Columba: A Celestial Dove Flying Through the Winter Skies

The small and somewhat-shapeless constellation Columba (the Dove) lies to the south of the mighty hunter Orion. To track Columba down first of all locate the brilliant star Sirius in Canis Major (the Great Dog) which lies to the south east of the mighty hunter Orion. Sirius, also known as the Dog Star, is the brightest star in the entire night sky and is unmistakable. Following the line of stars forming Canis Major southwards will bring you to Furud, to the south west of which we find Columba. In view of the fact that its two leading stars (Phakt and Wazn) are reasonably bright, you should have little trouble tracking Columba down.

Devised in 1592 by the Dutch celestial cartographer Petrus Plancius in order to help fill out this otherwise-empty region of sky, the whole of Columba is visible from latitudes south of 47°N. Its leading star is the magnitude Phakt which shines at magnitude 2.65 from a distance of around 260 light years. Phakt derives its name from the Arabic bird name ‘fākhita’ meaning ‘ring dove’.

Wazn, located just to the south east of Phakt, is an orange giant star (read more about star colours here) which, at magnitude 3.12, lies at a distance of 87 light years.

 

The origins of the name Wazn, the star located just to the south east of Phakt, are somewhat uncertain. Wazn is an orange giant star, the magnitude 3.12 glow of which reaches us from a distance of 87 light years. The 16th century Arabic astronomer Al Tizini referred to Phakt and Wazn collectively as ‘Al Aghribah’ meaning ‘the Ravens’. You can read more about star names here.

The rest of Columba is made up of the quartet of fainter stars Gamma, Eta, Delta and Epsilon, the most distant of these being Gamma. This star shines at magnitude 4.36 from a distance of a little over 850 light years, meaning that the light we are seeing from Gamma set off towards us around the time that Henry II was on the English throne.



Situated much nearer to us is Eta, the light from this magnitude 3.96 yellow giant star having taken around 500 years to reach our planet. At less than half this distance is another yellow giant star, the magnitude 3.85 Delta, which shines from a distance of 233 light years. Almost equal in brightness to Delta is the magnitude 3.86 orange giant star Epsilon, the light from which set off towards us 260 years ago.

The next blog will feature the constellation Puppis, which depicts a section of Argo Navis, the ship in which Jason and the Argonauts journeyed to Colchis in their quest for the Golden Fleece. In the meantime, why not cast your gaze upwards and seek out the celestial dove Columba as she flutters across the star-filled winter skies! Keep trekking . . . and happy stargazing!

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