Constellations: Phoenix 'the Mythological Firebird' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Constellations: Phoenix 'the Mythological Firebird'

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Name:Phoînix (Greek 'purple')
Short form:Phe
Area:469 sq deg
Co-ordinates1:Right Ascension 01h, Declination −50°

The southern constellation Phoenix2 is one of a dozen constellations delineated by Dutch astronomers Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman during their voyage to the southern seas between 1595 and 1597 on board the Hollandia. They drew up five3 star patterns to represent birds: Phoenix; Grus (the crane); Apus (bird of paradise); Pavo (the peacock); and Tucana (the toucan).

Phoenix made its debut in the 1603 Uranometria of Johann Bayer, who drew it as a firebird. But historically it has also represented the griffin and the ostrich. Bordered by Fornax, Sculptor, Grus, Tucana and Eridanus, there are no Messier objects, and only a few deep-space NGC items to report. However, there are some interesting features, including an historical meteor shower connected to a mysterious comet first recorded in 1819, and some exciting extrasolar planet discoveries bringing us bang up to date.

Mythology and Historical References

Phoenix is a modern constellation, so there is no ancient mythology attached to it. However, there are plenty of legends about the phoenix bird which the star pattern honours. The Chinese know the phoenix as the magical 'firebird', a beautiful creature which lived to between 100 and 1,000 years, and was then consumed by fire. From the ashes, a brand new bird emerged; a perpetual cycle of life, death and rebirth. In Feng Shui the phoenix is a symbol of good luck which dates back 2,000 years.


The scientific star names are simple to understand (if you know your Greek alphabet). For example: the 'alpha' star means it is the brightest star in that constellation. The next brightest is designated 'beta' etc. Combined with the genitive name, this is known as the 'Bayer designation'. Some stars have proper names as well, for example, alpha Phoenicis is Ankaa. Others are known by their catalogue number.

Alpha Phoenicis, Ankaa ('head of the phoenix'), is an orange giant star which has a companion, although so little is known about it that it is not even classified. Ankaa can be located in the northern hemisphere by star-hopping from the asterism the 'Great Square' of Pegasus, but you need an uninterrupted view of the horizon.

Nu Phoenicis is of interest because, not only is it the closest star of this constellation to us (at just 49 light years4 distance), but of a similar stellar make-up to our Sun - and it has a dust disk.

Beta Phoenicis is a binary system comprising a yellow giant and yellow dwarf double act.

Delta Phoenicis is a binary system. Delta2 Phoenicis is a yellow sub-giant which has a planet in its habitable zone (see Extrasolar Planets section below).

Star Table

StarDesignationName or
catalogue number
(light years)
Spectral classification
and/or comments
α Phealpha PhoenicisAnkaa+2.4 var77Orange giant
β Phebeta PhoenicisHD 6595+3.3 var200Binary system
γ Phegamma PhoenicisHD 9053+3.4230Orange giant
δ1 Phedelta1 PhoenicisHD 9362+3.984Orange giant
δ2 Phedelta2 PhoenicisHD 142+5.767Yellow sub-giant
ε Pheepsilon PhoenicisHD 496+3.9140Orange giant
ζ Phezeta PhoenicisHD 6882+4 var200Binary system
η Pheeta PhoenicisHD 4150+4.3240White giant
ι Pheiota PhoenicisHD 221760+4.7200White dwarf
κ Phekappa PhoenicisHD 2262+3.977White dwarf
λ Phelambda PhoenicisHD 2834+4.7120Binary system
μ Phemu PhoenicisHD 3919+4.6240Yellow giant
ν Phenu PhoenicisHD 7570+5 var49Yellow-white dwarf/
has a dust disk

New General Catalogue (NGC)

The NGC was compiled by John Louis Emil Dreyer (director of the Armagh Observatory from 1882 to 1916).

NGC 625 is a barred spiral galaxy. One of the outermost members of the Sculptor Group, it is 13 million light years distant but shines +11 magnitude - so telescope owners in the southern hemisphere should be able to track this beauty down.

Robert's Quartet is a collection of four galaxies in the process of merging. The group is 160 million light years away and the members, which each have their own individual NGC number, average +14 magnitude. NGC 92 is the largest component; one of its already-distorted spiral arms is 100,000 light years in length.

Robert's Quartet

CatalogueTypeBrightness (m)Position in image
NGC 87Barred irregular+14Top right
NGC 88Barred spiral+15Centre
NGC 89Barred spiral+14Bottom
NGC 92Spiral+14Top left

Phoenix Dwarf Galaxy

Our Milky Way galaxy is part of the 'Local Group' that contains lots of galaxies. Ours is a spiral, along with the grand design Triangulum Galaxy (M33) and the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), which has two companion elliptical galaxies, M32 and NGC 205. The rest of the local group are either elliptical or irregular like the Magellanic Clouds. Some are dwarf galaxies, including the Phoenix Dwarf which measures just a few thousand light years across, and lies 1½ million light years from the Milky Way.

Discovered at the ESO (European Southern Observatory) by German astronomer Hans Schuster and Richard West in 1976, it was given the designation PGC 006830 (Principal Galaxies Catalogue) after its original classification of 'globular cluster' ESO 245-G 007 was proved incorrect. At first glance the Phoenix Dwarf galaxy looks more like an open (or globular) cluster of stars. But, after further research, it is now considered to be in transition between a dwarf spheroidal and a dwarf irregular galaxy.

Meteor Shower

The space debris which creates a meteor shower comes from the tail of a comet as the Earth crosses where the point the comet has passed previously on its own orbit. Imagine a trail of breadcrumbs, or sawdust like that used in hashing. The comet in this case is D/1819 W1 (Blanpain), now officially recorded as a 'lost periodic comet', which means it has not returned when it was expected. One possible explanation is that an error was made during the calculation of its orbit when it was first discovered in 1819.

The meteor shower connected with the comet is called the Phoenicids, which was first recorded on 5 December, 1956, when 61 meteors were noted. The display produced a number of bright meteors, with the mean brightness being +2.4 mag. There was then a gap until 1972, and meteors were also noted in 1973, 1976, and 1977, although the maximum was a rather disappointing five per hour.

Extrasolar Planets in Phoenix

There had been several extrasolar planetary systems found in this constellation; the first was discovered in 2000. Figures given in the table below are the length of the planet's orbital period around its parent star, which we know of as a year. The mass of the extrasolar planet is compared with that of Jupiter, our Solar System's largest planet, known by astronomers as the 'Jovian scale'.

The most interesting, from our point of view, is Delta2 Phoenicis, a yellow sub-giant star which is 67 light years distant. Fairly inconspicuous in itself, it just happens to have a gas giant planet, Delta2 Phoenicis b, orbiting in its habitable zone. Obviously not a candidate for extra-terrestrial life itself, any moons that it may have which possess enough gravity to retain an atmosphere could be a distinct possibility. Speculation about any inhabitants has already been mentioned in the light-hearted Entry 'Broadcasting to our Galactic Neighbours'.

Extrasolar Planets Table

Star name or
catalogue number
catalogue number
Planet mass
(Jovian scale)
Orbital period
(Earth days)
Year of discoveryComments
HD 6434HD 6434 b0.421.92000Hot Jupiter; eccentric orbit
Delta2 PhoenicisDelta2 Phoenicis b1.253502001Gas giant; habitable zone
Delta2 PhoenicisDelta2 Phoenicis c5.36,0052012Gas giant
HD 2039HD 2039 b4.81,192.52002Superjovian; eccentric orbit
WASP-4WASP-4 b1.271.342007Hot Jupiter
WASP-5WASP-5 b1.61.632007Hot Jupiter
WASP-18WASP-18 b10.30.942009Hot superjovian
HD 5388HD 5388 b1.967772009Superjovian
HD 8535HD 8535 b0.631,3132009Gas giant
WASP-29WASP-29 b0.2542010Hot gas giant
WASP-96WASP-96 b0.483.422013Hot gas giant

Phoenix Paraphernalia

While this Entry is primarily about Phoenix the constellation, the author thought you might like to read about some other phoenix connections.

Purple Plumage

The word 'phoenix' derives from the root phoînix which is Greek for 'purple'. Many centuries ago, the colour purple was revered because it was a pigment that could not be created easily. In some societies only persons of high esteem were allowed to wear the venerated colour, like members of the royal family or Roman emperors.

One race of people found a way of creating a purple dye - a gross process involving crushing and steeping molluscs. The knowledge of how to create this dye, which in Roman times was worth its weight in silver, earned the people the name Phoînikes (Phoenicians). The shade Tyrian purple5 was named after the Phoenician city of Tyre where it was first created.

The exalted firebird was thus portrayed as covered in purple and gold feathers to reflect the esteem of the royal colour and acknowledgement of the parent - the Sun.

Phoenix Historically

Outlines of the phoenix are found on ancient gravestones and tomb walls in many cultures to signify the belief that the soul lives forever. Early written references include stories by Hesiod in 8BC and Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus in 5BC.

  • Suzaku, the 'Vermilion Bird of the South', is a phoenix-like Asian deity associated with the southern portion of the sky. In some cultures it is a symbol of everlasting love, with the fire representing the burning flame in the heart for one's true love.

  • Ancient Egyptians worshipped the eternally renewing bird Bennu as a symbol of immortality.

  • Some Roman coins portrayed a phoenix on their reverse side.

  • Native Americans revered a fiery bird named Yel, which was a child of their sun god.

  • In Japan, the Ho-Oo is the firebird symbol of their royal family, representing the qualities of obedience and fidelity, seeking justice and proclaiming the glory of the Sun.

  • Phoenix is the state capital of Arizona, US. Founded in 1867 on the site of an earlier settlement, it was so named in the confidence that a new city would arise on the same spot. One picture submitted for Astronomy Picture of the Day was unusual in the fact that it captured the city lights (usually hated by astronomers) as well as the heavenly bodies on show.

Phoenix in Nature

There is no phoenix firebird in nature, because the creature exists only in stories and poems such as The Phoenix and the Turtle by William Shakespeare, who was always one for a tragic love story. However, there is a Phoenix palm tree and an ancient Japanese breed of ornamental chicken called Golden Phoenix, with black and gold feathers.

Phoenix in Cultural Reference

There are so many instances of 'Phoenix' that it would be impossible to mention them all, so here are just a few:

  • 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix' is the title of a song written by Jimmy Webb, which has been recorded by many artists including country singer Glen Campbell, whose version was a US hit single in 1967.

  • The Phoenix Bird is a poem by Hans Christian Andersen.

  • Despite having a large column topped by the bird, Phoenix Park in Dublin, Ireland, is an English corruption of the Irish name ‘Páirc an Fhionnuisce’, 'Park of the clear water'. It is one of the largest public parks in Europe, with an area of around 728 hectares (1,800 acres).

  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the title of a book by JK Rowling, about a young wizard called Harry Potter. In the film based on the book, you get to see Professor Dumbledor's pet phoenix do its pyrotechnic performance in front of a startled Harry.

  • The phoenix is the mascot of Aldershot Football Club, which rose from the ashes after going out of business in 1992. In 2008 'the Shots' were finally promoted back into the Football League.

  • Phoenix Nights was a TV fly-on-the-wall documentary-cum-situation comedy about a working men's club in northern Britain, co-written by and starring comedian Peter Kay.

  • The Phoenix and the Carpet is a fantasy children's story written by E Nesbit, the second part of a trilogy beginning with Five Children and It. It was dramatised by the BBC in 1977.

  • Some celebrities like to give their children exotic names. For example, 'Spice Girl' Melanie Brown (Scary Spice) named her daughter Phoenix Chi. The Bottom family decided to change their surname to Phoenix before siblings River (1970 - 1993) and Joaquin became actors.

  • The Phoenix Lander is a NASA mission to Mars. Launched on 4 August, 2007, it touched down safely ten months later on 25 May, 2008.


The appropriately named Project Phoenix rose from the ashes of a NASA initiative to search for extraterrestrial intelligence after funding was withdrawn by US Congress in 1993. The Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, studied 800 nearby stars over the following decade. By March 2004 no signals had been detected, prompting the Phoenix team leader, Peter Backus of the SETI institute, to comment:

Conclusion: we live in a quiet neighbourhood.
1Current IAU guidelines use a plus sign (+) for northern constellations and a minus sign (−) for southern ones.2Pronounced FEE-nicks.3The other seven were Chamæleon; Dorado; Hydrus; Indus; Musca; Triangulum Australe and Volans.4A light year is the distance light travels in one year, roughly 5.88 trillion miles or 9.46 trillion km.5Also known as 'Imperial purple' and 'Royal purple'.

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