Vulpecula the Fox lies inside the Summer Triangle

Star chrt showing Summer Triangle, Delphinus, Vulpecula and Sagitta.
In the east on June, July and August evenings, you’ll find the large pattern of the Summer Triangle, made of 3 bright stars. And from a dark sky, you can also spot Vulpecula the Fox inside the triangle. Chart via Chelynne Campion/ EarthSky.

Vulpecula the Fox is not an ancient constellation but one that was created by Johannes Hevelius in the 17th century. Hevelius carved a lot of new constellations out of dim regions of sky next to better-known constellations. Vulpecula is one of the small constellations that lies inside the famous asterism of the Summer Triangle. It contains two favorite targets of amateur astronomers.

Locating Vulpecula the Fox

Although Vulpecula the Fox is a dim constellation, you can find it easily under dark skies because of its location within the Summer Triangle. Only Vulpecula and Sagitta the Arrow reside within the boundaries of the Summer Triangle.

If you don’t know how to find the Summer Triangle, look for three bright stars rising in the east after dark. These stars are Altair in Aquila the Eagle, Deneb in Cygnus the Swan and Vega in Lyra the Harp. Vulpecula lies near the head of Cygnus the Swan, near the colorful double star Albireo.

Stars in Vulpecula

Although Vulpecula lies on the Milky Way, it’s small in size (ranking 55th out of 88) and contains no bright stars of note. The star grouping that brings amateur astronomers to Vulpecula is the Coathanger. The Coathanger has a few other names, such as Brocchi’s Cluster and Collinder 399. Although it’s called a cluster, studies have shown that it’s not a cluster at all but just a chance alignment of stars. This becomes more clear when you learn the distances to its 10 or so stars spans a vast range, including 218 light-years, 400 light-years, 760 light-years, 901 light-years and 1,132 light-years, to note a few.

The Coathanger consists of stars of magnitude 5 and 6. You can see it best through binoculars or a low-power telescope. Through binoculars, the Coathanger will appear upside down, but through the inverted view of a telescope, it appears right side up. Bonus for those in the Southern Hemisphere: The Coathanger will look right side up through binoculars from your point of view.

The Coathanger is a row of horizontal stars plus a hook-shape, very much resembling its nickname. You can find the Coathanger about halfway between Albireo and Zeta Aquilae, the wing tip of the Eagle.

White star chart with black dots denoting the shape of Vulpecula.
The stars of Vulpecula the Fox. Image via IAU.

The Dumbbell Nebula in Vulpecula

The Dumbbell Nebula is a favorite target of amateur astronomers. It lies about 8 1/2 degrees east of Albireo. The Dumbbell Nebula, also known as M27, is magnitude 8.1. Charles Messier discovered M27, the first known planetary nebula, in 1764. You can see the Dumbbell in binoculars, and even a small telescope can bring out its slight hourglass shape. The nebula, which lies about 1,360 light-years away, was created when the central star blew off its envelope of gas at the end of its life.

Bottom line: Vulpecula the Fox is a small constellation that lies inside the Summer Triangle. Amateur astronomers go here to spot the Coathanger Cluster and the Dumbbell Nebula.

July 1, 2022

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Kelly Kizer Whitt

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