Sand and Stars

Volans and the Joy of Kite Flying


Volans27 Nov 2017

One of my favourite naked eye constellations is Volans because its brighter stars sketch out a gorgeous celestial kite soaring into the sky, its tail streaming out behind it. In 1844, John Herschel proposed dropping Piscis Volans’ “fish” and shortening the constellations to just the adjective Volans. Francis Baily adopted this suggestion in his British Association Catalogue of 1845, and it has been known as that ever since… Flying… which couldn’t be more apt for this beautiful kite-shaped asterism.

Like most kids back when playing outside from dawn to dusk was what kids did, I was an enthusiastic kite flyer. And as anyone who has ever flown a kite knows, it takes a lot of skill to keep a kite airborne in changing wind patterns, never mind perform manoeuvres such as rapid climbs, quick dives, and elegant swoops, along with graceful landings – all of it controlled by the string in your hand.

Flying a kite... fun and physics
Kite flying is very like astronomy – science at one end – beauty at the other – and everything in-between.

Indeed, it’s amazing what a lot of physics a kid has to figure out if they want their kite to fly. Anything with the hope of staying airborne for more than a few seconds experiences a host of physical forces, including aerodynamic lift, drag, weight and thrust, all of which are supplied by different factors. For one’s kite to stay airborne, it must maintain a balance between these forces. And then there is the design and weight of the kite to consider – from the gorgeous floaters with their graceful choreography, to the big boxy ones that lumber into the air like Antonovs, to the nimble daredevils that performed aerobatics, to the fearless fighters that can do aerial battle with other fighter kites. Somehow kids figure this all out without realising what they have figured out!

What fun kite flying is. Happiness on a string.

I was thinking about kite flying today because last night I observed galaxies in beautiful kite-shaped Volans.


16″ f4.5 Dobs, 228x and 333x

There are lots of galaxies in Volans, so here are the ones that lie scattered around Volans’ showpiece, NGC 2442, like little chicks around a hen.

NGC 2442  Galaxy 

RA 07 6 3.9  Dec -69 31 48  Mag 10.4  Size 5.5′x4.9′  SB 13.9  PA 27°    

Image credit ESO
NGC 2442. Image credit Hubble/ESO

This distorted, barred galaxy, with its distinctive “S” shaped hook-like appearance apparent even at low magnification is fascinating! John Herschel discovered and observed this galaxy four times. His discovery observation was recorded as “A double nebula; very large; very faint; position of centres = 40 degrees; diameter 4′ and 3′ running together, and having a star 13th magnitude at their junction.”

When John Louis Emil Dreyer compiled the New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars he used William Herschel’s earlier observations, giving the southernmost most the designation NGC 2442 and the northern most the designation NGC 2443. Herschel’s later observations noted that the two objects were actually a single large nebula, recording in his fourth observation “… I think it has some sort of hooked appendage.”  His ‘hooked appendage’ is NGC 2443.

I always find it thrilling to see a galaxy’s spiral arm, and in this case, seeing Herschel’s hooked appendage attached at the NE end of the bar is an absolute delight. At 228x, this strange galaxy displays a very small but beautifully bright core surrounded by a large, thickish and fairly faint bar. The arm is detectable as a faint wisp of light curling out from the NE end of the bar. At 333x the hooked appendage’s extraordinarily sharp bend to the west is visible – it is a very dramatic sight, especially with averted vision, almost at a right angle to the bar! – although it rapidly fades away into nothingess. With averted vision the surface of the bar took on a vaguely mottled appearance with more haze around the edges. On the SW end of the bar, I couldn’t make out sign of the arm that bends towards the SE, but this end of the bar appears to have a slight roundness to it, hinting of the unseen arm. The galaxy is such a gorgeous sight that the pretty star field it lies in goes almost unnoticed; but there is a beautiful sprinkling of stars setting off this galactic showpiece.

NGC 2434 Galaxy 

RA 07 34 51.3  Dec -69 17 03  Mag 11.3  Size 2.5′x2.3′  SB 13  PA 133°  

DSS image
NGC 2434. DSS image

This galaxy lies 16′ NW of NGC 2442, and appears as a modestly large, relatively bright mist, almost circular – but with concentration I can see that it is elongated very slightly NW-SE. It brightens to a very small and bright core, and its misty edges seem to simply melt into the dark sky. With averted vision the northern part seems marginally brighter. A pretty triangle of 12 mag stars lie just north of the galaxy, and attractive, bluish mag 6.9 Delta Volantis lies 15′ NE.

ESO 59-11 Galaxy 

RA 07 38 11.6   Dec -69 28 34   Mag 12.4   Size 2.0′x1.1′  SB 13.2   PA 160° 

DSS image
ESO 59-11. DSS image

Lying 11′ NE of NGC 2442, this galaxy showed a very small, faint but strong oval core surrounded by the tenuous mistiness of a very faint, thin halo elongated NNW-SSE. A pair of NE-SW oriented, roughly 14 mag, stars lie off its eastern edge.

 ESO 59-06 Galaxy 

RA 07 34 51.6  Dec -69 46 56  Mag 14.3  Size 1.5′x0.7′  SB 14.2  PA 114°  

DSS image
ESO 59-06. DSS image

This galaxy required averted vision to pick up, and even then it was but a fleeting glimpse of an incredibly faint and small, smudge of extremely pale light. Three tiny little stars glint faintly in a pretty arc on the northern edge of the galaxy .

ESO 59-07 Galaxy 

RA 07 36 12.3  Dec -69 47 48  Mag 13.9   Size 1.1′x0.5′  SB 13.1  PA 103° 

DSS image
ESO 59-07. DSS image

Lying 7′ E of ESO 59-6 , this galaxy also required averted vision to pick up, and appeared as a very faint, very small, round, pale glow of light.  A mag 10.5 star lies S 4.9′.

NGC 2397 Galaxy

RA 07 21 19.7  Dec -69 00 05  Mag 11.8   Size 2.5′x1.2′  SB 12.8  PA 123°

DSS image
NGC 2397. DSS image

NGC 2397, lying 1.4° NW of NGC 2442, appears as a beautiful, very elongated sliver of brightish light in a NW-SE direction. It brightens to a brighter little core that, with averted vision, displays a stellar nucleus that pops into sight. A mag 14.5 star lies just off its eastern edge. The galaxy forms a trio with neighbouring galaxies NGC 2397A and B. NGC 2397A lies 7′ S and is only visible with averted vision as a very faint, round, very small misty patch. B lies 7′ N of NGC 2397 and appears as the tiniest little smudge of very faint light that pops in and out of view.

NGC 2466  Galaxy 

RA 07 45 16.2  Dec -71 24 38  Mag 13.0   Size 1.5′x1.4′  SB 13.6  PA 7°

DSS image
NGC 2466. DSS image

This face-on galaxy, located 1.2° NNE of mag 3.9 Zeta Volantis, shows as small, faint circular patch of misty-soft light. It brightens quite suddenly to a tiny brighter core.

And to end, a little relief from faint galaxies… an open cluster…

 NGC 2348  Open Cluster

RA 07 03 02.7  Dec -67 24 00  Mag –   Size 11′  

DSS image
NGC 2348. DSS image

This is a lovely little cluster, made lovelier because it lies in a barren star field. With around 30 stars, roughly mag 11-13, this cluster appears very loose with its lucida, the brighter white mag 9.8 HD 54266, lying just south of centre. This cluster seems to be fashioned from star strings with lovely dark patches in-between. The longest star string lies to the SE, and another jagged string runs N-S more or less through the centre of the cluster. A beautiful arc-shaped string of stars lies to the NW. There are two dark starless patches to the SW and SE of the lucida. Small sprinklings of fainter stars lie scattered in a haphazard way among the brighter star strings. All in all, a very pretty open cluster.

Copyright © Susan Young 2017