they found their weapons could not pierce its scaly armored skin. The supposed safety in the sand proved to be another false sense of security. The snake slithered effortlessly straight up the shore at the men. The serpent continued to diminish their numbers one by one until only Canopus, Orion and Sirius remained alive on the shoreline. The mighty Orion slashed the snake on the head, but found that even he could not stop the serpent for long.


Savage sea serpent that ravaged the Nile River and all who traversed the waters.
Nile Sea Serpent

Valiant Virtues


He raised his sword to strike the snake once more. Yet, always one step ahead, the snake hissed and whipped around with fury. Disoriented temporarily, it sprayed venom in Orion’s direction. Some of the poisonous liquid began melting his belt, turning it blue in three spots. The rest of the venom turned into a toxic vivid haze by his waist. Disturbed by the warriors’ movements, the serpent then stealthy submerged itself in the strand.


Seconds passed of tense scanning for the return of the sand serpent. They maintained their battle stance and turned their heads as if on a swivel, searching for any disruption in the sand beneath them. Canopus’s mind raced to find a way to defeat the creature. As the moments of anguish surrounded them, he signaled to Orion, pointing to his sword and then his wide open mouth.


Orion's belt aligns with pointing toward Sirius, his best friend
Orion with his best friend, Sirius

The serpent wasted little time before revealing itself once more. It launched itself up in the air, sending projectiles of sand in every direction. The warriors broke their concentration to shield their eyes. By doing so, they lost sight of the serpent, who then proceeded to strike at Sirius. Canopus leaped in the way of the helpless dog just in time. By doing so, he promptly received a dose of venom from the serpent's fangs.


Canopus fell to the ground immediately in agony, watching as it slithered toward his new friend, Orion. Adrenaline pumped through his veins, as his fearless nature allowed Canopus to dive forward with what little energy he could expend, and grab the snake’s tail as it simultaneously lunged for Orion’s throat. Sirius snarled and sunk his teeth in the tail as well, holding it in place for a moment.


Although the savage beast could not fully latch on to its prey, the snake’s fangs partially sank into Orion’s shoulder, turning it as bright red as Betelgeuse. Orion astutely leaned his other arm backwards and stuck his sword straight in the serpent’s mouth, just as Canopus had motioned him to do so moments before. With the sword exiting through the head of the serpent, it retracted its fangs and swirled around, enraged. Sirius pounced on it as it tried to get away, allowing Orion to slice it into two.


Reprieved from the immediate threat of death, Orion staggered over to Canopus. He knew the man he just met days before had saved Sirius’s life, as well as his own. With the venom spreading through Canopus’s veins quickly, there was little time to talk. Kneeling by his side, Orion leaned in to hear Canopus ask him to tell his family he loved them and that he will be among the stars watching over them. Orion promised him such and buried his body in the ground at the spot of the sacrifice. While digging, he discovered the soil was indeed fertile for their crops.


“Right over there”—the man telling the story to the large crowd in the amphitheater, pointed to his right, showing where Canopus’s grave lay for centuries. He paused, lowered his arm, and carried on with the story.


Just as before, since none of the ships returned on the second expedition, the villagers had speculated there were no survivors. They were running severely low on hope for a future as they were on their last few days of rations. Yet as the sun set that evening in the town, two shadows walked slowly toward them down a hill. The villagers rushed over to see Orion with Sirius trotting alongside. Orion was welcomed by the king and everyone in the town as they gathered in the open amphitheater. Everyone wanted to know the man that was pivotal in slaying the sand serpent, and giving hope to settling on the fertile land further up the Nile.


A Star in the Making


As everyone in the village listened closely to Orion’s narration of the events that transpired, they watched as he raised his hood back over his head when he finished speaking. King Menelaus stepped in the middle and echoed Orion’s gratitude for Canopus, mentioning the four F’s. He had the foresight to swim to shore and grab the serpent’s tail. He was faithful to his wife and Greek village. He was fearless, even when facing death head on. Finally, he was focused on family and gave everything he had for the fortuitous future of his kin. With these parting words, he ended the story by honoring Canopus as a beacon of hope. King Menalaus honored his sacrifice by naming the star which Orion and so many others use to navigate the seas after Canopus, who became the savior of Sparta in the south. He elaborated by detailing how he was a supergiant of a star everyone in the Greek kingdom could view, spanning from the South upwards to latitudes of 37 degrees north in Greece during this time of year. Canopus would always be a guide for those in need of direction and courage, now and for generations to come.


Can you spot the following metaphors from the story above:

Canopus

  • 310 light years away

  • The number of men who were sent away from the village in the Nile Delta in search of better land to settle on

  • F-Type Star: Yellow-white Supergiant (F0Ib) (more than 15,000 times brighter than the sun)

  • Canopus represented the Four F’s of someone to look up to. Thus, King Menelaus solidified his legend by naming the bright southern star after him in his honor, as was destiny. This is also why the village only told the legend every four years to commemorate his honor.

  • Second (-0.72) in apparent magnitude, only to Sirius (-1.46), but lies so far south that it is invisible from latitudes north of 37 degrees

  • Both Sirius and Canopus can be seen high in the celestial heavens in Texas, like twin beacons illuminating the night sky (December through February)

  • After Orion later passed, he found his place among the stars near his friend Canopus, with Sirius

  • Many spacecraft carry a special camera known as a "Canopus Star Tracker" plus a Sun sensor for altitude determination. Mariner 4 used Canopus for second axis stabilization (after locking on the Sun) in 1964, the first time a star had been used.

  • Canopus has been used for centuries as navigation for travel and can be used in space for generations to come

  • The Carina constellation, Canopus’s home, is located in the southern sky. Its name means “the keel” (keel of a ship) in Latin. Carina used to be part of the much larger constellation Argo Navis, along with the constellations Puppis (the stern) and Vela (the sails).

  • Canopus had strong ties to ships as he was a prominent helmsman for King Menelaus. Canopus marks the blade on one of the ship’s steering oars.

Orion

  • All the main stars in Orion are bright young blue giants or supergiants. The one exception is Betelgeuse, which is a red supergiant and one of the largest stars known. (9th brightest star in sky).

  • The sand serpent partially bit Orion in his shoulder, causing it to bleed bright red

  • The Orion constellation's most essential stars are Alnilam, Mintaka, and Alnitak, which shape Orion's Belt. It is believed that these three stars were formed ten million years ago from the molecular clouds within Orion. The Orion Nebula hangs below Orion's Belt. It consists of dust, hydrogen, helium, and ionized gasses.

  • This nebula hanging below Orion’s belt represents the venom from the sand serpent, as does the venom that burned his belt in three spots, illuminating them bright blue.

Sirius

  • Sirius is located in the Canis Majoris constellation, being the chief star in the constellation and roughly twice as large as our sun

  • Its companion star, Sirius B, (in the same constellation) is much smaller

  • Sirius A is about 25 times brighter than our Sun, while Sirius B is only 3% as bright as the sun

  • Sirius’s senses were 25 times better than any other dog that roamed the Earth.

  • Sirius is about 8.611 light-years away from Earth

  • Sirius, the dog, seemingly stopped aging at 8 years of age. As this age, he is sharp and agile, yet is known for his trusty companionship with his master and best friend, Orion