Among my favorite objects to spot in the sky are galaxies. While our own galaxy, the Milky Way is an amazing sight all it’s own, seeing other galaxies millions of light years away is a special treat! They are amongst the most distant objects that can be viewed with amateur equipment, and remember that the light you see left the galaxy before humans walked this Earth!
Fortunately for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, we have several areas in our sky rich with these ‘faint fuzzies’. A great place to begin your search is near the constellation Ursa Major, a.k.a. the Great Bear, or more commonly known as the Big Dipper. As most people are familiar with the Big Dipper, it is easy to find. Ursa Major is a circumpolar constellation, meaning it is visible all year round.
Two of the easiest galaxies to spot are Messier 81 and 82. Located just above and to the right of the edge of the “bowl” of the Dipper, they’re among the brightest galaxies. M81 is the face-on spiral galaxy, and M82 is edge-on, so it appears shaped like a cigar. Both galaxies are approximately 12 million light years away. M81 can easily be spotted with binoculars, and both galaxies can appear in the same field of view in a telescope with a wide-field eyepiece.
Messier 51 is another easy to find galaxy, located just below the first star in the handle of the Dipper. Also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, it’s pretty far away at just over 23 million light years distant. With a moderate sized telescope, M51 can be distinguished as a larger galaxy swallowing up a smaller one. Best viewed in a dark sky, but visible even in light or even moderate light pollution, this object is a must-see for any amateur astronomer!
Messier 108 is yet another galaxy found near Ursa Major. Located below and to the left of the bottom right corner of the “bowl”, this galaxy is a whopping 46 million light years from us. It’s another cigar-shaped, edge-on galaxy. The light from this faint fuzzy has been travelling nearly two-thirds of the time since the dinosaurs went extinct to reach us!
So, you’ve found the galaxies listed above, and are ready for a challenge. Try to spot Messier 109! This face-on spiral galaxy can be found very close to the star marking the bottom left of the “bowl” of the Dipper. This baby is 55 million light years away, making it one of the most distant galaxies you can spot with amateur equipment. Beware though, this faint fuzzy is difficult to spot, due to the glare of the nearby star in the Dipper. Well worth the task and frustration of spotting!
Galaxies have earned their nickname “faint fuzzies” because they’re difficult to resolve and to make out crisp detail as the distances from Earth make them dim, and the light from these galaxies are spread out over tens of thousands of light years. Still, with dark skies, patience, and a good star chart, these visually rewarding sights are well within your ability to spot and enjoy! And with so many galaxies relatively close together within the easily found Big Dipper, these galaxies are easily accessible to astronomers of all levels!
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