Size ranking: 55th
Origin: The seven constellations of Johannes Hevelius
A constellation introduced in 1687 by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius, who depicted it as a double figure of a fox, Vulpecula, carrying in its jaws a goose, Anser. Since then the goose has flown (or been eaten), leaving just the fox. Hevelius placed the fox near two other hunting animals, the eagle (the constellation Aquila) and the vulture (which was an alternative identification for Lyra). He explained that the fox was taking the goose to neighbouring Cerberus, another of his inventions – although this part of the tableau has been spoilt, as Cerberus is now obsolete.
Hevelius himself was somewhat inconsistent in his naming of this constellation. In his star catalogue he named the pair ‘Vulpecula cum Ansere’, the fox with goose, but showed them separately as ‘Anser’ and ‘Vulpecula’ on his Firmamentum Sobiescianum star atlas. Others preferred the slightly amended title fox and goose.
The fox and the goose shown as ‘Vulpec. & Anser’ on the Atlas Coelestis of John Flamsteed (1729). The Fox and Goose is a traditional pub name in Britain. For the original depiction by Hevelius, see here.
Vulpecula contains no named stars and has no legends. Its brightest star, Alpha Vulpeculae of magnitude 4.4, is the only one honoured with a Greek letter, allocated by Francis Baily in his British Association Catalogue of 1845.
Vulpecula is notable for the Dumbbell Nebula, reputedly the most conspicuous of the class of so-called planetary nebulae. The Dumbbell Nebula consists of gas thrown off from a dying star; it takes its name from the double-lobed structure, like a bar-bell, as seen on long-exposure photographs.
On the border with Sagitta is an asterism known as Brocchi’s Cluster, or more popularly the Coathanger because of its distinctive bar-and-hook shape. It consists of ten stars of 5th magnitude and fainter and is just visible to the naked eye under good conditions; it was first mentioned by the Arab astronomer al-Ṣūfī in his Book of the Fixed Stars, written in AD 964.
None of the stars of Vulpecula featured in the Chinese constellation system, although they did briefly form part of the now-obsolete river Tigris, invented earlier in the 17th century by the Dutch astronomer Petrus Plancius.
© Ian Ridpath. All rights reserved