Brightest Stars

Fomalhaut is the loneliest star in the southern sky

Green ecliptic line with white dots for Saturn, Fomalhaut and the stars of outlined constellation Capricornus.
On September evenings in 2023, Saturn can guide you to the lonely, but bright, star Fomalhaut. If you are under dark skies, they are near the faint arrowhead-shaped constellation Capricornus the Sea-Goat. By the way, they’ll rise in the east around sunset and they are visible all night. Chart via John Jardine Goss / EarthSky.

Fomalhaut, bright and lonely

Fomalhaut, aka Alpha Piscis Austrinus, is also called the Loneliest Star. It’s because Fomalhaut is the only bright star in a wide stretch of sky. From the Northern Hemisphere, Fomalhaut arcs in solitary splendor across the southern sky in autumn. Therefore, some call it the Autumn Star. From the Southern Hemisphere, you’ll look higher up to see Fomalhaut in your season of spring. In 2023, Fomalhaut isn’t so solitary. A bright planet, Saturn, appears near it in the sky. Of course, Fomalhaut will be the one that’s twinkling since Saturn will shine with a steady light.

Keep reading to learn more about this young star. It’s of special interest to astronomers because it has a debris ring around it. As a matter of fact, astronomers think new worlds are forming in Fomalhaut’s ring, at an early stage in the planet-forming process.

Very bright bluish star with many more stars in background.
The star Fomalhaut as seen by an Earth-based telescope on November 13, 2008. Image via NASA/ ESA/ Digitized Sky Survey 2/ Davide De Martin (ESA/Hubble)/ Hubble Space Telescope.

How to see it

Fomalhaut is the 18th brightest star in the night sky. It’s part of the faint constellation Piscis Austrinus the Southern Fish. In a dark sky, you’ll see a half-circle of faint stars of which bright Fomalhaut is a part. This star pattern marks the open mouth of the Southern Fish.

In early September, Fomalhaut is opposite the sun. So, it shines in the sky all night. It reaches its culmination – its highest point in the sky – around local midnight in mid-September.

Fomalhaut culminates (reaches its highest point in the sky) at different times on different dates. Here are just a few approximate times and dates of culmination:

July 15: 4:30 a.m. daylight saving time (DST)
August 15: 2:30 a.m. DST
September 15: 12:30 a.m. DST
October 15: 10:30 p.m. DST
November 15: 8:30 p.m. DST
December 15: 5:30 p.m. standard time

The view from different hemispheres

From the Northern Hemisphere, you can see Fomalhaut from as far north as 60 degrees latitude (southern Alaska, central Canada, northern Europe), where it just skims the southern horizon. From the Southern Hemisphere, Fomalhaut appears much higher in the sky. You can use one of several stargazing smartphone apps, some that are free, to help you find it. Or visit, the free online planetarium, and enter your location and time.

A gray, black, and white star chart (with stars represented as black dots).
Stars in Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, include Fomalhaut. Image via International Astronomical Union/ Sky & Telescope/ Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).
Stars in black sky. Labeled constellations are shown with blue lines connecting the stars.
View larger. | A wide view of the sky from Austin, Texas, 30 minutes past midnight on September 15. Fomalhaut, marked in this chart with crosshairs, is approximately 30 degrees above the horizon at its highest altitude. (From Washington, D.C., the star would be about 21 degrees above the horizon, and in Montreal, Canada, around 15 degrees.) To get your bearings, locate the great square of Pegasus. Then use the west side of the square to guide you south, about three times its length, toward Fomalhaut. Image via Stellarium.

Rings of dust and gas

Fomalhaut is a hot white star about 25 light-years away. It’s almost twice the mass and size of our sun but radiates over 16 times the sun’s energy. Fomalhaut has a companion star less than a light-year away from it. The companion is an orange dwarf star, about 70% the mass of our sun. A third member of the Fomalhaut star system was announced in 2013, a small reddish star about 2.5 light-years from Fomalhaut. From Earth, we see the third star located in the constellation Aquarius instead of Piscis Austrinus.

Fomalhaut itself is a young star, just 440 million years old. That’s in contrast to 4 1/2 billion years for our sun. Fomalhaut is of special interest to astronomers because it has several rings of dust and gas around it, early indications of planets in the process of formation around this star. Astronomers have detected inner debris disks close to the star, within a few astronomical units (AU) from the star.

There’s a much larger, thicker debris ring about 133 AU from the star. A study published in 2008 generated a lot of excitement when Hubble Space Telescope images, taken in 2004, 2006 and 2008 showed an apparent planet very close to this debris ring. Astronomers first thought it was the first directly imaged exoplanet. But data from other telescopes brought that conclusion under scrutiny. And, by 2014, this object was no longer visible to Hubble.

A possible explanation

So what happened? Astronomers think that the “planet” was actually a large dust cloud generated by the collision of two large bodies near the ring. And over time, that dust cloud may have dissipated. And even though it turned out not to be a planet, astronomers were pleased. Catching the aftermath of a collision in a planet-forming disk was good, too! The event provided clues to a deeper understanding about how planets form.

Left: a dark circle with a fuzzy red ring around it. Right: a series of dots, fading from bright to dim.
On the left, a Hubble Space Telescope image showing Fomalhaut’s debris disk. The star itself has been blocked so its brightness doesn’t drown out the view of the faint ring. The small box shows the object once thought to be a planet (but no more). On the right is a simulation, based on observations, of how the object appeared from 2004 to 2014. The object is now thought to be the result of a collision in the disk. Image via NASA.

Fomalhaut in history and mythology

The name Fomalhaut derives from the Arabic Fum al Hut, meaning Mouth of the Fish.

In the sky visible from the Northern Hemisphere, the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer resides above Fomalhaut’s constellation Piscis Austrinus. You can see a zigzag line of stars from Aquarius to Piscis Austrinus. In sky lore, this line of stars represents water from the Jar of the Water Bearer, trickling into the open Mouth of the Fish.

According to Richard Hinckley Allen, Fomalhaut was one of the four guardians of the heavens to the ancient Persians, in 3,000 BCE, called by them Hastorang. (The other guardians were Aldebaran in Taurus, Antares in Scorpius, and Regulus in Leo.) Around 2,500 BCE, Fomalhaut helped mark the location of the winter solstice, meaning that it helped to define the location in the sky where the sun crossed the meridian at noon on the first day of winter. Also Allen also says that in 500 BCE, people worshipped Fomalhaut at the temple of Demeter in Eleusis, in ancient Greece.

Antique etching of an old man carrying a water jug. Below him is a fish. Stars are scattered over the chart.
View larger. | Aquarius the Water Carrier appears above Piscis Austrinus the Southern Fish, in the Celestial Atlas by Alexander Jamieson, published in 1822. In the illustration, water from the Water Jar of Aquarius is going into the Mouth of the Southern Fish. if it’s dark where you are, you can easily see a zigzag line of stars representing this flow of water. Image via Wikimedia (public domain).

Bottom line: Fomalhaut is relatively easy to spot as it shines brightly in an area of sky with no other bright stars nearby. And it’s of special interest to astronomers because of debris rings around it that are possibly the beginnings of a planetary system.

Read more: Fomalhaut has 3 nested belts around the star

September 24, 2023
Brightest Stars

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