The constellation of Virgo is home to the greatest concentration of galaxies in our night skies. Viewing these galaxies can be wonderous, given their distances from Earth, the different types of galaxies that they are, and that our galaxy too belongs to the same supercluster as the Virgo galaxies. In this edition, we’ll wrap up our tour of the galaxies in Virgo, and have a glimpse at an extremely distant, bright galaxy known as a quasar.
Our journey begins with the M60 elliptical galaxy, located just to the west of the star Epsilon Virginis, which is at the end of the “arm” of Virgo that points towards the north. M60 lies around 55 million light years away, and is the third brightest galaxy in the Virgo Cluster. Part of the reason is because M60 has a nearby companion galaxy, the spiral galaxy NGC-4647. Recent Hubble observations show that these two galaxies may be in the beginning stages of interacting with each other. M60 also contains a supermassive black hole, weighing in at a staggering 4.5 billion solar masses (4.5 billion times the mass of our sun!). It’s one of the largest black holes discovered so far. Be sure to check this pair out!
Just to the west of M60 is the M59 galaxy. Also an elliptical galaxy, M59 is located around 65 million light years away. As with most elliptical galaxies, it doesn’t show a lot of detail. M59 is still neat to see, especially when you consider that the light you see from this galaxy left it around the time the dinosaurs went extinct!
Next stop is the M58 spiral galaxy, which is just to the west of M59. M58 is around 68 million light years away, and from 1779 until the 1880’s, it was the farthest known object observable from Earth. The spiral features can be somewhat difficult to make out. Test your seeing ablilties and see what details you can make out in your telescope.
Next, we have another pair of galaxies, known as the Eyes Galaxies. The pair is made up of NGC-4438 and NGC-4435. These galaxies can be found just to the northeast of M86, roughly near the center of the Virgo Cluster (see my earlier blog “Wonders of Virgo”). The Eyes Galaxies are approximately 52 million light years away, and are fairly dim, although unmistakably noticeable. These galaxies are in the process of interacting with each other, and may have or also currently be interacting with M86. This is a really neat pair to spot, and the pair are fairly easy NGC galaxies to find. See if you can notice the “eyes” from which this pair gets its name from.
Lastly, we have the most distant object visible with amateur equipment, the quasar 3C-273. A quasar (or quasi-stellar radio source) is a galaxy with an extremely bright and active core, both in visible light and radio waves. They are thought to be formed when the supermassive black holes of colliding galaxies merge together. 3C-273 doesn’t appear as a galaxy, rather it looks like an ordinary star. This quasar is nearly 2.5 billion light years away, so the light from this “ordinary star” has been travelling towards us for more than half the age of the Earth! It was discovered as a radio source and a visible object in the 1950’s. 3C-273 has a brightness of over 4 trillion times that of the sun. If it were at a distance of 30 light years (a similar distance as the star Pollox in the constellation Gemini), it would still be as bright in the sky as the sun. It is the brightest quasar visually in the sky, and is located in a large elliptical galaxy. While not overly impressive visually, it still is absolutely amazing to see, knowing what is it you are seeing, and how far away from us it is!
As you try to view the wonderous cluster of galaxies in Virgo, make sure you have a dark, clear, moonless sky, as a lot of these galaxies are on the dimmer side and are affected by light pollution and moonlight. It can be difficult to identify which galaxy you are viewing, so having a star chart handy and taking a systematic viewing approach will help you find and identify these faint fuzzies. There are many, many galaxies that lie in this area of the sky, and you may be surprised to inadvertently find more galaxies than you intended to find. No skywatching experience is complete without seeing the galactic wonders of Virgo!
Don’t forget to share us with your stargazing friends on Facebook and Twitter!