Sand and Stars

Phoenix, Beautiful Firebird

A fiery Kalahari sunset

20 Sep 2021

If ever there is a place to see the colours of the mythical Phoenix – the beautiful firebird that lived in the Arabian desert and whose plumage was the colours of fire – it is the Kalahari at sunset.

I walk my dog every evening at sunset, when the setting sun is carrying its aggressive desert heat beyond the horizon. They really are spectacular sunsets – the western sky bursting into flames as the great red ball of fire falls from the sky. It’s not hard to imagine the magnificent Phoenix on its pyre of fragrant herbs, being consumed by un-Earthly flames such as these.

By contrast, Kalahari sunrises are most often gently beautiful; a rose-reflected light that dribbles over the horizon ahead of a golden sun that glides into the sky from behind the dark dunes. With the sun comes the most glorious chorus of birdsong. This too, evokes the Phoenix for the fabulous bird would appear at dawn every morning to sing a song so enchanting that even the great sun god Apollo would stop to listen.

Recently, I spent the night on a vast Kalahari farm so remote that it seemed almost to be on another planet. The farmer, his wife, a multitude of wonderful dogs and I, sat in creaking wicker chairs on the veranda and watched the sun set in all its firebird glory. Afterwards, the farmer smiled at me and said with satisfaction, “That was a lovely sunset.” And he should know. Every evening for his entire life he has sat on the veranda and watched the sun set. Born on the farm 72 years ago, farming this vast tract of desert scrubland has contained him in peace and contentment his whole life, the outside world as unfathomably far away to him in space and time as galaxies are to us in our eyepieces.

Indeed, it’s not often that one talks with a man whose entire existence is cyclical – a cycle of sunsets, sunrises, seasons, birth, death, flowers, grasses, searing heat, freezing cold, the stars wheeling overhead. The stars… it was odd to talk to someone who had lived his entire life under the most stunning skies yet didn’t know any constellation bar the Southern Cross and Orion’s belt – “the three sisters” as he called them.

We spent hours looking at the stars both naked eye and through binoculars. Naked eye, he particularly liked the celestial southern birds, and outlining Phoenix for him… what better to have in our sky than a glorious firebird that symbolises cyclic patterns?

It was a given that last night, with life cycles in mind, I spent the evening in the fabulous celestial firebird on its grand cyclical flight overhead, carrying within it a multitude of galaxies.


16″ f/5 Dobs at magnifications of 70x, 150x, 228x 333x 

It is always tough to winnow down all the objects I look at for a blog-length entry, but here some groupings that are particularly fascinating. I began with what is always an absolute treat to observe – an interacting quartet!

Robert’s Quartet

What a thrilling sight to see this tight compact group of four galaxies whose members gravitationally disturb each other. In NGC 92, one can see that the interaction has unravelled a magnificent stream of gas and dust that stretches a mind-boggling 100,000 light years. In NGC 87, an irregular galaxy similar to the Large Magellanic Cloud, the interaction has spawned a multitude of stellar nurseries. And in NGC 89, the interaction has resulted in a ring of enhanced star birth that circles the spiral galaxy. Certainly, one can see nothing of all these extraordinary occurrences in the eyepiece, but knowing what’s going on as those ancient photons end their journey on my eyeball after an inconceivable 160 million year journey, fills me with a feeling impossible to describe. Awe doesn’t even come close.

The group was named by Halton Arp and Barry F. Madore, who compiled A Catalogue of Southern Peculiar Galaxies and Associations in 1987. Arp and Madore named Robert’s Quartet after Robert Freedman who generated many of the updated positions of galaxies in the catalogue.

The quartet is a fascinating sight in the telescope – four small grey smudges of obviously different brightnesses, shapes and sizes, lying in an attractive equilateral triangle pattern with the smallest and dimmest galaxy in the centre, and set against a background lightly sprinkled with beautiful stars. 

NGC 92 

RA 00 21 31.7   Dec -48 37 33   Mag 13.1   Size 1.9’x0.9′   SB 13.5   PA 148         

NGC 92 appears as a beautiful faint-ish silky grey oval, elongated NW-SE. It has a brighter and extended core. No sign of its immense tidal tail to the southeast. 

NGC 87 

RA 00 21 14.4   Dec -48 37 43   Mag 14.3   Size 0.9’x0.7′   SB 13.7   PA 171

NGC 87 appears as a faint, small, irregularly round glow of soft grey light, with an even surface brightness. No sign of the knotty appearance so apparent in the image. 

NGC 89 

RA 00 21 24.4   Dec -48 39 57   Mag 13.5   Size 1.2’x0.6′   SB 13.0   PA 148

NGC 89 appears as a faint, small oval, elongated NW-SE. It brightens somewhat to a small core. 

NGC 88 

RA 00 21 21.9   Dec -48 38 23   Mag 14.4   Size 0.8’x0.5′   SB 13.2   PA 145

NGC 88, the smallest and dimmest of the quartet, and lying in the centre of the quartet, appears as a very faint, very small, and very slightly elongated NW-SE oval. Its faint glow is even, no brightening to the centre. 

Abell 2731

Abell Compact Galaxies are always a treat, and this one is no exception, its four NGC galaxies forming a distinctive string oriented SW to NE, lying against a beautiful background of scattered stars.

Abell 2731. DSS image annotated

NGC 25 Galaxy 

RA 00 09 59.4   Dec -57 01 14   Mag 13.0   Size 1.4’x0.8′   SB 14.0   PA 88°

NGC 25, the westernmost of the four galaxies, appears as a small, faint, oval-shaped glow, elongated E-W, with a slight central brightening. It has a pair of faint mag 15 stars lying off its borders – one lying to the NE, the other to the south. 

NGC 28 Galaxy 

RA 00 10 25.2   Dec -56 59 21   Mag 13.8   Size 0.8’x0.6′   SB 12.9   PA 119°   

NGC 28 lies 4′ ENE of NGC 25, and appears as a very small, faint and almost stellar round droplet, surrounded by a thin and very faint halo. 

NGC 31 Galaxy 

RA 00 10 38.5   Dec -57 59 11   Mag 13.6   Size 1.1’x0.6′   SB 13.1   PA 5°

NGC 31 lies 1.8′ E of NGC 28, and appears as the most prominent of the four galaxies. It appears as a small, slightly bright oval elongated N-S, that brightens to a bright little core. A mag 12 star lies 1.5′ NNE. 

NGC 37 Galaxy 

RA 00 11 23.0   Dec -56 57 26   Mag 13.7   Size 1.1’x0.7′   SB 13.2   PA 35°

NGC 37 is the easternmost galaxy, and lies 6.3′ ENE of NGC 31. It appears as a faint, small oval elongated SSW-NNE, that brightens to a small core.

A string of six galaxies

It’s not often one finds 6 galaxies lying in a raggedy 25′ N-S string… a cascade of galaxies that runs along the east side of an attractive bright yellow mag 6.6 star. I had a very enjoyable north to south meander along the jagged string.

A string of six galaxies. DSS image annotated

NGC 312 Galaxy 

RA 00 56 16.2   Dec -52 46 59   Mag 12.4   Size 1.4’x1.1′   SB 12.9   PA 62°  

This is the most northern of the string of galaxies. It has a bright little core embedded in a fairly bright, small oval elongated WSW-ESE. A mag 11.6 star lies 2.5′ west.

ESO 151-5 Galaxy

RA 00 56 08.0   Dec -52 49 49   Mag 14.0   Size 1.0’x0.6′   SB 13.3   PA 171°

This is the second from the northern end in the string of eight galaxies. It lies 2.5′ SSW of NGC 312. It has a fairly bright stellar core embedded in a faint, small oval halo, elongated N-S. A mag 11.6 star lies 2.5′ NNW.

NGC 328 Galaxy

RA 00 56 57.4   Dec -52 55 26   Mag 13.3   Size 2.7’x0.5′   SB 13.6   PA 100°

Third from the northern end of the string of eight galaxies, NGC 328 is an edge-on galaxy, appearing as a faint spindle, elongated WNW-ESE, and with a very slight central bulge that is slightly brighter. Even with averted vision, I couldn’t see ESO 151-10 that lies 2.5′ NW.

NGC 323 Galaxy

RA 00 56 41.6   Dec -52 58 34   Mag 12.6   Size 1.0’x1.0′   SB 12.6   PA 175°

This is the fourth galaxy from the northern end in the string of eight, and it lies 4′ SSW OF NGC 328. It appears as a fairly bright, small round glow with a bright core that is just off-stellar. 

ESO 151-12 Galaxy

RA 00 56 47.2   Dec -52 49 49   Mag 12.9   Size 1.4’x0.8′   SB 12.9   PA 118°

This is the fifth galaxy from the northern end in the string of eight, and it lies 7.3′ SSE of NGC 323. It appears as a faint, small oval elongated WNW-ESE, with a bright stellar nucleus.

ESO 151-4 Galaxy 

RA 00 56 07.4   Dec -53 11 22   Mag 13.6   Size 1.3’x0.3′   SB 12.4   PA 160°

The sixth galaxy from the northern end in the string of eight, this galaxy lies just 2′ E of the bright yellow mag 6.6 star HD 5474, and is almost obscured by the star’s light. It appears as a very faint, long streak elongated NNW-SSE, with a slightly brighter, also elongated, core. I confess to enjoying the sight of galaxies lying close to a bright star; although challenging to see much of the galaxy at best, it is always a charming combination, especially when, as in this case, the galaxy lies beside a pretty coloured star.

A couple of nice galaxies

NGC 625 Galaxy

RA 01 35 05   Dec -41 26 11   Mag 11.2   Size 5.8’x1.9′   SB 13.6   PA 92

DSS image
NGC 625. DSS image

NGC 625 is not only the brightest galaxy in Phoenix, but it is also a fascinating object to observe because it is a dwarf starburst galaxy. I find it dumbfounding to know that one is observing a galaxy that isn’t plodding along producing a couple of new stars a year, but is producing anything up to a hundred times more than that – a literal starburst. The galaxy is a very interesting sight in the telescope because it has a rather unusual appearance – appearing as a bright-ish, large-ish, extended E-W oval that is curiously irregular in both shape and brightness. It is surrounded by a thin fainter halo. Averted vision shows up the irregularity of the central region; the western end seems more blunt than the eastern end, which seems sharper in comparison, and although the glow is by no means mottled or knotty, it has an odd uneven brightness, not quite lumpy looking, but definitely not smooth and even. Very unusual. 

ESO 240-11 Galaxy 

RA 23 37 49.7   Dec -47 43 39   Mag 12.4   Size 5.6’x .6′   SB 13.5   PA 129°

ESO 240-11. DSS image

I really love observing edge-on galaxies, and ESO 240-11 is a lovely little one. Although small and faint, it is the quintessential edge-on galaxy – a beautiful little spindle streak of light, elongated NW-SE, with a brighter little central bulge, and pointy ends.