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Looking Up column: See the Hunting Dogs quietly pass overhead

Peter Becker
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M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici, pictured by Hubble Space Telescope.

I don’t hear any barking, do you? The last I looked at Canes Venatici, this pair of hunting dogs were quiet as can be. They must be sleeping. After all, the only time I see them is after dark.

Canes Venatici, of course, is a constellation, a small one at that, with only two easily visible stars. This pair is easy to find, right under the Big Dipper’s handle.

When I say “under” I mean in respect to how the Big Dipper is usually pictured, like a real kitchen utensil right-side up on a table. In late May/early June in the evening, the Big Dipper is high in the northern sky, seemingly upside down as far as utensils go.

From mid-northern latitudes, like where I hang my hat in Pennsylvania (well, place my hat on the shelf), at around 9 p.m. this time of year, Canes Venatici is virtually straight overhead, in the zenith.

These stars are not bright. That may not sound nice, but I mean in magnitude. The star on the left (as seen on a spring evening), on the east side, is brightest. Cor Coroli is +3 magnitude. About 2 1/2 degrees away is +4 magnitude Chara. (A half-degree covers the apparent width of the full moon.)

Cor Coroli is a fine wide double star, a nice sight in a small telescope. The name means “the heart of Charles”; the star was named by Astronomer Royal Edmund Halley, at the suggestion of Sir Charles Scarborough in memory of King Charles I, the deposed British king.

Cor Coroli is a fine double star, easily resolved with a small telescope. The star system is 110 light-years away.

Chara has a yellow hue and is 42 light-years away.

Amateur astronomers love spotting the several relatively bright galaxies in Canes Venatici. The most well known is the Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as M51. It is close to the last star in the Big Dipper’s handle and is seen as a hazy spot in binoculars on a dark night. Telescopes of 6 inches and larger easily show M51 with a companion galaxy early attached. Photographs reveal M51 as a grand spiral galaxy, seen face-on.

Astronomers have detected one of the largest almost-empty regions of space, called the “Great Void,” in the general direction of Canes Venatici. Containing few galaxies, the void is over a billion light-years wide. Nothing like some “cosmic elbow room.”

Take a look low in the west-northwest in evening twilight, about a half-hour after sunset. The bright planet Venus is accompanied by Mercury, which is not quite as bright, about two degrees to the upper left.

On May 23, the thin crescent moon will be below Venus; on May 24, the thickening crescent moon will to the upper left of these two planets, in line. While visible to unaided eyes, the trio will be stunning in binoculars.

Venus appears as a big, thin crescent in even a small telescope at low power.

First quarter moon is on May 29.

Keep looking up at the stars!

Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.