The Lion and His Galaxies

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How to spot Leo using the Big Dipper (Ursa Major)

As we move into the winter months, there are different deep space objects that become visible for stargazers. The constellation of Leo the Lion presents a great opportunity to find some galaxies. Finding Leo is key to spotting these interesting “faint fuzzies”, and we’ll take a look at 6 of these galaxies that can be found near Leo.

Leo is located nearby the bottom the Big Dipper. It appears as a triangle and a sickle, with the sickle forming the head of the lion, and the triangle forming the hind-quarter. It is a fairly large constellation, featuring the bright star Regulus, which is the “heart” of the lion, and appears as a double star under magnification. The star Denebola forms the bottom point of the triangle at the rear of Leo.

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Leo Triplet of galaxies (M65, M66, NGC-3628)

First, we’ll take a look 3 galaxies that fit into the same field of view in a telescope. M65, M66, and NGC-3628 form the Leo Triplet. The Triplet is located below the right angle of the triangle in Leo. These 3 spiral galaxies are nearly 35 million light years from Earth. Since these galaxies are so far away, and their light so diffuse, they won’t appear as much more than dim smudges in your telescope lense, so don’t expect views like you’ll see from the Hubble Space Telescope. Still, the opportunity to spot this group of galaxies is a good one, as it contains one edge-on facing galaxy (NGC-3628), and 2 others that are more face-on (to varying degrees). A good assortment for those looking to spot galaxies.

FOV Coordinates
M95 galaxy

Next, we have M95, a face-on spiral galaxy. This galaxy is part of another trio of galaxies in Leo, the M96 group. The M96 group can be found about halfway between the triangle and sickle of Leo on the lower (south-facing) edge. This second group is a little more spaced out, and doesn’t fit in the same field of view. M95 is nearly 38 million light years away, so the light you’re seeing from it has been travelling more than half the time since the dinosaurs went extinct!

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M96 galaxy

Our next target is M96, the namesake of the M96 group. It can be found next to M95, also in between the triangle and sickle of Leo. Located nearby M95, this galaxy is approximately 35 million light years away. It roughly contains the same mass as our own galaxy, the Milky Way. This group is part of the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies, in which the Milky Way is also a part of. M96 requires a moderate-sized telescope, in which you’ll see a fuzzy halo with a bright center.

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M105 (to the right) along with NGC-3384 (upper left)

Wrapping up the M96 group, we have M105, a lenticular galaxy. Located just above M95 and M96, this galaxy is around 33 million light years away. It will look like a fuzzy star, with a slight haze surrounding it. Its companion, NGC-3384 may also be spotted nearby if the sky is very dark and if you have a large enough telescope. There are also several, dimmer galaxies which belong to the group, but professional-level equipment and optimum locations will be necessary to spot these dimmer cousins.

M65
M65 galaxy

For those looking to find galaxies, Leo presents a great target. Although it is only visible during the colder months (late fall-mid spring), the colder, more dry air will cut back on the haze in the atmosphere, giving you a good glimpse of the two groups of galaxies. Since these galaxies are faint, very dark skies outside of the cities are recommended. Looking at these distant objects help to put the size of our universe into perspective, and will be a fun and enjoyable process to find and view them!

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M66 galaxy

Don’t forget to share us with your stargazing friends on Facebook and Twitter!

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