If hunting galaxies is one of your goals as a skywatcher, the best season to spot them in the northern hemisphere is winter. There are several dozen bright galaxies in the winter skies, each with a unique shape and identifying qualites. In this edition, we’ll have a look at a few of the more unique galaxies that can be readily spotted on a dark, moonless night away from city skies. These galaxies are worth enduring those chilly winter nights to catch a glimpse, and they are some of the most beautiful and mesmerizing sights the cosmos have to offer!
First, we have the M63 Sunflower galaxy which lies in the constellation Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs, which lies under the handle of the Big Dipper in the northern part of the sky. This galaxy is 100,000 light years across, and 37 million light years away. It lies fairly close in the sky to the M51 Whirlpool galaxy, and is actually part of the M51 group of galaxies. M63 has many spiral arms coming from the center, giving it the appearance of a sunflower. M63 is one of the brighter galaxies as well. Those using 6-8 inch telescopes should be able to see some of the spiral structures. Since it is bright in terms of galaxies, try using slightly higher magnification and see if you can coax out more detail from this lovely galaxy.
While you’re in the neighborhood of M63, check out the M94 spiral galaxy. If the Big Dipper is parallel to the horizon, M94 is right below M63. M94 lies around 16 million light years away, also in the constellation of Canes Venatici. M94 is unique due to the ring-like structures around it. The inner ring is undergoing a starburst phase, meaning lots of new stars are forming. M94 is the largest galaxy of its own group, and is also a fairly bright galaxy. Using around 100x magnification in a 6-8 inch telescope, see if you can note the ring formations around this galaxy.
Moving towards the south in the sky, we have the M64 Black Eye galaxy in the dim constellation Coma Berenices. Finding this galaxy can be tricky, and may require using the bright star Arcturus, and/or the globular clusters M3 and M53 to star-hop to M64. The Black Eye galaxy is about 25 million light years away from us. It gets its name due to a large dust lane near the center of the galaxy that absorbs light, giving the galaxy the appearance of a black eye. M64 is of moderate brightness for a galaxy, and an 8 inch telescope will help you see the center dust lane. A little extra magnification may help, but don’t get too carried away as too much magnification will dim the appearance to the point where the dust lane isn’t visible. Don’t be afraid to experiment though, as the view of this galaxy is quite amazing!
Further in the south lies the edge-on M104 spiral galaxy, also known as the Sombrero galaxy. It lies between the constellations Virgo and Corvus, and can be found northeast of the upper left corner star of Corvus. Also a fairly bright galaxy, M104 is about 28 million light years away, and can even be seen in binoculars. This galaxy is unique because it has a very bright center, and flattens into a thin disk which gives it the sombrero appearance. It is also surrounded by a dust lane which absorbs light. An 8 inch telescope will distinguish the bright center of M104 from the disk, but you will need a 10-12 inch telescope to make out the dust lane. Check this galaxy out and see what details you can make out!
Finally, in the extreme southern sky, we have one of the most unique galactic views in the sky, the NGC-3314 pair. This pair can be found between the constellations Hydra and Antila. It may be hard to spot the farther north you live, as it doesn’t get very high above the southern horizon. These galaxies aren’t colliding, rather they are overlapping. NGC-3314A, the galaxy in the foreground lies around 117 million light years away, and NGC-3314B in the background lies 140 million light years away. Due to the extreme distances, these galaxies don’t appear very large, and they are pretty dim as well, which limits the magnification you can use. This pair is a challenging one to find for amateur astronomers, so the larger the telescope you have, the better chance you have of finding it. Spotting it will reward you with one of the most unique sights in the universe, as overlapping galaxies are extremely rare to find. Stick with it, and you will be rewarded!
Finding and spotting those faint, fuzzy galaxies can be a challenge at times, especially in the cold of winter. However, for those who are looking to see the grandeur and mystique of the universe, galaxies provide the most amazing views. Obviously, Hubble Space Telescope-quality images are not to be expected with amateur equipment, but the views can still be very rewarding and memorable! Just remember to have good charts, a lot of patience, and dress warmly for these cold winter nights. Good luck, and happy galactic hunting!
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