Sand and Stars

Musca and Other Beautiful Flies


18 Feb 2017

Musca, the fly, has always been one of my favourite little constellations. Not only does it depict the tasty little morsel for enchanting Chamaeleon lurking nearby; but it is also a particularly pretty naked eye asterism… and best of all, it holds several gorgeous deep sky objects within it.

I always assumed Musca depicted the ubiquitous housefly, Musca domestica, and I have to confess that until I came on my star-gazing meander around the Kalahari, houseflies and the occasional horsefly pretty much summed up the fly world to me (and the somewhat sobering memory of having the car drenched with DDT as a child in Rhodesia every time we passed through a tsetse fly area).

The variety and number of insects in the Kalahari is astounding, all of them playing their roles in the whole ecosystem, but most surprising was to discover that flies are some of the most diverse, tenacious, fascinating and attractive insects around.

I was introduced to the vast fly family a little while ago when I was working at my desk in my little Kalahari dark sky cottage. I heard a tremendous commotion outside. My dog Waldo and I went out to investigate, and horribly, we found a mortally wounded young rock hyrax (known as a dassie in South Africa). I have no idea what animal inflicted the wounds, but the poor little chap died within minutes.

The striking metallic green blow fly, a crucial step in the global nutrient recycling process

It only took me a couple of minutes to go inside and find something with which to dig a little grave in order to bury the dassie. Astonishingly, when I returned to the dassie a host of iridescent green blowflies had already arrived on the scene. That quickly the disassembling and recycling of the dassie had got underway.

It seemed rather foolish to bury him deep beneath the red sand.

So I left him to the Kalahari and its plethora of life recyclers.

Later, looking through the hitherto glossed-over fly section in my vast insect book… good grief, what a vast number of fly families and subfamilies (currently 91 families in South Africa alone), as well as hundreds of distinctive genera and species. And all of their lives inexorably tied up with the flora and fauna of their habitat and all playing an important role pollinating flowers and crops and recycling all things dead and decaying, as well as being an essential part of the food chain themselves owing to their high protein content.

(Most astonishing of all was to discover that the bane of every astronomer’s summer observing – the wretched mosquito – is part of the fly family. Indeed, “mosquito” is a Spanish word meaning “little fly”.)

Stalk eye fly
The extraordinary stalk-eye fly

Mozzies aside, some of the common names are enchanting…stiletto flies, dance flies, robber flies, flower-loving flies…

By no stretch of the imagination have I ever thought of a fly as a beautiful little creature. But wow, once one realises who is included in the fly family, there are some real beauties… delicate lacy winged creatures balancing on immensely long fragile legs; soft fuzzy little beasts; weird aliens with their eyes on stalks.

What a wonderful world!

Needless to say, I have now given myself a plethora of beautiful flies with which to connect the dots when I look into the night sky at Musca. Musca domestica? Forget it!


10″ f/5 Dobs; magnifications of 90x, 144x and 208x 

I started with Musca’s most beautiful treasure, and my favourite planetary nebula…

NGC 5189 Planetary Nebula (Spiral Planetary Nebula)

RA 13 33 30.8   Dec -65 28 29   Mag –   Size 140″

NGC 5189. Image credit Hubble

John Herschel, who discovered the object, called NGC 5189 “a very strange object.” And in his book, Astronomical Objects for Southern Telescopes, Ernst Hartung wrote that it looks remarkably like a barred spiral galaxy. It is a very strange object and it does look remarkably like a barred spiral!

Big, bright, elongated ENE-WSW and with a superbly twisted shape, it stands out well; displaying a large mottled nebulous glow elongated east-west, with a noticeably brighter arc across the centre in a bar-like fashion from east-northeast to west-southwest. The faintest twist at the end of the east north-east end of the bar curls southeast, indicating its famous shape. A couple of foreground stars are superimposed on the nebula. The planetary nebula responded really well to the UHC filter, revealing some tiny knots of brightness. This really is an absolutely gorgeous planetary nebula! 

PN G307.5-4.9 – Planetary Nebula (Hourglass Nebula)

RA 13 39 35.1   Dec −67 22 51   Mag 12.9   Size 25″

Image credit Hubble
Hourglass Nebula. Image credit Hubble

This planetary nebula shows as a tiny glow, once I located it in the busy starfield. It responded well to the UHC filter, its small disc appearing not quite oval, but certainly not round. It’s colour was lovely – like a pale drop of moonlight.

IC 4191 – Planetary Nebula

RA 13 08 48.3   Dec -67 38 32   Mag 10.6   Size 5″

DSS image
IC 4191. DSS image

This planetary nebula was tough to find in the busy starfield. I had to blink with the OIII to separate this tiny little PN from the rich starfield. It was slightly hazy stellar drop of light. It was a very faint blue colour. A gorgeous orange mag 9 star lies about 9′ to the south.

Dark Doodad – Dark Nebula

RA 12 25 00.0 Dec -71 30 00  Size 150′x15′

Image credit NASA
Dark Doodad. Image credit NASA

In binoculars, this long, winding molecular cloud is a beautiful, strange dark streak nearly three degrees in length, just south of the prominent Coalsack Nebula and the Southern Cross. At low power with the telescope, the long ribbon of darkness has remarkably clear-cut edges that show up graphically against the rich starfields. Dangling at the bulbous southern end of the Dark Doodad lies –

NGC 4372 – Globular Cluster

RA 12 25 45.4   Dec -72 30 33   Mag 7.2   Size 5″

DSS image
NGC 4372. DSS image

This globular cluster is large, loose and round, with many tiny, faint pinpricks of light scattered over the background glow of unresolved starlight. High power revealed a host of stars of different magnitudes which become denser toward the centre. A beautiful yellow mag 7 star lies on the globular’s northwestern margin.

NGC 4833  Globular Cluster

RA 12 59 35.0   Dec -70 52 29  Mag 8.8   Size 14″

Image credit Hubble
NGC 4833. Image credit Hubble

Compact, large, bright and with a host of outliers, this globular is a beauty. The centre was a gorgeous mass of tiny stellar diamond dust scattered over the dense glow of unresolved starlight. The periphery of the globular is very irregular with numerous dark patches and lanes.  

NGC 4463 – Open Cluster

RA 12 29 56.0   Dec -64 47 24   Mag 7.2   Diam 6

DSS image
NGC 4463. DSS image

A lovely open cluster, not least because of its stunning location – on the edge of the Coalsack and only 1.75 degrees south southeast of Alpha Crucis. It’s a very pretty shape for an open cluster – a crooked elongated grouping of moderately bright stars 12 stars with fainter stars radiating outwards. It stands out well against the background; a really pretty little open cluster.

Harvard 8 Open Cluster

RA 13 18 12.0   Dec -67 05 00   Mag 9.5   Diam 5

DSS image
Harvard 8. DSS image

I am rubbish at seeing asterisms but this small open cluster of a pretty loose collection of scattered, moderately bright stars, is one of the few that immediately appears as a most gorgeous swallow in flight. The swallow’s wings are spread in flight and its long tail sweeps out behind it; and it even has a small arrangement of four stars forming its head. Very elegant depiction of a stellar bird in flight!! The cluster also sports a tiny trapezoid off the swallow’s NW wing!

Great mozzie repellant

Mozzies don’t like cloves!

Quite appropriately, that most irritating of flies – the mozzies – were ferocious last night! But I have the most wonderful homemade mozzie repellent recipe… it works like a charm! To make it: 

Fill a small bottle with your eyepiece-cleaning alcohol. Fill the bottle up a quarter or so with cloves (more is better than less). Screw the lid on, and leave it to stand for a week or so… until the alcohol has turned a lovely dark brown colour. Drain the cloves out (or leave them in, I do). Add a few drops of a natural, non-fragranced oil, such as jojoba oil. Give a good shake before applying… I love it because not only do the mozzies give me a miss, I sit out there in the dark like a one-person spice island!

Copyright © Susan Young 2017