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« Open Thread | Main | Overnight Open Thread (3-9-2014) »
March 09, 2014

Spaced-Out Challenge: Messier Marathon Mega-Thread (Part 2)

[We Politely Request That All Off-Topic or Political Comments Be Directed to the Open Thread down page, Which Will Serve Officially as the Current "Active Conversation" Thread for All Discussions Not Related To This Topic. Enjoy!]


Messier 87, the "Monster" of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster, courtesy NASA/HST

Welcome again to the Spaced-Out Challenge! Whether you have a question about equipment, a new astronomical discovery you want to expand on, or just want to kick back and enjoy the cosmos above, come one come all on our weekly astronomical journey.

This week, we continue our beginner's guide to the Messier Marathon, the best nights for which are coming on Saturday, March 29th, and Sunday, March 30th. We stopped our hunt of Charles Messier's “nuisance nebulae” around Midnight, leaving our galaxy for island universes beyond. Now, it's time to go straight into the heart of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster. Tiny smudges of light, some fuzzy, some with faint arms, but all right before your own eyes: a view at the grandest of scales we can see. Come, let me show you.

Part One of our Messier Guide can be found here.


Overview Map pops out here: View image

At Midnight, the Virgo Galaxy cluster is riding high, giving you an excellent opportunity to pick off a massive number of Messier objects, and to enjoy some of the finest galaxies in that or any catalog. The brightest stars- Arcturus, Spica, and Regulus- are joined by a brightening Mars, so use these as your anchor stars, and align your map above accordingly.

Messier 53: A(nother) Globular in Coma Berenices.


Coma Berenices is a faint constellation susceptible to light pollution, but from your dark sky location, its magnificent star cluster and faint main stars are plainly visible. Looking to your south, and about midway up from your horizon, it forms an upside-down L above Virgo. Aim your binoculars at the southernmost main star Ithe brightest in the small constellation), and you'll notice a small, fuzzy patch of light: the globular cluster M53, an ancient cluster of over 100,000 stars about 65,000 light years distant.

The Black Eye Galaxy (Messier 64)


Sketch by Per-Jonny Bremseth

About a binocular's FOV north and west of Alpha Coma Berenices (the star you used to find M53) lies the striking galaxy M64. The Black Eye gets its name from the striking dark band of absorbing dust in front of the galaxy's bright nucleus, visible in most telescopes from a dark site.

The Suburbs of the Virgo Cluster
Beneath downtown Virgo are two contrasting galaxies in the Messier catalog.

Messier 61


Image by Jack Newton

A beautiful small spiral, M61 was initially mistaken for a comet by Charles Messier, but was cataloged as a nebulae after it hadn't moved over several observations. It has been relatively active: six supernova have been observed and cataloged since frequent observations began.

Messier 49


Image by Jan Wisniewski

One of the brightest galaxies in the cluster, this giant elliptical galaxy was erronously thought to be more massive than M87 (see below). While it can't claim that brag, it is still a monster, stretching a full 60,000 light years wider than our own Milky Way. This is one of the easiest galaxies to see because of it's brightness. Averted viewing can help bring out the faint fuzziness enveloping the very bright core.

Messier 85


Image by Jan Wisniewski

Another reasonably bright one in the cluster, M85 is a lenticular galaxy populated by older yellow stars. A faint hazy blob in small telescopes, don't let it's appearance fool you: this galaxy is at least 25% larger than our home.

Downtown Virgo


Messier 100


Image by ESO

One of the most beautiful spirals in the Messier catalog, it is another bright member of the Virgo Group. Lord Rosse mentioned it as one of his 14 spiral nebulae in 1850. It isn't hard to see how it earned the designation of being a "grand design" spiral. From a dark site, amateurs can see the central regions of this galaxy as a faint elliptical patch in small telescopes or good binoculars. Under very good observing conditions, suggestions of the inner spiral arms can be glimpsed in 4" telescopes or larger, and more of the "grand design" can be teased out with an 8" dobsonian.

Messier 98


Sketch by Jeremy Perez

Fainter and thus a bit tougher to see, this edge-on spiral is best found by hopping from star 6 Com. It's dust-filed disk obscures most of the nucleus.

Messier 99


Sketch by Lord Rosse

Another nearly face-on spiral galaxy, M99 boasts the record for the highest receding velocity speed, moving through the cosmos at over 1200 kilometers a second. Some star formation regions can be teased out with larger dobsonians.

Messier 84, Messier 86 & Markarian's Chain


Sketch by Eric C Graff

Markarian's Chain is a “string” of galaxies discovered by it's namesake to have the same proper motion through the cluster, and is anchored on one end by M84 and M86. It's fainter members really pop out in scopes of at least 4” of aperture. Lying right smack between Vindemiatrix in Virgo and Denebola in Leo, I've used the chain as a starting point for observing all of the Messiers in this section. Take your time and see how many you can actually spot beyond the obviously bright Messiers. Can you see the “eyes” ?


Sketch by Jeremy Perez, view through his eyepiece

Messier 87


Image by NASA/Hubble Team

Messier 87 lies at the heart of the cluster, as well it should: this monstrously massive elliptical galaxy is one of the largest known. It's supermassive black hole spits out a relativistic jet of plasma that poses a challenge all it's own for owners of very large dobsonian telescopes- many have claimed visual observations of it!

The trio of Messier 84, 86, and 87 are bright enough to spot with even crappy binoculars, so long as you are observing from a dark sky. Amateur Jeremy Perez shares his sketch and thoughts on these three:


The broad stretches of the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies are a real treat telescopically, but what does it look like through binoculars? And not just any old astronomy-grade binoculars, but really crummy ones? Well, I and my twenty dollar laughing-stock 10x50 binoculars are happy to say that you can indeed enjoy these galactic poofs on a bino-budget. But you'll still need a dark sky on your side.
Drawing a bead--and a crick'd neck--on the heart of the cluster slowly revealed two soft patches that are the bright galaxies, M84 and M86. M86 was the brighter of the two, and appeared more strongly concentrated at its core. It was also hard to miss the soft glow of M87 as it hugged a nearby eighth magnitude star. With some patience, a much more elusive smear appeared east of M86 from the combined light of NGC 4435 and 4438. I also noted a soft glow due south of M86 that turned out to be the unresolved glow of a grouping of stars in the area.
So, what can I say? If your current choice of binoculars gives you just a wee touch of shame, but you've got a dark sky to play with, go ahead and grab those dogs, and a pack of ice for your neck, and give some Virgo galaxies a shot. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Messier 88


Sketch courtesy chippingdaleobservatory

A stunning spiral galaxy for small telescopes, as the sketch above shows, the classic swirling shape is unmistakable. If many of the other galaxies seem underwhelming in your smaller instrument, aim for the one that never disappoints.

Messier 91


From stunning and bright we switch to a far more difficult object for the amateurs, but rewarding to cross off your list, M91, one of the fainter galaxies in the cluster and one of the faintest of all the Messier objects.

Messier 90


One of the larger spiral galaxies in the cluster, M90's tightly-wounded, bright arms appear to be devoid of star formation.

Messier 89


Sketch by Jeremy Perez

Arguably one of the most circular elliptical galaxies easily visible by amateurs, some compare it's appearance to smaller globular clusters, but don't let it's compactness fool you: it's at least a billion times more massive than our most impressive globular.

Messier 58


Image by Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

A barred spiral, small telescopes show only its bright nucleus, giving it an elliptical appearance. Under good conditions, 4-inch scopes or better reveal an oddly shaped halo enveloping the core. Hints of the bar structure begin with telescopes of about 8" of aperture.

Messier 59 & 60


Messier 59 is the flattened galaxy at lower left, Messier 60 the more massive of two on the right

Slightly flattened and less massive than M49 or M87, Messier 59 is still an impressive elliptical galaxy with more stars than our own. It's close proximity to M60 means both can pop into view at very low power.
A monster lies within the bright, giant elliptical galaxy M60: HST observations have revealed an object with a mass 2 billion times that of our sun, likely a supermassive black hole that could eat the Milky Way's lunch several times over.


Don Machholz compiled an excellent star/galaxy hopping sequence for all of these galaxies for his Messier Marathon Observer's Guide, if the map seems too condensed to plan your own hop. Remember to work at low power in your telescope, or mount your binoculars for additional stability, and dive in:

From Denebola (Beta Leonis), go 0.3 deg N and 6.8 deg following (E) to star 6 Comae. From here go 0.5 deg preceding (W) to find M98.
From M98 go 0.5 deg S, 1.2 deg following (E) to M99. [It is near a mag 6 star]
From M99 travel 1.0 deg following (E), 1.4 deg N to M100. [2 mag-6 stars point to it from 6 Com]
From M100 go 0.6 deg following (E), 2.4 deg N to M85 and faint NGC 4394 (10' E)
From M85 sweep 5.3 deg S to find M84 and M86 in one field, together with a number of fainter NGC galaxies including NGC 4388; 15' NE of M86 is the interacting pair NGC 4435/4438.
From M86 go 0.6 deg S, 1.1 deg following (E) to M87.
From M87 go 0.2 deg N, 1.2 deg following (E) to M89.
M90 is 0.3 deg following (E), 0.7 deg N of M89.
From M90 travel 1.2 deg preceding (W), 1.2 deg N to M88.
M91 is situated 0.1 deg N, 0.8 deg following (E) of M88 - same low-power rich-field.
From M91 sweep 0.6 deg following (E), 2.7 deg S to M58 [situated east of and near a mag 6 star]
From M58 go 0.2 deg S, 1.1 deg following (E) to M59. In the same field should be M60 (0.1 deg S, 0.4 deg E) with its fainter companion NGC 4647.
From M60 travel 3.4 deg preceding (W), 3.5 deg S to find M49; from M49 go 2.0 deg preceding (W), 3.5 deg S to M61.

In small instruments, these may appear as lumpy patches of light. But thanks to our understanding of the universe, we now comprehend (or try to) that each is much like our home galaxy, filled with black holes, comets, pulsars, gas clouds, suns, moons, and planets. The next time you walk on a beach, consider the sand beneath your feet. Now imagine our sun as a grain of sand. At that scale, our Milky Way would be a sand castle five stories high (if all of the suns were packed together, which we know is certainly not the case). As impressive as our own backyard may be, there are more stars in the galaxies beyond than there are grains of sand on Earth. Our home is a speck too small to even imagine, in a star field too smushed to resolve, in a galaxy barely discernible for an intelligent being on the other side of the universe.

End of Part 2

If you've followed this guide successfully so far, congratulations: you've knocked out over a third of the Messier objects, with the Spring and Summer targets rising up in the last part of our guide.

Remember, tonight is also the relaunch of COSMOS (this version featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson), which will air at 9pm on FOX and all non-news FOX channels (FX, FXX, etc), the latest trailer of which you can see here:


The full Beginner's Buyer's Guide, our Comet Guide (featuring additional grab-and-go telescopes), and any other edition you're looking for can be found in the master index of all Spaced-Out Challenge threads here, but of course you can always inquire about binoculars, telescopes, and all the rest in the comments. As always, if you have astrophotography, product recommendations, or astronomy news you'd like to see on a future Spaced-Out Challenge, email me at theoneandonlyfinn (at), or tweet me @conartcritic.

If you have any more questions about your new optics, feel free to ask below. Until next time, clear skies to you, and keep looking up!

On March 23rd, we finish our Messier Marathon Guide. See you in a few Sundays!

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