One of the greatest concentrations of galaxies in the night sky lies in the constellation of Virgo. These galaxies vary in size, shape, and distance, and provide a great selection for your galactic viewing pleasure. In the last edition, we took a look the galaxies M84, M86, M98, M99, and M100. In this edition, we’ll take a look at several more of the Messier galaxies that you can find in Virgo. Remember, to find the Virgo group of galaxies, use the tail star Denebola of the constellation Leo which points towards the group.
One of the largest galaxies you can view with amateur equipment is M87. M87 is located approximately 53 million light years away, and is one of the brightest galaxies of the Virgo cluster. You can spot M87 midway between the star Denebola in Leo, and the top star of the arm of Virgo (Episilon Virginis). It is an elliptical galaxy, so it has a bright core with a halo around it. Elliptical galaxies get their shape from colliding with and absorbing multiple galaxies over the ages. While M87 is about the same size across as the Milky Way, it is a spherical shape instead of a flat spiral like our own galaxy. Just imagine the number of stars contained within M87!
Next, there is the spiral galaxy M88, which can be found right above (or north of) M87. M88 is somewhat dim. It lies around 55 million light years away. M88 may also be moving towards M87 as it appears to be affected by the gravity of the more massive M87.
To the east of M87 is another elliptical galaxy, M89. At nearly 50 million light years’ distance, this galaxy is fairly dim as well and can be distinguished from the brighter M87 by it’s relative dimness. M89 appears nearly perfectly spherical from Earth, and like M87, it contains a large amount of globular star clusters.
M90, which lies around 60 million light years away, is one of the largest spiral galaxies in the nearby universe. Due to it’s distance, it still is fairly dim. M90 is one of the rare galaxies that is blue-shifted, which means it’s moving towards us, rather than away from us. It can be spotted above and to the left (northeast) of M89.
The last galaxy in this edition is the spiral galaxy M91. M91 is around 63 million light years away, and is one of the dimmest galaxies of the Messier galaxies in the Virgo cluster. It can be spotted to the east of M88. This galaxy caused some confusion for Charles Messier when he was compiling his catalogue, but the issue was finally solved in 1969 by an amatuer astronomer. A 10 to 12 inch telescope will come in handy to view the details of M91, although it can be faintly spotted with an 8 inch telescope.
With over a dozen galaxies that can be seen with amateur-level equipment, the Virgo cluster has some great objects to look at. These galaxies can be tricky to spot due to their distance from Earth, but spotting them is well worth the effort. We will take a look at even more of the Virgo cluster galaxies in a future edition, including one of the most distant objects in the universe that you can see from your own backyard! When the urge to see distant galaxies arises, don’t forget the Virgo cluster and the wonders that it holds!
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