Two Australian constellations: the Phoenix and the Toucan

The Phoenix

In this diagram of Stellarium we see in which zone of sky the Phoenix is located: practically more to the South and slightly shifted to the left compared to Fomalhaut, which in summer is seen shining (in a zone of sky devoid of stars just as bright) very low on the horizon. A little further down we notice the presence of another very beautiful star, but invisible to us, Achernar, the mouth of the river Eridano, which we know was born in the parts of Orion.

The Phoenix is a mythological bird, also known as the Arabian Phoenix, having the well-known characteristic of rising from its ashes after being dead: already from the drawing of the previous figure we can see (finally!) a bird with spread wings. Not satisfied with this representation, H.A.Rey had identified another possible figure in which the mythical bird has a longer and slenderer neck.

The name, history and myth of the Phoenix

To the Arabs these stars formed a ship. The constellation, introduced in the years 1595-1597 by the Dutch navigators Pieter Keyser and Frederick de Houtman, belongs to the group of four dedicated to the birds in this area of the sky: Peacock, Toucan and Crane the others. The Phoenix has very ancient origins and represents the original bird of the Egyptian and Ethiopian tradition, able to resurrect from its ashes.

According to legend, the phoenix lived five hundred years, it could not reproduce because it was the only specimen of its species. Before dying, it makes a nest on a palm tree, then gathers herbs and aromatic plants to which it sets fire, and from the ashes it is reborn. According to a Greek myth, a small phoenix was born after his death and brought the nest to the temple of Hyperion. It was associated in antiquity with immortality and the secrets of alchemy.

Of this constellation we can see the aspect, rather threatening and sullen, that Hevelius gave to it

the Phoenix according to Hevelius

while in this other diagram we see the representation of the creators of Stellarium.

the Phoenix according to Stellarium

Few stars close enough and big enough

Small constellation, but certainly not insignificant, the Phoenix has two stars quite close to the Sun, both at the distance of 49 al and of magnitude around the 5a-6a: they are HIP 3583, a cousin of the Sun, since it is of spectral class G5 and ν Phe, of spectral class F8. From both stars, our Sun appears as a small star of about 6a magnitude in a zone of sky together with other stars of our Big Dipper with the strange presence of the well-known Sirius: practically the star field is the same, both if photographed from the parts of HIP 3583 and from the parts of ν Phe.

In fact, within the constellation there is also another nearby star, even closer than the other two, but since its parallax is not known with sufficient precision, it doesn't appear in Celestia. It is Gliese 915, a white dwarf (as big as the Earth), whose distance is estimated at about 26 al, year plus year minus: when this estimate will be improved, we will talk about it again.

comparison of the stars of the Phoenix with other stars

In the comparison diagram between the stars of the Phoenix and other notes and met previously, we see that in this constellation there are few stars of important magnitude: the biggest is ψ Phe, of spectral class M4, a red giant with a diameter equal to 92 times that of the Sun. The second one is γ Phe, of class K5 with a radius of 46 times and finally the last one that I signal is χ Phe, a star of class K5, practically identical for dimensions to Aldebaran, that as always I compare with other stars absolutely less known. My friends Psippesi, red giants living in a planet orbiting around ψ Phe, invited me to take a picture of their sun, at a distance of 10 UA.

Names and visibility

A handful of stars from the Phoenix received a name, but 5 of them are part of a family, indicating the little imagination of those who invented the names.

  • Ankaa or Nair Al Zaurak (α Phe): the boat
  • Alrial I, II, III, IV, V , μ, β, ν and γ Phe): young ostriches

Besides little fantasy, it is not very clear what a boat has to do with a mythological bird and even less with young ostriches (which, for the record, in English are indicated with "the young ostriches", while oysters are called "oysters"...).

As far as visibility at our latitudes is concerned, part of the Phoenix could be seen, always at 9 p.m., culminating in the South around the middle of November, but with a really low height on the horizon. The star α Phe, the northernmost one, never exceeds 6° of height, but maybe someone could try to observe it exploiting a horizon free from obstacles, considering that it has a magnitude equal to 2.4 .

The Toucan

As you can see from the Stellarium diagram, the Toucan is located practically further south than the Phoenix and the Achernar star, so it will be absolutely impossible to see any stars from our latitudes.

It would seem at first sight an uninteresting and almost forgotten constellation, but it is not so: in its southernmost part there is a little white wad, which at first sight seems a defect in the image. It is instead from the well known SMC, the Small Magellanic Cloud, an irregular dwarf galaxy that accompanies the Milky Way and together with the LMC, the Large Magellanic Cloud, and other dozens of galaxies, make up the so-called local group. Later we will see photos of the SMC and other deep sky objects not bad.

The Toucan Toco

Relying on wikipedia, since I am not an expert ornithologist, the Tucano Toco, (in Latin Tucana and more simply Tucano) is the well known bird with the characteristic big yellow-orange beak: I wanted to add a picture of this bird that lives in the Amazonian forests to be able to understand the drawing represented by the stars of the constellation.

The name, the history and the myth of the Toucan

Introduced for the first time by the Dutch navigators Pieter Keyser and Frederick de Houtman in 1595-1597, the constellation of Toucan , or "Brazilian magpie" was included in a catalogue by Johann Bayer in 1603. The name has no other mythological reminiscences, therefore it represents exclusively the long-beaked bird that in the most ancient representations has a twig in the beak itself and rests on the Small Magellanic Cloud.

Let's see right now how Hevelius represented this constellation
the Toucan according to Hevelius

and how the creators of Stellarium designed it...

the Toucan according to Stellarium

One star nearby and two big stars

Among the few stars that compose this not really small constellation, the star ζ Tuc is at just 28 al from us, a very small distance if compared with cosmic distance scales: I went to visit my friends Zetucchi and in the evening (that in their planet lasts 437 of our hours) I could observe that our Sun is a star of magnitude 4.5, placed in a zone of sky together with stars of the Big Dipper, as well as Sirius and Raccoon. In the picture you can also see the night show.

comparison between the stars of the Toucan and other very well known ones

Observing the usual diagram of comparison between the stars of the Toucan and other star monsters encountered in the series of articles, we can notice just two stars of important size: the ν Tuc, class M, with a diameter of 64 times that of the Sun, while the second, α Tuc, I put it only because it is a close relative of Aldebaran (class K) slightly larger than the most famous star of Taurus (38 times the diameter of the Sun compared with 33). I'm sorry for my friends Nutuci, but it's not necessary to show their star from the usual distance of 10 UA: on the other hand even they don't know it very well because their planet is more than 200 UA from the star, which they see as a very bright, but quite harmless dot.

Deep sky objects

At the beginning of the article I talked about SMC: here we can see it in a fantastic picture of HST (clicking you can see the more detailed version)

the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC)

Of the Toucan is part of a globular cluster (NGC 104) very bright and that the ancients had mistaken for a star (of magnitude 4.9), so much so that it had been called 47 Tuc

No name and you can't see

At the end of this not bad binge of deep sky objects, I conclude the analysis by pointing out that the Toucan does not have any star named with a proper name and that, as said, it never rises above the horizon from our latitudes.

Precisely for this reason, we want to make a trip below the Equator to observe the whole part of the sky that we never see, which includes our nice Toucan.

Audio Video Two Australian constellations: the Phoenix and the Toucan
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