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Constellations: Vulpecula 'the Fox'

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The shield of the Science, Mathematics and Engineering faculty of the h2g2 University.Constellations: Overview | Andromeda | Antlia | Apus | Aquarius | Aquila | Ara | Aries | Auriga | Boötes | Caelum
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Two things there are, no doubt you know, to which a fox is used:
A rooster that is bound to crow, a crow that's bound to roost;
And whichsoever he espies, he tells the most unblushing lies.
'Sweet fowl,' he said, 'I understand you're more than merely natty;
I hear you sing to beat the band, and Adelina Patti1.
Pray render with your liquid tongue, a bit from Götterdämmerung.'

The Sycophantic Fox and the Gullible Raven by Guy Wetmore Carryl (1873 - 1904)

The Constellation Vulpecula

Name:Vulpecula (Latin: 'Fox')
Genitive:Vulpeculae
Short form:Vul
Area:268 sq deg
Co-ordinates2:Right Ascension 20h, Declination +25°
Origin:Modern (17th Century)

Vulpecula is a small northern constellation bordered by Cygnus, Lyra, Hercules, Sagitta, Delphinus and Pegasus. Originally called Vulpecula cum Anser which means 'fox with goose', the accepted name has now been shortened to just Vulpecula and the 'goose' name given to the brightest star of the constellation. Due to its position in the night sky, the fox constellation has an arm of the Milky Way for a backdrop. Boasting a solo Messier object, M27 is one of the best planetary nebulae for viewing possibilities by backyard astronomers.

History

In the 17th Century, Johannes Hevelius (1611 - 1687), the founder of the field of lunar topography, delineated seven star formations which are included in the 88 internationally recognised modern constellations: Vulpecula, Sextans, Scutum, Lynx, Leo Minor, Lacerta and Canes Venatici. They were introduced in his 1690 atlas Firmamentum Sobiescianum, which was posthumously published by his second wife Elisabeth (1647 - 1693), also an astronomer. Known as 'the mother of moon charts', her life was commemorated in the 2006 book Die Sternjägerin (The Star Huntress) by Eric Walz.

Stars

Vulpecula has only one named star, the alpha-designated Anser. The rest are known by their catalogue numbers or 'Bayer designation'.

Anser is a red giant some 300 light years3 distant. Its name means 'goose', which harks back to the time when the constellation was called 'fox with goose', as mentioned above. Anser (6 Vulpeculae) is a double star whose secondary, 8 Vulpeculae, is a 6th-mag orange giant.

The blue-white giant star 20 Vulpeculae is part of an open cluster which goes by the name of NGC 6885. It is also listed in Sir Patrick Moore's catalogue for backyard astronomers as Caldwell 37.

Pulsar

The first pulsar (fast rotating neutron star), CP 1919, was located in this region of the sky by student astronomer Jocelyn Bell in Cambridge, England, in July 1967, although she struggled for recognition. 'CP' stands for 'Cambridge Pulsar' and the '1919' are its coordinates: 19h 19m. When CP 1919 was first detected, a joke did the rounds that it was an 'alien' signal and its first (unofficial) designation was 'LGM-1' (Little Green Men-1). It is now known as PSR B1919+21 (the added +21 is its declination). Bell's teacher was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974 and there are still disagreements as to whether Bell should have been included in the honour. Ms Bell, an astrophysicist, is now Dame Jocelyn Bell, having been honoured by the Queen in the 2007 Birthday Honours List. Bell's pulsar is still detectable; it pulses once every 1.3373 seconds.

Star Table

StarName or
catalogue number
MagnitudeDistance
(light years)
Spectral classification
and/or comments
alpha VulAnser 'goose'+4.4300Red giant
23 VulHD 192806+4.5320Orange giant
31 VulHD 198809+4.5210Yellow dwarf
13 VulHD 188260+4.5360Blue-white dwarf
15 VulHD 189849+4.6220White giant
1 VulHD 180554+4.7 var900Blue-white giant
29 VulHD 196724+4.8 var200White giant
12 VulHD 187811+4.9 var620Blue-white giant
8 VulHD 183491+5.8 var480Orange giant
20 VulHD 192044+5.9 var1,000Part of NGC 6885

Asterism

The Coathanger, an asterism4 contained within Vulpecula, has the official designation Collinder 399 and a common name, Brocchi's Cluster. It can be viewed through binoculars.

Deep Sky Objects

The New General Catalogue (NGC) was compiled by John Louis Emil Dreyer, who was the director of the Armagh Observatory from 1882 to 1916.

The Dumbbell Nebula

The Dumbbell Nebula is a bi-polar planetary nebula which French astronomer Charles Messier labelled M27 in his famous list of non-comets. It was the first planetary nebula to be discovered, but it has nothing to do with planets5. It is one of the brightest planetary nebulae and can be seen with binoculars.

Deep Sky Object Table

CatalogueNameTypeBrightness (m)Remarks
NGC 6853M27: The Dumbbell NebulaPlanetary Nebula+8.1Bi-polar
NGC 6802UnnamedOpen Cluster +8.850+ stars
NGC 6885Caldwell 37Open Cluster+5.7Surrounds 20 Vulpeculae
NGC 6940Best 111Open Cluster+6.3100+ stars

Meteor Shower

The space debris which creates a meteor shower comes from the tail of a comet, as the Earth crosses where the comet passed previously on its own orbit. Imagine a trail of breadcrumbs, or sawdust like that used in hashing. There is a meteor shower associated with this constellation - the Vulpeculids, occurring between 13 June and 7 July every year.

Extrasolar Planets in Vulpecula

There have been three extrasolar planetary systems found in this constellation up to 2007. Figures given in the table below are the length of the planet's orbital period around its parent star, a period commonly known as a year. The mass of the extrasolar planet is compared to that of Jupiter, our solar system's largest planet, a ratio astronomers know as the 'Jovian scale'.

HD 189733 b is a so-called 'hot Jupiter' because it is so close to its star that it is tidally locked. The planet's temperature variations have been mapped — the first time ever for an exo planet.

HD 188015 b is in the habitable zone but as it is a gas giant it cannot support life. However, any rocky moons may harbour possibilities.

Extrasolar Planets Table

Star name or
catalogue number
Planet
catalogue number
Planet mass
(Jovian scale)
Orbital period
(Earth days)
Year of discoveryComments
HD 188015HD 188015 b1.54612005Gas giant; habitable zone
HD 189733HD 189733 b1.152.222005Hot Jupiter
HD 190228HD 190228 b51,1272002Superjovian

Popular Culture

  • The British band Joy Division used a graph of 100 successive pulses from the pulsar CP 1919 as cover art on their 1979 debut album Unknown Pleasures.
  • Vulpecula is the name of a metal band from Kansas City whose musical focus has been 'a celebration of the night'. Tracks on their 1997 debut album Down Among Them included 'The Hydra Void', 'Eltanin6 Shadowcast' and 'Ad Astra per Aspera' (To the Stars Through Hardship).
Only the sharpest eye, the keenest nose,
The quickest ear and fleetest toes
Can ever outfox the fox!
They'll never outfox the fox!

'Outfox the Fox' – a song composed by Sammy Cahn and Sylvia Fine, from the soundtrack of the film The Court Jester starring Danny Kaye.
1One of the most celebrated and highly paid operatic sopranos of the 19th Century.2Current IAU guidelines use a plus sign (+) for northern constellations and a minus sign (−) for southern ones.3A light year is the distance light travels in one year, roughly 5.88 trillion miles or 9.46 trillion km.4An asterism is a group of stars that isn't one of the already named constellations, though it can be contained within a constellation - the 'Big Dipper' in Ursa Major is a well-known example.5Planetary nebulae resemble giant planets if you look at them through a 'backyard' optical telescope, but are in fact shells of glowing plasma and gas left by a dying star.6Gamma Draconis.

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