Last month’s article covered the wonderful nebula and star clusters in the winter constellations Orion, Taurus and Gemini. All of the objects mentioned are part of the Milky Way galaxy and relatively close at just a few thousand light years. With the start of spring, those constellations start to set in the west, and are replaced by Leo the Lion and Virgo the Virgin, marking the start of galaxy season!
During the months of spring, you are not looking through any of the Milky Way’s spiral arms. There are fewer stars and dusty clouds to hinder the view of distant galaxies. To see them, you are going to need a telescope, preferably with a 6-inch or larger mirror. If you don’t have one, or know a friend that has one, come to one of the Heart of the Valley Astronomers star parties. You can see the schedule at the web site listed at the end of the article.
Look south at 10 p.m. and you will see Leo. The bright star Regulus marks the bottom of the backwards looking question mark that serves as the lion’s head and mane. Scan your telescope to the east and you will start to see some galaxies, all Messier (M) objects. The first group of three are M95, M96, and M105. Further east is M65 and M66. If you need help finding them, you can use the free software Stellarium (www.stellarium.org) or download a sky map (www.skymaps.com). These objects are about 35 to 38 million light years from earth, which is fairly local, galactically speaking. If you have a larger telescope, you might be able to pick out New General Catalog (NGC) 3628 just to the north of M65. If you have managed to see all six of these galaxies the collective light of over 1 trillion stars will have come into your telescope and entered your eye.
After taking in the objects from Leo, Virgo should be high in the south. With a 6-inch telescope you should be able to see dozens of galaxies, many of them barely detectable (often referred to as ‘faint fuzzies’ by amateur astronomers). There are 11 Messier objects in Virgo. Grab a star chart or software and see if you can identify each one among the many other galaxies in the area. These galaxies are a bit more distant than the ones in Leo, at an average of 60 million light-years.
After touring Leo and Virgo, look to the north for the Big Dipper. Off the end of the dipper portion are two bright galaxies — M81 and M82. They are visible together in a low power eyepiece. M81 has obvious spiral arms and looks like every galaxy you see in a textbook. M82 is long and thin with no discernable spiral shape. However, it has been recently determined to be a spiral galaxy, we cannot easily see the spiral arms because we are looking at its edge. M82 is also known as a starburst galaxy, as stars are forming inside at a rate 10 times higher than an average galaxy. Seeing these objects together is a great way to finish off a night of galactic treasures.
If you are now hooked on galaxies, come to our meetings and star parties where we can unveil the rest of the Universe.
of the month
What is the most distant object you can see with your unaided eye (hint: it is a galaxy)?
Last month’s question: In the 18th century, Charles Messier cataloged many of the objects we see in the night sky. These are known as Messier objects (M1, M42, etc.). How many objects did Charles Messier catalog?
Answer: Charles Messier and a few other astronomers over the years created a list of 110 ‘Messier’ objects.
The Heart of the Valley Astronomers is a group of amateur astronomers dedicated to sharing our passion for the sky with the local community. We meet on the second Tuesday of each month (next: April 9 at 7:00 PM) at the Walnut Community Room, 4950 NW Fair Oaks Drive in Corvallis. Meetings are free and open to everyone. For more information, see www.hvaastronomy.com, or visit us on Facebook.