The small constellation of Pictor resides just south of the ecliptic plane and was created by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille. It was adopted by the International Astronomical Union and accepted as one of the permanent 88 modern constellations. Pictor covers approximately 247 square degrees of sky and ranks 59th in size. It has 3 main stars in its asterism and contains 15 Bayer Flamsteed designated stars within its confines. Pictor is bordered by the constellations of Caelum, Carina, Columba, Dorado, Puppis and Volans. It is visible to all observers located at latitudes between +26° and ?90° and is best seen at culmination during the month of January.
Because Pictor is considered a “new” constellation, it has no mythology associated with it – but Nicolas Louis de Lacaille was a man of science and arts. The constellation names he chose to add to his southern star catalog – Coelum Australe Stelliferum – favored this love of technological advances and all things in the field, therefore Pictor was once added as “Equuleus Pictoris”, the “artist’s easel”, but was later shortened to just Pictor when added permanently to the modern constellation charts.
Let’s begin our tour of Pictor with binoculars and its brightest star – Alpha Pictoris – the “a” symbol on our map. It is a class A subgiant star which resides almost 100 light years away from Earth. At close to a billion years old, it is around 3 times larger than our own Sun, yet it rotates over 100 times faster. Alpha is a star that shouldn’t produce X-rays – but does. What’s going on? Perhaps it has a small companion star that’s waiting to be discovered!
Keep your binoculars in hand and hop to Beta Pictoris – the “B” symbol. Located about 64 light years from our solar system, Beta is the key player in a moving star group. This is a stellar association of young stars which share the same motion through space and have the same age. But that’s not all that Beta has going for it. The Beta Pictoris system is very young – only 8-20 million years old – and already in the main sequence stage of stellar evolution. While that in itself isn’t peculiar, what’s curious is an excess of infrared emission compared to normal stars of its type. It would appear that Beta has large quantities of dust! According to detailed studies, a large disk of dust and gas has been found orbiting Beta and was the first to ever be imaged. Inside they found the presence of several planetesimal belts and cometary activity… and there are indications that planets may have formed within this disk and that the processes of planet formation may still be occurring! In November 2008, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) published a press release announcing that a planet matching previous predictions may have been imaged in orbit around Beta Pictoris in the plane of the debris disk. If the physical association of the detected object with Beta Pictoris is confirmed, it would be the closest planet to its star ever photographed. How far apart you ask? Tthe observed separation between the parent star and the planet is roughly the same as the distance between Saturn and the Sun. Too cool….
Now, take out your telescope and have a look at Theta Pictoris – the figure “8” symbol. That’s right… We’ve got a multiple star system here! Theta Pictoris is a three part system, with each of the components all around 7th magnitude and well spaced enough to be easy for optics!
For a nice optical double star in binoculars, have a look at Eta Pictoris – the “n” symbol on our map. Although not gravitationally bound, it’s still a pretty pair!
While there is almost no deep sky to be observed in Pictor, you can still scope out Kapteyn’s Star. It is a class M0 subdwarf star which was discovered by Jacobus Kapteyn in 1897. Located just about 13 light years from Earth, this one has a high radial velocity, orbits the Milky Way in retrograde, and is the nearest halo star to the Sun! When Kapetyn first discovered it, it had the highest proper motion of any star known, later bowing to the discovery of Barnard’s star..
Don’t forget to have a look at variable star, R Pictoris, too!