A hard-to-see fox trots high across the sky on autumn evenings: the constellation Vulpecula. It’s not very big, and its stars are all faint. But it was the site of one of the most famous discoveries in astronomy history — one that briefly looked like it might be a sign of alien life.
The constellation was first drawn in the late 1600s. It filled a void between several prominent constellations. Originally, it was known as Vulpecula et Anser — the little fox and the goose. Later, the goose was dropped from the name.
Instead, “Anser” was assigned to Vulpecula’s brightest star. It’s a giant — much bigger and brighter than the Sun. From its distance of about 300 light-years, though, it’s so faint that you can’t see it from a light-polluted city.
In 1967, British graduate student Jocelyn Bell discovered odd pulses of radio waves coming from Vulpecula. They repeated every one and a third seconds. At first, no one could figure out what was causing them. Bell and her advisor, Antony Hewish, even considered the source might be an alien civilization.
Astronomers eventually determined, though, that the pulses came from a spinning neutron star — the super-dense corpse of a once powerful star. As it spins, it beams out energy like a lighthouse. That makes it a pulsar — the first one ever seen.
The fox is high in the sky at nightfall. It’s near the middle of the Summer Triangle, which is outlined by three bright stars.
Script by Damond Benningfield