For those who know their constellations, the night sky is a menagerie of beasts both realistic and mythic.
Vulpecula, which is Latin for “the little fox,” is one such celestial animal. The constellation was introduced in the 17th century by Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, who took it upon himself to catalogue those corners of the sky the ancient Greeks had failed to leave their mark on.
Vulpecula is one of the lesser-known constellations, probably because it’s small and relatively dim. It is one of 88 official modern constellations, and one of 40 that is not of ancient origin. Hevelius originally named the constellation “Vulpecula cum ansere,” or “the little fox with the goose.” Illustrations of the constellation most often depicted a fox with a goose dangling from its mouth.
The fox sits in the southern sky bordered by Cygnus, Lyra, Hercules, Sagitta, Delphinus, and Pegasus.
Alpha Vulpeculae, a red giant that sits approximately of 297 light-years from Earth, is the brightest star in the constellation. It sits at the mouth of the fox, and was traditionally known as Anser, the goose. The star’s brightness is actually augmented by another unnamed star that lines up with it from our perspective on Earth, though it is actually nowhere near Asner. This phenomenon, when chance alignment causes two distant stars to appear as a double star system, is called an “optical binary.”
Though it isn’t much to look at, Vulpecula is notable because it contains the first pulsar ever discovered.
A pulsar is a rotating star that is only visible from one angle. These stars blink in and out of view as they turn, similar to the beam of a lighthouse. Antony Hewish and Jocelyn Bell discovered the pulsar, which bears the creative name PSR B1919+21, in 1967. Later, another pulsar, PSR B1937+21 was found in the constellation. This second pulsar was the first millisecond pulsar ever discovered, meaning that it spins several times per second. In fact, it is the fastest pulsar ever discovered, rotating at a rate of roughly 641 times a second.
The constellation is also home to one of the closest extrasolar planets currently being studied by the Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as two deep sky objects: the Dumbbell Nebula and the spiral galaxy NGC 7052.
The Dumbbell Nebula, also known as M27, is a Messier object, one of the bright deep sky formations first identified primarily by French astronomer Charles Messier during the 18th Century. It got its name from its distinctive double-lobed shape, similar to an hourglass or a hand weight.
Because it is a modern constellation, Vulpecula has no role in classical mythology, though there is folklore surrounding the animal. Foxes have long been associated with deception and cunning, and there is a widespread belief in many cultures that foxes are shape-shifters and can take human form. Similarly, the ancient Greeks believed that Dionysis, god of wine and revelry, often took the form of a fox when he visited the world of mortals.
While not much compares to the sleek beauty of a real fox, be sure to take some time this summer to check out the “fox” in the night sky.