Meet Vela the Sails in southern skies

Star chart: White dot for Sirius at top right, three irregular shapes outlined and labeled below.
The former constellation of Argo Navis the Ship is now the modern constellations of Puppis the Stern, Vela the Sails and Carina the Keel. You can find these constellations south of Sirius. These constellations are easiest to see from the Southern Hemisphere.

Vela the Sails is a constellation in the Southern Hemisphere that is part of a large ship made up of other constellations. The ship was once known as Argo Navis. Because of its large size, it has since been broken down into four different, smaller constellations. They include Vela the Sails, Carina the Keel, Puppis the Stern and Pyxis the Compass.

How to locate Vela the Sails

Vela lies north of Carina. It’s halfway between Carina’s incredibly bright star (and the second brightest in the sky) Canopus and the distinctive shape of the Southern Cross, or Crux. Then, it’s just a bit north from a line drawn between these two points. March is the best month to try to spot Vela.

The stars of Vela

The brightest star in Vela is Gamma Velorum, or Regor. It shines at magnitude 1.8 and lies 1,095 light-years from Earth. A little over nine degrees away and similar in brightness is Delta Velorum. At magnitude 1.9, it is only 80 light-years away.

Vela has three other moderately bright stars. The first is about 5 1/2 degrees from the last star, Delta Velorum. This star is Kappa Velorum, which has a magnitude of 2.4 and a distance of 572 light-years. Lambda Velorum, also known as Suhail, shines at magnitude 2.2 from a distance of 545 light-years. Finally is Mu Velorum, which lies on the opposite half of the constellation from the brightest star, Regor. Mu Velorum is magnitude 2.7 and 117 light-years away.

White star chart with black dots outlining the shape of Vela the Sails.
Stars of Vela the Sails. Image via IAU.

Deep-sky objects in Vela

Because Vela lies along the Milky Way, it has a number of star clusters than you can spot in binoculars or average telescopes. The Eight-Burst Nebula (NGC 3132 or Southern Ring Nebula) lies right on the border with Vela and Antlia the Air Pump. The Eight-Burst Nebula is a magnitude-9.8 planetary nebula ring with a central star. Its central star is actually a binary star.

NGC 3201 is a globular cluster about 5 1/2 degrees northwest of Mu Velorum. It shines at magnitude 6.8. Some brighter star clusters lie in the western part of the constellation. Two degrees south of Regor is NGC 2547, at magnitude 4.7. Five degrees east is IC 2395, at magnitude 4. Just less than two degrees northwest of Delta Velorum is IC 2391, a gathering of stars that you can easily see with the unaided eye at magnitude 2. Through binoculars, a second cluster pops into view nearby, NGC 2669.

Vela is a southern delight for those wishing to spy star clusters in the Milky Way.

Bottom line: Vela the Sails is a constellation that was once part of the large Argo Navis the Ship. You can see it best from the Southern Hemisphere on March evenings.

March 1, 2022

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Kelly Kizer Whitt

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