Use Big Dipper to locate Hunting Dogs

Star chart showing Big Dipper and other stars.
Look for the Big Dipper pattern in the northeast on March evenings. The Hunting Dogs – aka Canes Venatici – nestle in the crook of the Dipper’s handle. Typically, most people see the Hunting Dogs as just 2 stars: Chara and Cor Caroli.

Big Dipper as a guide to the Hunting Dogs

Tonight, or any March evening, look for the Big Dipper in the northeast sky. This asterism, or star pattern – one of the most noticeable from Northern Hemisphere locations – is part of the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. And, if you can find the Big Dipper, you can also find two Hunting Dogs seen by the ancient stargazers to be nipping at the Bear’s heels. In like manner, the Hunting Dogs are a separate constellation: tiny Canes Venatici.

Indeed, you’ll need a dark sky to see these two little stars snuggled in the arc of the Big Dipper. Originally, they were called by the names Chara and Asterion.

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Old colored etching of constellations with a hunter in Greek garb and two dogs.
Canes Venatici, aka the Hunting Dogs. Image via Wikipedia.

Cor Coroli, Heart of Charles

However, the eastern star is now called Cor Caroli, or Heart of Charles. The Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius devised this constellation in 1690. He named it for his patron, specifically.

Additionally, the most famous object in this region of the sky is M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. It is beautiful, indeed, when seen through telescopes and appears dramatic in photographs.

Note, however, that this galaxy is difficult or impossible to glimpse with binoculars.

Galaxy with yellow-white center, two spiral arms dotted with pink areas. Bright yellow patch at end of one arm.
The large galaxy at the bottom is the beautiful Whirlpool galaxy, aka M51 or NGC 5194. It’s a large spiral galaxy located in the direction of the constellation Canes Venatici. Adjacent to it, the smaller galaxy at top is a companion. Image via NASA/ ESA/ S. Beckwith (STScI)/ Hubble Heritage Team/ AURA.
Many bright stars, thick at center of round cluster, becoming less dense with distance from center.
Messier 3, aka M3. Image via Adam Block/ Mount Lemmon SkyCenter.

Globular cluster M3

But, there’s also another faint object at the extreme edge of Canes Venatici that your binoculars should pick up. This object is Messier 3, or M3, a globular star cluster located some 48,000 light-years away.

Given that it is so far away, binoculars see M3 as a dim blur of light, best seen with averted vision.

In a dark sky, M3 is relatively easy to find. Notice, for instance, that on the chart below that it lies almost midway between the bright star Arcturus and Cor Caroli:

Chart with stars in black on white.
Star chart of Canes Venatici showing location of M3. Image via Wikipedia.

Use the Big Dipper to find Arcturus

But, if you’re not sure which star is Arcturus … remember to follow the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle in order to locate this star, as shown on the chart below:

Sky chart of Big Dipper with arrow pointing to star Arcturus.
You can always find the bright orange star Arcturus by following the arc in the handle of the Big Dipper.

Bottom line: Find out how to use the Big Dipper to find the constellation Canes Venatici, also known as the Hunting Dogs, which contains the stars Chara and Asterion.

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March 3, 2022

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