Winter and Spring is a great time of year to take out the telescope and gaze upon the wonders of the night sky! The nights are long, and due to the chilly weather, there is little humidity to interfere with your seeing. A great target to aim your telescope at is the constellation Virgo, which contains the Virgo cluster of galaxies.
Found near the confluence of the constellations Leo, Coma Berenices, and Virgo, the Virgo Cluster contains nearly 1500 galaxies! This concentration of galaxies lying in the direction of Virgo, with the “tail” of Leo pointing towards it, lends its name to the supercluster of galaxies in which the Milky Way is part of. Only several dozen of these galaxies are visible with larger amateur telescopes. We’ll take a look at the brighter Messier galaxies, as they are more accessible to those with 4-8 inch telescopes.
First up is Messier 98. This galaxy is the closest to the tail Leo, lying somewhat close to the “point” of Leo. At magnitude 11, this galaxy is quite dim since it’s facing nearly edge-on, needing at least a 6 inch telescope and a dark, moonless night. This galaxy lies fairly far away at about 44 million light years away. This galaxy is a great example of the term “faint fuzzy”, which is exactly how it appears. Using a technique called averted vision will help you spot this galaxy. Averted vision is when you look slightly away from an object, allowing more sensitive parts of your eye to see dimmer objects.
Next, we have Messier 99, a face-on spiral galaxy. It’s a little brighter than M98, but still quite dim, requiring dark skies. It lies a little farther away, at around 50 million light years. It’s neat when you realize the light you see left that galaxy just 15 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct! M99 is slightly below and to the east of M98. Chances are that you will find M99 first, since it’s face on and just a little brighter.
Nearby to M98 and M99 is M100. The M100 galaxy was one of the first spiral galaxies discovered when Charles Messier observed it back in 1781. It lies around 55 million light years away, and can be found above and to the east of M98 and M99, forming a triangle of sorts. As with the previous galaxies, this one is also somewhat dim. With a dark sky and an 8 inch telescope or larger, see if you can make out the spiral shape.
Lastly, we have a pair of faint fuzzies to gaze upon. The M84 galaxy falls into the same field of view with the M86 galaxy. M84 is the most distant galaxy of the group explored in this article, at approximately 60 million light years. This galaxy is a lenticular galaxy, so there isn’t a whole lot of detail to be made out in a telescope. It will appear as a dim, fuzzy patch.
M86, the second galaxy contained in the pair, is also a lenticular galaxy. This pair is below and to the east of M98 and M99. The M84-M86 pair can be identified as they fit in the same field of view. M84 is the galaxy in the pair in the south, and M86 is above it. M86 lies around 53 million light years away, and is one of the rare galaxies moving towards the Milky Way as opposed to moving away. Both M84 and M86 are of nearly equal brightness as observed in a telescope, but both are similarly as dim as the other galaxies we looked at in this article.
There are many more galaxies in the Virgo Cluster, and we’ll look at more in a future edition. The galaxies mentioned here are the ones closest to Leo’s tail. Using Denebola as a guide star will help you, as moving gently southeast will lead you right to these galaxies. A dark night with no moon and minimum light pollution will make seeing these galaxies easier. If distant galaxies ranks high on your must-see stargazing list, the galaxies of the Virgo Cluster should be your prime destination!
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