Star Constellation Facts: Phoenix

Star Constellation Facts: Phoenix
Copyright © 2003 Torsten Bronger

The constellation Phoenix was created by Flemish astronomer Petrus Plancius in the 16th century, based upon the observations of Dutch explorers Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman who mapped the southern sky that century. It is named after the fabulous sacred bird from mythology, with the constellation’s brightest stellar object, an orange giant star called Ankaa, found 77 light years from Earth, and shining with an apparent magnitude of 2.37.

Location

Located in the southern celestial hemisphere, Phoenix is the 37th largest constellation in the night sky and can be seen by observers situated between +32° and -80° of latitude. Its nearest neighboring constellations include Eridanus, Grus, Fornax, Hydrus, Sculptor and Tucana.

Johann Bayer Constellation Family

Phoenix is a member of the Johann Bayer family of constellations, together with Apus, Chamaeleon, Dorado, Grus, Hydrus, Indus, Musca, Pavo, Tucana and Volans.

Mythology

The Phoenix is a mythical creature that is known as the sacred firebird throughout a number of ancient mythologies, including those of the Arabs, Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Indians, and Turks. Said to be as large as an eagle, the Phoenix had plumage that corresponds to the colors of fire, complete with red, gold and purple feathers and a scarlet and gold tail. This sacred firebird was also said to live anywhere from 500 to 1,400 years before reaching the end of its life span, after which it would create a nest for itself in a palm tree with cinnamon bark and incense before combusting the nest and perishing in the flames. From there, according to legend, a new firebird would be born from its predecessor’s ashes, with the whole process taken to symbolize rebirth and immortality.

Principal Stars

– Ankaa (Alpha Phoenicis), the constellation’s brightest star, is an orange giant (K0.5 IIIb) located 77 light years from our solar system that shines with an apparent visual magnitude of 2.37. It is in actual fact a binary system in which its component stars orbit each other once every 10.5 years. Its name originates from the Arabic word al-‘anqa, meaning “Phoenix”, although the star is also sometimes known as Nair al-Zaurak, which means “the bright star of the skiff.”

– Beta Phoenicis, the second brightest star in the constellation Phoenix, is a binary star system found 198 light years away, and consisting of two yellow giants of apparent magnitudes 4.0 and 4.1 which orbit each other once every 168 years. They are given the spectral class G8IIIvar, and together shine with a combined visual magnitude measuring 3.32.

– Gamma Phoenicis is assigned the spectral class M0IIIa, meaning that it is a red giant star. It is located about 234 light years away, and possesses a visual magnitude of 3.41, although it is actually a variable star whose magnitude varies from between 3.39 and 3.49.

Other stars of interest in Grus includes the white subgiants Kappa Phoenicis and Eta Phoenicis; the white dwarfs Iota Phoenicis and Lambda-1 Phoenicis; the yellow-white dwarf Nu Phoenicis; the orange giant Epsilon Phoenicis; the yellow giants Delta Phoenicis and Mu Phoenicis; the red giant Psi Phoenicis; and the binary system Zeta Phoenicis.

Notable Deep Sky Objects

The constellation does not contain any Messier objects, but it does have a number of notable deep-sky objects.

The Phoenix Cluster– The Phoenix Cluster, located 5.7 billion light-years away, is one of the largest-known galaxy clusters, and is believed to contain around 3 trillion stars inside its 7.3 million light years wide expanse. It forms around 740 stars annually, representing the highest rate ever documented inside a galaxy cluster, and also emits more x-rays than any other galaxy cluster observed. The galaxy at its center contains huge amounts of hot gas, and there is a supermassive black hole located in the center of the system that has 20 billion times the mass of our Sun, and is expanding at a rate of about 60 solar masses a year.

Robert's Quartet– Robert’s Quartet is a small group of galaxies found about 160 million light years away from the Sun that have a combined visual magnitude that nears 13. These four galaxies (NGC 92, NGC 89, NCG 88 and NGC 87) span a total area of 75,000 light years, and are currently in the process of colliding and merging with each other. They were first discovered by the English astronomer John Herschel in the 1830s.

– NGC 625 is a barred spiral galaxy that is around 12.7 million light years away, and has a visual magnitude of 11.7. It is a member of the Sculptor Group found near the south galactic pole.

Meteor Showers

There are two meteor showers associated with the constellation Phoenix, the most prolific of which is called the Phoenicids, having been named after the location of their radiant. The Phoenicids are associated with the comet D/1819 W1, and are best seen in the Southern Hemisphere from 29th November to 9th December, with the shower peaking around 5/6th December when anything upwards of 5 meteors per hour can be observed.

The other minor meteor shower associated with the Phoenix constellation is called the July Phoenicid, whose peak on July 14th only results in around one meteor per hour.

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