Volans (“flying fish”) is a small, faint constellation that belongs to the southern celestial skies. Based upon the observations of 16th century Dutch explorer Pieter Keyzer, Volans is one of 12 new constellations included by Petrus Plancius in his celestial globe of 1598 that were later used by Johannes Bayer in his star atlas Uranometria (1603), thus assuring their general acceptance amongst astronomers. The constellation’s brightest star is Beta Volantis, an orange giant found 107 light-years distant of magnitude 3.77.
Volans is the 76th largest constellation in the night sky, and can be viewed between latitudes of +15° and -90°, although best seen during the month of March. The constellation can be found north of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), while to its west can be seen the night sky’s second brightest stars, Canopus in Carina. Other constellation’s bordering Volans includes Chamaeleon, Dorado, Mensa and Pictor.
Bayer Constellation Family
Volans is a member of the Johann Bayer family of constellations, together with Apus, Chamaeleon, Dorado, Grus, Hydrus, Indus, Musca, Pavo, Phoenix and Tucana.
The constellation represents the flying fish that were often seen being hunted by predatory dolphinfish by 16th century European navigators while sailing through tropical waters. Volans is similarly depicted as being chased by Dorado (“dolphinfish”) in the celestial heavens. Dutch cartographer Petrus Plancius (1552–1622) called the constellation Vliegendenvis, which in his native language means flying fish, while Johann Bayer Latinized its name to Piscis Volans. In 1844 John Herschel subsequently proposed shortening its name to just Volans, and the following year it was included as such in the British Association Catalogue of 1845.
– Beta Volantis, the constellation’s brightest star, is an orange giant (K1III) located 107.5 light years distant from our solar system that shines with a visual magnitude of 3.77. Comapred to the Sun, it is around 8.5 times bigger, 1.62 more massive, and 41 times brighter.
– Gamma Volantis, the second brightest star in Volans, is a binary star situated 142 light years from the Sun with an apparent visual magnitude of 3.78. Its main component is an orange giant (K0III) that is separated by a yellow-white main sequence star (F2V) by an estimated 600 Astronomical Units. This has led astronomers to propose an orbital period of around 7,500 years.
– Zeta Volantis, the constellation’s third most luminous star, is a binary system 134 light years away of magnitude 3.93. It consist of an orange giant (K0III) and a 9.7 magnitude companion separated by 16.7 arcseconds.
Other stars of interest in Volans includes the yellow-white giant Delta Volantis; the yellow dwarf star HD 76700; the white star Theta Volantis; the blue-white subgiant Iota Volantis; and the triple star systems of Epsilon Volantis, Eta Volantis and Kappa Volantis.
Notable Deep Sky Objects
While there are no Messier objects in Volans, the constellation does contain a number of interesting deep sky objects, including:
– Lindsay-Shapley Ring (AM0644-741) is lenticular galaxy comprised of a yellow nucleus surrounded by an active star forming ring region filled with young blue stars. Its unusual shape is believed to be the result of a collision with another galaxy, which subsequently caused the dust in AM0644-741 to form stars before expanding outwards as a ring. The Lindsay-Shapley Ring is 150,000 light years across, 300 million light-years distant, and shines with an apparent magnitude of 13.96.
– NGC 2397 is a spiral galaxy around 60 million light years away that shines with a visual magnitude of 12.68. At the centre of the galaxy can be found old red and yellow stars, while its outer spiral arms contain more recently formed blue stars.
– The Meathook Galaxy (NGC 2442) is an intermediate spiral galaxy of magnitude 11.2, that is 150,000 light years across and situated 50 million light years from Earth. Its name comes from the fact it has two spiral arms stretching out from the galaxy’s nucleus, thus giving it its ‘S’ shaped, hook-like appearance. The longer arm was the site of a supernova explosion in 1999, while the other is scattered with recently born stars. The lopsided shape of NGC 2442 is thought to have been causd by the interaction with a smaller galaxy 150,000 light-years away.