Constellations: Volans 'the Flying Fish' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Constellations: Volans 'the Flying Fish'

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The shield of the Science, Mathematics and Engineering faculty of the h2g2 University.Constellations: Overview | Andromeda | Antlia | Apus | Aquarius | Aquila | Ara | Aries | Auriga | Boötes | Caelum
Camelopardalis | Cancer | Canes Venatici | Canis Major | Canis Minor | Capricornus | Carina | Cassiopeia | Centaurus
Cepheus | Cetus | Chamæleon | Circinus | Columba | Coma Berenices | Corona Australis | Corona Borealis | Corvus
Crater | Crux | Cygnus | Delphinus | Dorado | Draco | Equuleus | Eridanus | Fornax | Gemini | Grus | Hercules | Horologium
Hydra | Hydrus | Indus | Lacerta | Leo | Leo Minor | Lepus | Libra | Lupus | Lynx | Lyra | Mensa | Microscopium | Monoceros
Musca | Norma | Octans | Ophiuchus | Orion | Pavo | Pegasus | Perseus | Phoenix | Pictor | Pisces | Piscis Austrinus
Puppis | Pyxis | Reticulum | Sagitta | Sagittarius | Scorpius | Sculptor | Scutum | Serpens | Sextans | Taurus
Telescopium | Triangulum | Triangulum Australe | Tucana | Ursa Major | Ursa Minor | Vela | Virgo | Volans | Vulpecula
Name:Volans (Latin: 'Flying Fish')
Short form:Vol
Formerly:Piscis Volans
Area:141 sq deg
Co-ordinates:Right ascension 08h,  Declination −70°

The constellation of Volans, the Flying Fish is located near the Southern Hemisphere's pole and is one of the smaller constellations by area. It is surrounded by Mensa 'the Table Mountain' and Chamæleon 'the Chameleon' to its south, and Carina 'the Keel' to its north, in which it is almost embedded. Dorado 'the Goldfish'1, and Pictor 'the Painter's Easel' share its north-western corner. The six brightest stars form a roughly kite-shaped asterism.

Mythology and History

The skies of the far southern latitudes were unseen by the early Babylonian and Greek astronomers and therefore few of the stars were attributed with proper names. One of the furthest south of the constellations they could see and named was the super-sized Argo Navis which represented the ship in which Jason and the Argonauts sailed to retrieve the Golden Fleece of Aries. Ptolemy listed Argo Navis as one of the 48 constellations in his Almagest. Such was the overall area covered by Argo Navis that for convenience it was eventually divided into four parts, Pyxis 'the Mariner's Compass', Vela 'the Sail', Puppis 'the Stern' and Carina 'the Keel'. Carina is the most southern one of the four, and it was in the southernmost part of that itself that Volans was created.

Volans' origins lie in the 16th Century with the Dutch navigators Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Friedrich Houtmann. From their travels they described and recorded the stars in these latitudes. These were later depicted on the globe of Petrus Plancius in 1598. Later still, in 1603, the astronomer Johann Bayer formalised 12 new constellations in his star atlas Uranometria. He recorded this one with the name Piscis Volans 'the Flying Fish', and suitably located it disporting itself in the bow wave of Argo Navis.

Principal Stars

The constellation's brightest star is beta Volantis which is seen as magnitude +3.70 and lies at a distance of 108 light years2. Gamma Volantis, the second brightest3, is magnitude +3.75 and is 142 light years away. Alpha, delta, epsilon and zeta Volantis are all 4th mag stars and form the remainder of the asterism.

Star Table

StarDesignationName or Catalogue NoBrightness (m)Distance (light years)Remarks
β Volbeta VolantisHIP 41382+3.70 var108Orange giant
γ Volgamma VolantisHIP 34481+3.75 var142Multiple Binary
ζ Volzeta VolantisHIP 37504+3.90134Multiple Binary
δ Voldelta VolantisHIP 35228+3.96600Yellow-white giant
α Volalpha VolantisHIP 44832+4.0124White sub-giant
ε Volepsilon VolantisHIP 39794+4.34646Multiple Binary


Despite its proximity to the Milky Way, Volans is poor in star clusters and nebulae. NGC 2442 is the predominant galaxy of any note within this small area and visible with a small telescope. It is unusual in that it is a distorted, barred galaxy, with arms that are pulled into a hook-like appearance by the gravitational effects during a close encounter with another nearby galaxy NGC 2443. Discovered by Sir John Herschel, NGC 2442 is about 150,000 light years in diameter and 50 million light years distant.

A rather unusual galaxy catalogued AM 0644-741 is a good example of what astronomers call a ring galaxy. These are rare, and happen after a cosmic trainwreck between two (or more) galaxies; what is left forms a new galaxy which can be an outer ring, then a gap before the central core. AM 0644-741 is 300 million light years away and likely looks a lot different in real time, if one were to get close enough to view it, it might be a perfect ring by now, like Hoag's Object in Serpens.

Extrasolar Planets

Volans sports at least one extrasolar planet. HD 76700 has a low mass planet orbiting it in a period of just under four Earth days. It is thought to be a gas planet of the size of our Solar System's  Uranus. Being close enough to its star to complete an orbit in that short a time period, it is likely to be extremely hot and unlikely to be a viable candidate to harbour life.

HD 68402 is a yellow dwarf star with a superjovian planet, HD 68402 b, in orbit.

WD 0806-661 (also GJ 3483) is a white dwarf (a remnant stellar core). In 2011 a 'cool' binary object, WD 0806-661B, was located some 2,500 AU away from the white dwarf. Its mass is approximately eight times that of Jupiter; stellar companions with less than 13 Jupiter-mass are defined as planets. However, some astronomers speculate that WD 0806-661B is a 'Y-Dwarf' (the proposed 'Y' spectral class for brown dwarfs).

Flying Fish in Modern Culture

The flying fish family Exocoetidae extend throughout the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Overall there are 52 species, all characterised by elongated pectoral fins which, when extended, can be used for flight above the ocean water level. Some species also have unusually large pelvic fins giving them a four-winged appearance. The fish take to the air when trying to escape predators, and their flight duration can be extended for periods of up to a minute by use of the lower caudal tailfin. The tailfin trailing in the water is used for additional forward thrust and steering turns.

Skimming Missiles

The Exocet anti-ship missile, which was used by the Argentine Air Force with such deadly effect during the Falklands war, is named after the family order Exocoetidae. The missile, whether launched from aircraft, ship or submarine, uses the same wave-skimming technique as the flying fish while homing in on its prey.

Land of the Flying Fish

The flying fish is a national icon of Barbados in the West Indies, styling itself 'The Land of the Flying Fish'. It also happens to be a national dish usually served seasoned with lime juice, battered and fried with an accompaniment of Cou-Cou, which is a mixture of corn meal and Okra. The fish, which normally shoal, are caught with nets by islander fishermen. Disputes between different islands (Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago) over fishing rights of a depleted stock has resulted in some interim compromise involving the imposition of fishing quotas and demarcation of territorial waters.

1Also known as 'the Mahimahi', 'the Dolphinfish' and 'the Dorado'.2A light year is the distance light travels in one year, roughly 5.88 trillion miles or 9.46 trillion km.3Usually the alpha-designated star is the brightest of the constellation, but sometimes errors were made in the original calculations or the brightness of the stars has fluctuated since the Greek letters were assigned.

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