Tonight, a star that northern stargazers rarely see. It’s Canopus, and it’s the second-brightest star in the entire sky.
Canopus never rises above the horizon for locations north of about 37 degrees North latitude. In the United States, that line runs from roughly Richmond, Virginia; westward to Bowling Green, Kentucky; through Trinidad, Colorado; and onward to San Jose, California – just south of San Francisco. Extend that line of latitude around the world, to know who on the globe can see this star. You must be south of this line of latitude to be able to see Canopus.
If you are that far south, you can always find Canopus in the month of February by first locating Sirius, the sky’s brightest star. Just face southward at around 8 to 9 p.m. this evening. You can’t miss Sirius because it is so bright. Sirius makes a wide arc across the southern sky at this time of year. Canopus makes a smaller arc as seen from latitudes like those in the U.S., and – to us – Canopus appears below Sirius in the southern sky.
You won’t see the star Canopus from the northern U.S. or similar latitudes. But northern skywatchers who travel south in winter – or people in latitudes like those in the southern U.S. – enjoy watching this star.
Sirius is well known for being part of the constellation Canis Major the Greater Dog. Canopus is in the constellation Carina. This southern constellation once was part of Argo Navis, the great Ship that sailed the southern skies – until astronomers officially named the constellations in the 1930s, at which time they divided Argo into three separate constellations. Carina is Latin for the Keel, that large beam along the underside of a ship’s hull, from bow to stern, that gives it stability.
If we were in the Southern Hemisphere now, our perspective on Sirius and Canopus would be very different. From Australia and New Zealand now, Sirius and Canopus both ride high in the sky. Southern Hemisphere stargazers see them as twin beacons dominating the night.
Bottom line: Sirius is the brightest star visible in Earth’s sky. Canopus is the second-brightest star. You have to be pretty far south on Earth’s globe to see Canopus, at least below 37 degrees N. latitude.