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Apus is a southern celestial constellation first introduced by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in the early 20th century. Its name, derived from the Greek word for "bird of paradise," symbolizes a bird-like creature, though it does not represent any specific bird species. Positioned in the southern sky, Apus is notable for its lack of bright stars, making it a challenge for observers in light-polluted areas but a rewarding sight under pristine conditions for those exploring the southern heavens.

constellation astronomy IAU

1. Introduction

Apus, positioned between the constellations of Triangulum Australe and Octans, stretches across the region of the southern celestial hemisphere known as the "Deep South" (Figure 1). Its celestial coordinates lie approximately between right ascension 14h 30m to 17h 30m and declination −65° to −90°. Nestled within this celestial expanse, Apus unveils its celestial wonders to those fortunate enough to gaze upon it from southern latitudes, offering a glimpse into the vastness and complexity of the universe beyond our terrestrial confines.

Figure 1. IAU chart of Apus. Source: Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope. Reproduced under CC BY 4.0 license.

This constellation's coordinates place it in a region of the sky that remains largely hidden from observers in the northern hemisphere, adding to its mystique and allure. Apus becomes visible to observers located south of approximately 8 degrees north latitude, its appearance heralding the arrival of the southern celestial realm with its array of unique constellations. Despite its dimness in terms of stellar luminosity, Apus contributes to the celestial panorama with its distinctive shape and symbolism. Its name, derived from the Latin word for "bird of paradise," evokes imagery of a mythical avian creature soaring through the celestial vault. While lacking in bright stars, Apus compensates with its rich astronomical history and cultural significance, inviting exploration and contemplation into the depths of the cosmos.

2. Historical Background

The constellation Apus may lack the luminous stars of its more prominent celestial counterparts, but its historical significance is no less compelling. Despite its relatively recent inclusion among the modern constellations designated by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Apus has roots that stretch back to ancient civilizations and their interpretations of the celestial sphere.

Ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, possessed a profound fascination with the stars, viewing them as celestial beings or gods and incorporating them into their mythologies and religious beliefs. While Apus itself does not feature prominently in the mythologies of these ancient cultures, its position in the southern celestial hemisphere meant that it remained beyond the reach of most early astronomers and thus played a limited role in their celestial narratives.

It wasn't until the Age of Exploration, particularly during the European voyages of the 15th and 16th centuries, that the southern skies began to be systematically mapped and cataloged. Explorers such as Amerigo Vespucci and Ferdinand Magellan, navigating the uncharted waters of the southern hemisphere, encountered unfamiliar constellations and stars previously unseen by European observers. However, it would still be several centuries before these celestial discoveries were formally recognized and incorporated into the canon of Western astronomy.

The formalization of the constellation Apus came about through the efforts of European astronomers in the early 18th century. French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, during his expedition to the Cape of Good Hope in the 1750s, undertook the monumental task of mapping the southern skies with unprecedented precision. Lacaille's observations and meticulous measurements laid the foundation for the modern understanding of the southern celestial hemisphere, and his catalog, "Coelum Australe Stelliferum," published posthumously in 1763, included several new constellations, including Apus.

Lacaille named the constellation "Apus," derived from the Greek word for "bird of paradise," likely inspired by the exotic avian species he encountered during his travels in Africa. While Apus itself does not represent any specific bird in ancient mythology, the name evokes a sense of mystery and wonder, reflecting the allure of the unknown that characterized the exploration of the southern skies.

Despite Lacaille's efforts, the constellation Apus remained relatively obscure compared to its more prominent counterparts in the northern hemisphere. Its dimness and lack of bright stars made it less conspicuous to casual observers, and its position in the southern celestial hemisphere meant that it remained largely inaccessible to astronomers in Europe and North America until the advent of modern telescopic technology.

In the 20th century, with the establishment of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the standardization of celestial nomenclature, Apus was formally recognized as one of the 88 modern constellations. Its boundaries and celestial coordinates were delineated, ensuring its place in the annals of astronomical history and providing astronomers and stargazers alike with a roadmap to explore the depths of the southern skies.

3. Notable Stars in Apus

Despite its lack of bright stars, the constellation Apus still boasts several noteworthy celestial objects that have captured the attention of astronomers and stargazers. While Apus may not feature any stars of significant luminosity or historical importance, its stellar inhabitants offer insights into the diversity and complexity of the southern skies.

3.1. Alpha Apodis

Alpha Apodis, also known by its traditional name "Magellanicus," is the brightest star in the constellation Apus, though it is still relatively faint compared to the luminaries of the northern hemisphere. Classified as a K-type orange giant, Alpha Apodis exhibits a luminosity approximately 550 times that of the Sun and lies approximately 430 light-years away from Earth. Despite its modest brightness, Alpha Apodis serves as a useful reference point for locating other objects within the constellation.

3.2. Beta Apodis

Beta Apodis, another notable star in Apus, is a binary star system composed of two stars orbiting each other in a close binary arrangement. The primary star is a yellow-white main-sequence star similar in spectral type to the Sun, while the secondary star is a fainter companion. Beta Apodis is located approximately 160 light-years from Earth and serves as a visual highlight within the constellation.

3.3. Gamma Apodis

Gamma Apodis, a third-magnitude star, adds to the celestial tapestry of Apus with its subtle brilliance and spectral intrigue. Classified as a yellow-white dwarf star, Gamma Apodis shines with a luminosity approximately 50 times that of the Sun and lies approximately 165 light-years away from our solar system. Its relative proximity to Earth and distinctive spectral characteristics make Gamma Apodis an intriguing target for astronomers studying stellar evolution and stellar atmospheres.

3.4. Delta Apodis

Delta Apodis, though fainter than its counterparts, contributes to the constellation's stellar ensemble with its modest luminosity and celestial position. Classified as an F-type main-sequence star, Delta Apodis shines with a luminosity approximately 4.5 times that of the Sun and lies approximately 275 light-years away from Earth. While not as visually striking as some of the brighter stars in Apus, Delta Apodis serves as a testament to the diversity of stellar types and evolutionary pathways found throughout the cosmos.

4. Deep-Sky Objects in Apus

While the constellation Apus may be lacking in bright stars, it compensates with a variety of fascinating deep-sky objects that beckon to astronomers seeking to explore the depths of the southern celestial hemisphere. From distant galaxies to luminous star clusters, Apus offers a wealth of celestial treasures waiting to be discovered.

4.1. IC 4499

IC 4499 is a globular cluster located within the boundaries of Apus. This densely packed spherical collection of stars contains thousands of individual stars bound together by gravity, forming a compact and visually striking stellar ensemble. IC 4499 is notable for its relatively loose and irregular structure compared to other globular clusters, making it an intriguing target for astronomers studying the dynamics and evolution of stellar systems.

4.2. NGC 6101

NGC 6101 is another globular cluster situated in the constellation Apus. With an estimated distance of around 49,000 light-years from Earth, NGC 6101 is one of the more distant globular clusters within our galaxy. Its densely packed core and halo of stars make it a captivating sight for observers equipped with telescopes capable of resolving its intricate structure. NGC 6101 offers astronomers valuable insights into the formation and dynamics of globular clusters within the Milky Way.

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Update Date: 29 Feb 2024