All constellations are in some sense artificial, but while many, especially
in the northern sky, date back thousands of years and have rich histories, the elegant
Southern Cross has a disappointingly prosaic derivation. In the late seventeenth century,
Royer (or, according to some sources, Abbé de la Caille) simply carved a rectangular
region of sky out of Centaurus and renamed it Crux (Latin for 'Cross').
Crux is often called the Southern Cross (Crux Australis) to distinguish it from the 'Northern Cross', a
traditional, but entirely unofficial, name for the bright stars that make up Cygnus in the
With an area of less than seventy square degrees, Crux has the distinction of being
the smallest constellation in the sky. It occupies only about one twentieth of the area of
Hydra, the largest of the constellations.
Crux lies within a densely populated area of the Milky Way, and so in a densely starred
region. As one might imagine from its name, the body of the Cross is made up of four bright stars,
Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta Crucis. Though Delta Crucis does not appear to have a proper name, its
three brighter companions do: they are known as Acrux, Becrux and Gacrux, respectively. These
are, without doubt, the three least inspired star names in the entire sky.
These four main stars lie between 200 and 600 light years (about 60 and 180 parsecs) from Earth.
Much further away, at around 7,600 light years (2,300 parsecs) lies an open
cluster known as the Jewel Box that is just visible to the naked eye.
Tiny Crux carves out a thin sliver of space within the plane of the Milky Way.