Sand and Stars

Hydrus, Sinuous Snake

Hydrus as shown by Johann Bode on Chart XX of his Uranographia (1801)

4 Dec 2016

Yesterday morning on my early morning walk, I met a Cape cobra on the path. It was absolutely terrifying. The Cape cobra is one of the deadliest snakes in Africa; drop for drop its venom is one of the most potently neurotoxic, a particularly unpleasant way to be dispatched to the stars.

As anyone living in the bush knows, snakes are never far away in Africa. But you seldom see them. Most, bar the sluggish puff adder, sense your arrival from the vibration of your footsteps and slither silently out of your way. Thus the likelihood of encountering a snake is minimal, and the chance of being bitten is even smaller.

I had just crested a low, heavily grassed sand dune; the cobra was lying on the path and I clearly startled it because it rose up and spread its hood in typical and iconic cobra fashion. It was so close I could have reached out and patted it on its head. I froze in mid-step. Didn’t blink. Didn’t breathe. (And because I wasn’t so sure how cobras feel about eye contact, I used averted vision to look at it.)

The deadly Cape Cobra. Image credit Cape Nature

Luckily, a little respect goes a long way with a Cape cobra. It examined me for a long time (pretty much the rest of my life, come to think of it) then it decided I wasn’t a threat. It lowered its hood, dropped its body back to the ground, wound its way into the grasses, and was gone.

After seeing the Cape cobra at such close quarters, the early morning sun gleaming on his golden body, I can appreciate that herpetologists find beauty in their form and scales, but I prefer our celestial snakes.  

Seeing a different water snake in the sky 

It was a beautiful night last night, the stars were a spectacular display of sparklers. As I always do, I enjoyed a cup of tea while I waited for my eyes to dark adapt, idly gazing at the stars. Lying sandwiched between the two Magellanic Clouds, Hydrus, our little water snake constellation, has always appeared to me as the lovely triangle it is usually depicted as in star atlases. I like geometry, so I enjoy the geometric asterisms in the sky, this triangle in particular.

I was looking at the triangle – and then… in a flash…

… the triangle was gone and the water snake appeared! 

It’s always a surprise when a new and completely different picture is revealed hiding within the pictorial world we thought we were looking at. Ah-ha! That’s not a star-map triangle, it’s the real Hydrus… the rearing snake, with its head erect and its body twisted into a sinuous shape!

Cape cobra image credit Cape Nature

Of course it was a given that I began my night’s observing with a tour through the celestial snake’s sinuous curves.


10″ f/5 Dobs: 90x, 144x, 208x

Although it is pretty sparse in deep sky objects, Hydrus boasts two fine NGC objects – a drop-dead gorgeous little globular cluster (which resides in another galaxy entirely) and a triple set of interacting galaxies far, far away – as well as a very mysterious object, with which I began.   

IC 1717

RA 01 32 30.0   Dec -67 32 12.0

DSS image
IC 1717. DSS image

What is it? Well… nothing. The only thing we really know is that something was there when Danish astronomer John Louis Emil Dreyer catalogued this position because Dreyer was exceedingly good at his job and famously meticulous. He described the object as “eF (excessively faint), eS (excessively small), mE (much extended), 25º (possibly the extension angle), stell N (stellar nucleus)”, but whatever this object was, it has since disappeared. We don’t know, and probably never will know for sure what IC 1717 was, all we know is Dreyer thought it worthy of recording for posterity. I had a good squizz around in the general vicinity… you never know… but alas, nothing. I wonder what it was? 

NGC 1466 Globular Cluster

RA 03 44 32.4   Dec -71 40 16   Mag 11.4   Size 1.9′

NGC 1466. DSS image

This gorgeous little globular cluster doesn’t belong to the Milky Way Galaxy, it belongs to the Large Magellanic Cloud, lying on the far SW outskirts of the Cloud (and at 13.1 billion years in age, is one of the Cloud’s oldest globular clusters.

I have to confess that I absolutely adore globular clusters… from the big showy ones to ones like this – a small, round misty glow of starlight with a very slight concentration towards the centre, standing out beautifully against the velvety black sky. It forms an attractive triangle with bright white 6.3 mag CT Hydri 4′ NNW, and a creamy white ~ 9 mag star 2.2′ WSW.   

NGC 1511 Galaxy 

RA 03 59 07.0   Dec -67 38 09   Mag 11.3   Size 3.5′ x 1.2′  Surf Br 12.7   PA  125°

NGC 1511. DSS image

NGC 1511 is a spiral galaxy lying 61 million light years away. It appears  small, fairly bright, elongated NW-SE, with a stellar nucleus. 

NGC 602 Open Cluster with nebulosity

RA 01 29 36.0   Dec -73 33 00   Mag –   Size –

NGC 602. Image credit ESO/Hubble

This nebulous cluster is an outlying member of the Small Magellanic Cloud. It shows as small and  faint, a hazy bubble of glowing nebulous starlight. No stars were resolved, but with averted vision it seemed to be just slightly brighter in the south east. The UHC filter enhanced the hazy glow a little. 

Hydrus is larger telescope territory; its galaxies very small and very faint, so until I have the 16″ here, I decided to end this short tour with a look at three pretty double stars… 

h3435 Double Star

RA 01 25.3   Dec -59 30   Mag –   Sep 25.3″   PA  357° 

h3435. DSS image

A lovely pair of easy, wide and uneven stars lying in a sparse background field of faint stars. The primary is a lovely white star, its smaller companion a matching white star.

h3479 Double Star

RA 02 00.5   Dec -62 46   Mag –   Sep 32.2″   PA 272°

h3479. DSS image

A wide and easy uneven pair of stars, lying about 1° south of Alpha Hydri, itself a lovely, palest yellow-white star. The background field is pretty sparse. The primary is a pretty white star, its smaller companion a silvery-white.

h3475 Double Star

RA 01 55.3   Dec -60 19   Mag –   Sep 2.5″   PA 75°

h3475. DSS image

A close, equal pair of beautiful, pale yellow stars, lying in a pretty field that includes a lovely array of bright stars.

Gamma Hydri. DSS image

Gamma Hydri

RA 03 47 14.3   Dec -74 14 20   Mag 3.26

Colour always being something nice to see in the night sky, I ended with a look at Gamma Hydri, the end of the sinuous little water snake’s tail – a lovely reddish star. 


Copyright © Susan Young 2016