The southern constellation of Phoenix was one of twelve created by Petrus Plancius from the observations of Dutch navigators, Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman. It first appeared on celestial globe published in the late 1500s and was first depicted in a celestial atlas by Johann Bayer in 1603. Phoenix resides south of the ecliptic plane and covers approximately 469 square degrees of sky, ranking 37th in size. It contains 4 main stars in its asterism and has 25 Bayer Flamsteed designated stars within its confines. Phoenix is bordered by the constellations of Sculptor, Grus, Tucana, Hydrus, Eridanus and Fornax. It is visible to observers located at latitudes between +32° and ?90° and is best seen when it reaches culmination during the month of November.
There is one annual meteor shower associated with the constellation of Phoenix which peaks on or about December 5 of each year – the Phoenicids. The appearance of the meteor was observed by the corps of the first South Pole passing the winter in South Pole observation ship Soya, Japan while toward in 1956 the South Pole it until about 13:45 to 18:00 at the world. The meteor shower is considered to be new and understudied, so there is no predicted fall rate – nor is there an established peak date. The Phoenicids are associated with the comet D/1819 W1 (Blanpain). The comet was observed in 1819 and was missing. However, it turned out that the asteroid 2003 WY25 discovered in 2003 was the same as this comet in 2005. The duration of this shower extends from November 29 to December 9.
Because Phoenix is considered a “new” constellation, there is no mythology associated with it. It is named after the legendary bird which rose from its own ashes. The bird was also said to regenerate when hurt or wounded by a foe, thus being almost immortal and invincible – it is also said that it can heal a person with a tear from its eyes and make them temporarily immune to death; It is a symbol of fire and divinity – also representing the rising and setting of the Sun.
Let’s begin our binocular tour of Phoenix with its brightest star – Alpha – the “a” symbol on our map. Located about 77 light years from Earth, Alpha Phoenicis goes by the traditional name of Ankaa – “the bright one of the boat”. Ankaa is an orange giant star about in the mid-life of its helium burning phase of its stellar evolution. If it continues to behave normally, it will eventually sheds its outer layers in a planetary nebula and ends its life quietly as a white dwarf star. It is known that Ankaa is a double star and has a small stellar companion, but currently little to nothing is known about the companion.
Now, point your telescope at Beta – the “B” symbol on our map. Beta Phoenicis is beautiful, bright yellow double-star is only 1.4 arc seconds in separation, with a position angle of 346 degrees. Other than a companion, it’s a very typical K type star.
How about Gamma the figure “8” symbol? Turn binoculars its way. Located 235 light years away, this rare M-class giant star that puts out 575 times more light than Sol at a very cool 3900 degrees Kelvin. Gamma is evolving a lot faster than our own Sun, passing through a stage where it is an irregular variable star and heading towards being a K-type giant star. Although we know little else, we do know Gamma has a spectroscopic companion, making it a true binary star.
Aim your telescope about 2 degrees northeast of Gamma for NGC 265 (RA 1:35.1 Dec -41:26). At magnitude 12, this fairly small galaxy isn’t going to set any records, but you’ll pick up an elongated form with a bright nucleus. If you see patchy structure in this spiral galaxy, there’s good reason… It’s a Starburst Galaxy!
For a big telescope challenge, try your luck with Abell Galaxy Cluster 2870. Of this galaxy group, the brightest is IC 1625 (RA 01:07:42.4 Dec -46:54:27) and we’re looking at approximately magnitude 13 and about 2 arc minutes in size. It wouldn’t be a challenge if it were easy!