Could there possibly be anything more unromantic and uninspiring than a "chemical furnace"? Could there be anything more unfaithful to the grand and glorious images painted in the stars by our ancestors? Nevertheless, that is one of twelve constellations French astronomer Nicholas Louis de Lacaille inflicted on the heavens when he charted the southern skies in the eighteenth century. It was officially confirmed by the International Astronomical Union in 1930, and to be fair, it does pay homage to one of the greatest scientists ever, Antoine Lavoisier, "The Father of Modern Chemistry", who discovered oxygen (amongst other things).
There is little chance of finding the shape of a furnace in the stars of Fornax, and it is doubtful Lacaille himself made the attempt, content with the symbolism alone. Indeed, most star charts do not even attempt to trace an image among the faint stars in the region, and leave the area blank. Originally named "Fornax Chimiae" by Lacaille, Latin for chemical furnace, the constellation's name was officially shortened to Fornax by the I.A.U in 1930.
The dim stars of Fornax are located within the great eastern loop of the river Eridanus. None of the stars have names. Alpha Fornacis is the brightest with a magnitude of 3.8. It is a binary system consisting of an F8IV yellow subgiant, and a G7V yellow main sequence star, that orbit each other every 269 years. At a distance of only 46 light years it is one of the closer star systems to Earth.
With the second brightest star, Beta Fornacis, we are already down to magnitude 4.46. It is a G9III yellow/orange giant, located about 170 light years away.
In June, 2009, a planet was discovered around Lambda2 Fornacis (HD 16417) that is about 22 times the mass of Earth. The planet is in a very close orbit, making it very hot and unlikely to support life. The system is relatively close to Earth however, only 84 light years away, which encourages further study to detect smaller, cooler planets orbiting farther out. The star is a G1V yellow main sequence star, very similar to our Sun. At magnitude 5.79 it is at the limit of naked eye visibility.
There are four other stars with confirmed planetary systems, but they are all far away and beyond visual range, with large gas giant planets. For more information on these and other extrasolar planets, visit NASA's New Worlds Atlas, and The Open Exoplanets Catalogue.
Just above Beta Fornacis is the bright spiral galaxy, NGC 1097, located about 50 million light years away. It is a Seyfert class galaxy with a very active centre powered by a supermassive black hole. No less than three supernovae have been witnessed here in the space of 11 years - in 1992, 1999, and 2003. In the ESO image below, you can see the small satellite galaxy NGC 1097A in the upper left being drawn in and consumed by the larger galaxy. At magnitude 9.5 it can be a challenge for small telescopes.
Out at the very great distance of 300 million light years at magnitude 12.1 we find the spiral galaxy NGC 1288. The reason we can see it so far away is because of its great size, 200,000 light years across, twice the width of our Milky Way Galaxy.
In the southeast corner of the constellation is the Fornax Galaxy Cluster, a dense grouping of hundreds of galaxies about 60 million light years away.
The most impressive galaxy in the Fornax Cluster is NGC 1365 (bottom right in above image), known as The Great Barred Spiral Galaxy. It has a face-on magnitude of 9.6, a challenging target for a backyard telescope.
The brightest galaxy in the Fornax Cluster is the elliptical galaxy NGC 1316 (left centre in top image). At magnitude 8.5, it is accessible to small scopes.
Up in the clarity of space, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope gets up-close and personal with NGC 1316, showing in great detail the clumps and filaments of dark dust that permeate the galaxy.
Hiding deep inside the Fornax Cluster is the small, dim, irregular dwarf galaxy NGC 1427A.. At magnitude 13.0, it is only visible in larger telescopes.
|Winter: Orion Canis Major Canis Minor Monoceros Lepus Eridanus Taurus Auriga Camelopardalis Lynx Gemini Cancer|
|Spring: Hydra Sextans Crater Corvus Leo Leo Minor Ursa Major Ursa Minor Canes Venatici Coma Berenices Virgo Bootes|
|Summer: Draco Corona Borealis Hercules Ophiuchus Serpens Libra Scorpius Sagittarius Scutum Aquila Sagitta Vulpecula Lyra Cygnus|
|Autumn: Andromeda Perseus Pegasus Cassiopeia Cepheus Cetus Lacerta Delphinus Equuleus Capricornus Aquarius Pisces Aries Triangulum|
|Southern Skies: Centaurus Crux Lupus Corona Australis Piscis Australis Sculptor Tucana Fornax Dorado Columba Puppis Carina Vela|