Constellations: Pictor 'the Painter's Easel' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Constellations: Pictor 'the Painter's Easel'

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The shield of the Science, Mathematics and Engineering faculty of the h2g2 University.Constellations: Overview | Andromeda | Antlia | Apus | Aquarius | Aquila | Ara | Aries | Auriga | Boötes | Caelum
Camelopardalis | Cancer | Canes Venatici | Canis Major | Canis Minor | Capricornus | Carina | Cassiopeia | Centaurus
Cepheus | Cetus | Chamæleon | Circinus | Columba | Coma Berenices | Corona Australis | Corona Borealis | Corvus
Crater | Crux | Cygnus | Delphinus | Dorado | Draco | Equuleus | Eridanus | Fornax | Gemini | Grus | Hercules | Horologium
Hydra | Hydrus | Indus | Lacerta | Leo | Leo Minor | Lepus | Libra | Lupus | Lynx | Lyra | Mensa | Microscopium | Monoceros
Musca | Norma | Octans | Ophiuchus | Orion | Pavo | Pegasus | Perseus | Phoenix | Pictor | Pisces | Piscis Austrinus
Puppis | Pyxis | Reticulum | Sagitta | Sagittarius | Scorpius | Sculptor | Scutum | Serpens | Sextans | Taurus
Telescopium | Triangulum | Triangulum Australe | Tucana | Ursa Major | Ursa Minor | Vela | Virgo | Volans | Vulpecula
To our surprise, we were ushered into a room where the first object that met the eye was a painter's easel, with a table beside it covered with rolls of canvas, bottles of oil and varnish, palette, brushes, paints etc.
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (1820 - 49)
Short form:Pic
Area:247 sq deg
Co-ordinates1:Right Ascension 06h, Declination -55°
Origin:Modern (18th Century)

Pictor is a small southern constellation bordered by Caelum, Carina, Columba, Dorado, Puppis and Volans. At 247 square degrees in size it's the 59th largest of 88 modern constellations recognised internationally. Originally named Le Chevalet et la Palette ('The Easel and Palette'), it was converted to the Latin Equuleus Pictoris ('The Foal Painter') before being shortened to the basic Pictoris in the 19th Century to avoid confusion with the northern constellation Equuleus.

Nicolas Louis de Lacaille

Pictor was first introduced and named by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille (1713 - 62), the French astronomer famous for his catalogue Coelum Australe Stelliferum which described 14 new constellations and 42 nebulous objects among almost 10,000 southern stars. This information was garnered on a 1751 - 54 expedition to the Cape of Good Hope, effectively a blank canvas sky to map for Lacaille. Using the planet Mars as a point of reference, his observations were the foundations for working out the lunar and solar parallax. Finding himself something of a celebrity upon his return to Paris, Lacaille hid from public attention in Mazarin College, writing up his findings. Barely taking care of himself, Lacaille suffered from gout and was prone to over-working to the point of exhaustion. Unfortunately his catalogue wasn't published until after he had died aged 49 years.

During a comparatively short life, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille made more observations and calculations than all the astronomers of his time put together.
- Joseph Jérôme Lefrançais de Lalande (1732 - 1807)


The scientific star names are simple to understand (if you know your Greek alphabet). For example: the 'alpha' star means that 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 Cygni is Deneb. Other stars are known by their catalogue number.

Beta Pictoris has a circumstellar (protoplanetary) disc, which extends more than 500AU2. This means that the signs are there that it may evolve into a solar system of planets. Beta Pictoris is a stable, white main sequence star, although on the intergalactic timescale it's just a baby at between ten and 20 million years of age3. Up to 2008 one planet has been detected. Beta Pictoris, along with Vega (alpha Lyrae), Fomalhaut (alpha Piscis Austrini) and epsilon Eridani, are dubbed the 'Fabulous Four' debris stars discovered by the IRAS (Infrared Astronomical Satellite).

Dutch astronomer Jacobus Kapteyn (1851 - 1922) discovered a highly unusual red dwarf star, in that it orbits the Milky Way in the wrong direction. Kapteyn's Star, as it has been called, resides in the Pictor constellation. Kapteyn studied the proper motion of stars, discovering that they weren't random as was thought. What he was recording in his notes was the first description of the rotation of the Milky Way. The Kapteyn Crater on the Moon, and Asteroid 818 Kapteyn are named after him, as well as his retrograde star. In 2014 it was announced that two super-Earths were in orbit around Kapteyn's Star.

Star Table

StarDesignationName or
catalogue number
(light years4)
Spectral classification
and/or comments
α Picalpha PicHD 50241+3.3100White sub-giant
β Picbeta PicHD 39060+3.863Protoplanetary disc
γ Picgamma PicHD 39523+4.5174Orange giant
δ Picdelta PicHD 42933+4.71,700Blue-white giant
ζ Piczeta PicHD 35072+5.4120Yellow-white sub-giant
η Piceta PicHD 32743+5.485Yellow-white dwarf
θ Pictheta PicHD 35860+6.2530White dwarf
ι Piciota PicHD 31204+6.4105Yellow-white sub-giant
κ Pickappa PicHD 35580+6.1750Blue-white dwarf
λ Piclambda PicHD 30185+5.3340Orange giant
μ Picmu PicHD 46860+5.7725Blue-white dwarf
ν Picnu PicHD 45229+5.6165Red dwarf
VZ Pic5HD 33793Kapteyn's Star+8.8512.8Red sub-dwarf, has two planets

Black Hole

Black holes, the beloved staple of science fiction writers, are the most destructive things imaginable. They are collapsed stars that are so condensed that nothing, not even light, can escape their gravitational pull. Basically they're gravity gone mad, and anything that ventures close enough to get caught in their death grip gets stretched to obliteration. This isn't a companion you'd want in your intergalactic backyard, because it's a hungry monster which will never be sated. Although they were thought to be invisible and therefore undetectable, it's possible to see a black hole 'feeding' - we'd see a stream of matter under transference, a snapshot in deadly slow motion. The black hole Pictor A imaged by the orbiting Chandra X-ray observatory astounded scientists when the length of the stream was measured at a million light years.

Gamma Ray Burst

A gamma ray burst (GRB) is the explosive death of massive star; sometimes they give out more energy in a few seconds than our sun will in its whole stellar life. On 29 July, 2006, a GRB was detected in Pictor. Given the name GRB 060729 to indicate its date of discovery, it was hoped it would stay visible for up to two weeks. GRB 060729 turned out to be a record breaker, as it glowed for four months until fading completely in late November 2006. It had provided 125 days of observation and barely dipped in brightness, delighting the observing researchers.

New General Catalogue (NGC)

The NGC was compiled by John Louis Emil Dreyer (the director of the Armagh Observatory from 1882 -1916). There's just one NGC object in Pictor: a relatively small irregular galaxy approximately 2,000 light years across. It contains a young star cluster.

NGC Table

(light years)
NGC 1705Galaxy+12.317 millionDwarf irregular

Extrasolar Planets

There have been some extrasolar planetary systems found in the constellation Pictor up to 2009. Figures given in the table below are the mass of the extrasolar planet compared to that of Jupiter, our Solar System's largest planet, known by astronomers as the 'Jovian scale'. The accepted 'cut off' point between a planet and a low mass brown dwarf6 star is 13.6 times Jupiter mass (MJ). AB Pictoris b is 13.5MJ, so it could be a brown dwarf or the most massive planet ever discovered. It is also a record breaker in that its distance from the parent star, at 270 AU, is the longest measured so far.

Planet HD 41004 A b is part of a quadruple system comprising: orange dwarf HD 41004 A with gas giant planet HD 41004 A b and a red dwarf HD 41004 B which has a brown dwarf HD 41004 B b in orbit. HD 41004 A and HD 41004 B orbit each other.

Extrasolar Planet Table

Star name or
catalogue number
catalogue number
Planet mass
(Jovian scale)
Distance from star (AU)Year of discoveryComments
AB PictorisAB Pictoris b13.52752005Possible brown dwarf
HD 41004 AHD 41004 A b2.51.72004Superjovian
HD 41004 BHD 41004 B b18.41.322004Brown dwarf
beta Pictorisbeta Pictoris b78-92008Superjovian
HD 41248HD 41248 b0.03918.362013Hot super-Earth
HD 41248HD 41248 c0.02213.3652013Hot super-Earth

On 16 June, 2008, it was announced that three extrasolar planets had been discovered in orbit around the star HD 40307, which resides in Pictor at co-ordinates Right Asc: 05 54 04; Dec: −60 01 24. The star is 42 light years distant, and the three planets are 'super-Earths', but they're all too close to their star to be considered capable of supporting life. The accepted norm is to provide the planet mass of rocky worlds in comparison to that of Earth. In 2012 another three planets were detected in the system. One, super-Earth HD 40307 g, orbits in the habitable zone.

HD 40307 Solar System Table

Planet catalogue
Planet mass
(Earth scale)
Distance from
star (Earth days)
HD 40307 b4.24.31Hot super-Earth
HD 40307 c6.69.62Hot super-Earth
HD 40307 d9.520.43Hot super-Earth
HD 40307 e3.534.62Hot super-Earth
HD 40307 f5.251.76Hot super-Earth
HD 40307 g7.1197.8Super-Earth

1Current IAU guidelines use a plus sign (+) for northern constellations and a minus sign (−) for southern ones.2AU means astronomical unit, the distance between Earth and the Sun - 150 million kilometres or 93 million miles.3Bear in mind that our sun is approximately 4.5 billion years old.4A light year is the distance light travels in one year, roughly 5.88 trillion miles or 9.46 trillion km.5Being a relatively recent discovery, this star was not included in the original assignment of Greek letters.6A brown dwarf is a star which is too small to fuse hydrogen but shines in the infra-red region by deuterium fusion and by gravitational heating.

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