The constellations Grus, the crane, and Phoenix, the firebird, stroll across the southern horizon in early evening for skywatchers in the southern half of the United States. This illustration shows the view from Dallas a couple of hours after sunset. The constellations are low and faint, so you need clear skies and an unobstructed horizon to see them.
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A couple of birds wade low across the southern sky tonight. They’re best seen from the southern third of the country, although their upper bodies are visible as far north as New York.
The one that stands tallest is Grus, the crane. Because it’s so far south, it wasn’t well known to the cultures of western Europe. In fact, the constellation was first drawn in the late 1500s, by a pair of Dutch navigators.
Its stars were known in the Middle East, though, where Arabs considered it an extension of slightly higher Piscis Austrinus, the southern fish. In fact, the proper names for the crane’s brightest stars come from Arabic names that refer not to a bird, but to the tail of the fish.
The brighter of the two is Al Nair — “the bright one of the fish’s tail.” It’s hundreds of times brighter than the Sun, so it shines brightly in our sky even though it’s more than a hundred light-years away. It’s nearing the end of its “normal” lifetime, so it’ll soon puff up to many times its current size, making it shine even brighter.
If you’re south of about Denver, look for the crane strolling along the southern horizon in early evening, with its long neck extending well up into the sky. The constellation is below Fomalhaut, the brightest star in that region of the sky.
The other bird is known as Phoenix. It rises to the lower left of Grus and is best viewed around 9 o’clock. We’ll have more about Phoenix tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011