The night sky in the summer has many beautiful sights. Headlined by the Milky Way, there are many star clusters and nebulae to be found in the warm summer skies. A downside is that there aren’t too many galaxies that can be seen, since we’re mainly gazing towards the plane and even the center of the Milky Way. It isn’t until late summer and early fall that a selection of galaxies return to the night skies.
One prime target to find galaxies is the constellation Cetus, the Whale. Cetus was a whale that was sent after the princess Andromeda after she angered Poseidon, god of the seas. Cetus was slain by Perseus when Perseus rescued Andromeda from the clutches of Cetus. It is located below the Great Square of Pegasus and beneath Pisces the Fish. As it rises in the sky, look for a pentagon-shape of stars which depict the tail of the whale. Looking southwest from the tail, you will see the bright orange star Deneb Kaitos, which marks the bottom of the maw of Cetus. Cetus can be tricky to see in light pollution or during a bright moon, so it is recommended to view Cetus under dark skies.
Cetus contains several galaxies of note. These galaxies are small in apparent size, so you will need a telescope. As light pollution really drowns out the dim galaxies, dark skies are also a requirement. In the mid-northern latitudes, Cetus never climbs very high in the sky, so a clear view to the southern horizon is also a plus. The reward will be a view of the 5 galaxies that we’re going to take a look at!
The brightest and easiest of these galaxies to find is the M77 galaxy. If you spot the tail of Cetus, look to the bottom right (southwest) star of the “pentagon” shape. Below and to the right of that star will be another star. This second star is where to aim. Just a smidge below and to the left of the target star, you will see a “fuzzy” star. That is actually the bright core of M77. M77 is about 47 million light years away. Using higher magnification will show the bright core and the nebulousity surrounding. Those are the arms of the galaxy. Tinker around with magnification and see which works best for you.
While viewing M77, if you look directly below it (south), you will see a formation of three brighter stars with another galaxy. This is NGC-1055, a spiral galaxy facing edge on. With a 6-8 inch telescope, it looks like a smudge with a bright center. Larger telescopes may reveal the dust lane running through the center, making this galaxy reminiscent of the M104 (Sombrero Galaxy) or the M102 galaxy. NGC-1055 is approximately 52 million light years away, and it is part of a group of galaxies including M77.
If you find the bright star Deneb Kaitos, that marks the bottom of Cetus’ mouth. Looking above and to the right of Deneb Kaitos will be a moderately bright star marking the top of the mouth. If you move towards the left (east), nestled in between two bright stars (in the telescope) lies NGC-157. At 76 million light years’ distance, this galaxy is fairly dim, requiring at least an 8 inch to make out this faint fuzzy. Finding this galaxy will allow you to see light that left NGC-157 almost 11 million years before the dinosaurs went extinct!
If you go back to Deneb Kaitos and move your telescope below and nust slightly to the left (south-southeast), you may spot the cigar-shaped galaxy NGC-247. At around 11 million light years away, this galaxy is easier to find, and a bit brighter for those with smaller telescopes. NGC-247 is gravitationally bound to another nearby galaxy…
Below NGC-247 (south) is a brighter, slightly larger galaxy similar in appearance. This is the Silver Dollar Galaxy. While not technically in the constellation of Cetus (it’s officially in the constellation of Sculptor), it’s easier to find by using Deneb Kaitos of Cetus. At nearly 11 million light years away, the Silver Dollar Galaxy is bound gravitationally to NGC-247 and several other galaxies. It appears like a tilted silver dollar, which is where its name comes from. A very neat find for any telescope.
As the summer months fade and autumn closes in, keep an eye out for Cetus cruising above the southern horizon. The galaxies it contains are definitely worth a look. From face-on spiral galaxies, to an edge-on galaxy, and a pair of cigar-shaped shallow angle facing galaxies, Cetus has an assortment of galaxies for your viewing pleasure. If you enjoy spotting galaxies, be sure to check out the galaxies of Cetus!
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