The constellation Sculptor contains the South Galactic Pole

Sky chart showing triangular constellation Sculptor and the star Fomalhaut at its top right.
The constellation Sculptor lies near the southern horizon for Northern Hemisphere viewers on November evenings. Chart via Chelynne Campion/ EarthSky.

The constellation Sculptor is a quiet patch of dark sky that brushes the southern horizon in November for Northern Hemisphere viewers. It is one of the 14 constellations named by the French astronomer Nicolas Lacaille (1713-1762). Lacaille’s original name for this grouping of southern stars was the Sculptor’s Workshop. But these dim stars resemble neither sculptor nor workshop. You might instead pick out a triangle of stars in Sculptor, shown in the chart at the top of this post. And in addition, this small constellation has a claim to fame. It’s home to the point in the sky astronomers recognize as the South Galactic Pole.

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What is the South Galactic Pole?

Imagine us on a galactic scale within the disk of our home Milky Way galaxy. The galaxy lies all around us in space. Indeed, it spins, just as Earth spins (and as all objects in space are spinning) around a central axis. The spin axis of the Milky Way runs through its center, making our great spiral galaxy resemble a turning pinwheel. So – in much the same way we on Earth look in our sky toward Polaris, our present-day North Star – so we on Earth can look in the sky toward the north and south poles of our Milky Way galaxy.

The North Galactic Pole lies in the northern constellation Coma Berenices. Likewise, the South Galactic Pole lies in the southern constellation Sculptor. The galactic latitude of that pole would be -90 degrees.

From our earthly vantage point, we can’t see into our galaxy’s center. That’s because nearly all the Milky Way’s visible contents – gas, dust, stars – lie in the flat plane of the galaxy, at zero degrees galactic longitude. To be sure, when we look toward the Milky Way’s center, there’s a lot of stuff obscuring our view between us and the center. But looking toward the poles of the galaxy is different, however. Then we’re looking up and away from the star-rich plane of the galaxy. IN this case, we’re looking more clearly into the space beyond our galaxy. And so astronomers say that looking toward Sculptor is like looking out our galaxy’s south window.

Sky chart showing 7 constellations. Constellation Sculptor (triangle shape) is in the middle. There is a circle at the top left of Sculptor.
The circle with tick marks indicates the position of the South Galactic Pole, just above the triangle shape of Sculptor.
Constellations Sculptor, with a picture of a sculpted bust overlying it, near fish constellation with star Fomalhaut.
The constellation Sculptor lies near the southern horizon, just east of the bright star Fomalhaut in Piscis Austrinus. Image via Stellarium. Used with permission.

How to find Sculptor

People in the Southern Hemisphere can spy Sculptor overhead on November evenings. For Northern Hemisphere observers, you’ll have to have a clear horizon to the south and a dark-sky site. Notably, there is one bright star is in this region of sky, and it doesn’t belong to Sculptor. Fomalhaut, with the nickname of the loneliest star, is part of the constellation Piscis Austrinus the Southern Fish. Look east of Piscis Austrinus and below Cetus the Whale with its star Diphda. See that dark empty space? That’s Sculptor.

On the other hand, the constellation’s brightest star, Alpha Sculptoris, shines at a mere magnitude 4.3. This means that if you live in a city or nearby suburb, you can’t see any of Sculptor’s stars at all. Alpha Sculptoris lies about 780 light-years from Earth.

In addition, one other notable star in this constellation is Zeta Sculptoris, at magnitude 5.0. A smattering of dimmer stars surround Zeta, giving the cluster the name the Zeta Sculptoris Cluster. Yet Zeta is not actually part of the cluster. In fact, the cluster stars are much farther away.

Very oblique view of medium-sized bluish spiral nebula with a yellow nucleus and foreground stars.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Eyad Khailany in the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq, captured the Sculptor galaxy (NGC 253) on October 6, 2022, and wrote: “This galaxy is a good target for observation with a telescope of 300 mm diameter or larger. In such telescopes, it appears as a galaxy with a long, oval bulge and a mottled galactic disc.” Thank you, Eyad! The Sculptor Galaxy is, in fact, one of the closest galaxies to Earth, at a distance of 13 million light-years.

Deep-sky objects in the constellation Sculptor

Also, a little less than five degrees from Alpha Sculptoris is the most notable deep-sky object in this constellation: the Sculptor Galaxy. At magnitude eight, you can spot the galaxy – also known as NGC 253 – through a small telescope. The galaxy is about 13 million light-years distant, making it a member of one of the nearest groups of galaxies to Earth. The galaxy is a spiral that shows a central bar in infrared images.

Also above Alpha Sculptoris, but below the galaxy, is the South Galactic Pole. If you want to gaze toward this point in the sky with your binoculars or telescope – look out our galaxy’s “south window,” as it were – its geocentric coordinates (right ascension and declination) are RA = 0h 51m 26.00s, Dec = -27d 7m 42.0s.

Deep field images of Pandora’s Cluster

Of course, one advantage of an area of sky that is sparsely populated with stars or other bright space objects is that it makes a great target for deep field photos from the Hubble and Webb telescopes. So they focused in on Sculptor to capture the massive galaxy cluster Abell 2744, also called Pandora’s Cluster. Indeed, even more distant galaxies appear through gravitational lensing in these photos.

Clump of many small-appearing galaxies at all angles to each other. Some are blue, white or orange.
This giant galaxy cluster, Abell 2744, or Pandora’s Cluster, lies in the direction of Sculptor. The cluster is about 4 million light-years across and has the mass of 4 trillion suns. In fact, it appears to be the result of a simultaneous pile-up of at least 4 separate, smaller galaxy clusters that took place over a span of 350 million years. One of the objects in the photo is more than 13 billion light-years away. Read more about this image at HubbleSite. Image via NASA/ ESA/ J. Lotz/ M. Mountain/ A. Koekemoer/ Hubble Frontier Fields Team.
Deep-sky image with myriads of galaxies ranging from dot size to 2 larger foreground groups.
View larger. | Here’s Pandora’s Cluster, from the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s at least 4 giant galaxy clusters joining together to form a megacluster. This megacluster creates a gravitational lens, enabling us to see much more distant galaxies behind the cluster. Image via NASA/ ESA/ CSA/ I. Labbe (Swinburne University of Technology)/ R. Bezanson (University of Pittsburgh). Image processing: Alyssa Pagan (STScI).

Bottom line: The constellation Sculptor appears best on November evenings from the Northern Hemisphere, when it lies along the southern horizon.

November 23, 2023

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