By Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
Spring opens a window to the wider universe
Over the course of a year here on Earth the night sky vistas change as our perspective changes. In the late winter and spring the Milky Way moves out of the way and gives us a window to the outside of our stellar neighborhood.
In springtime in the Northern Hemisphere, Mother Nature throws open the Milky Way curtains and reveals hundreds of distant galaxies that can be seen with long focal length instruments. At this time of year the Virgo and Coma groups are in prime viewing position. So get your telescope out of the garage and cross your fingers for good weather, as Galaxy Season is nearly upon us!
Most galaxies are better suited for telescopes with longer focal lengths due to their small apparent size and dim characteristics, but even modest setups can glimpse these island universes. Let’s take a look at some of my favorites.
First up is the Leo Triplet. This tight grouping of grand spiral galaxies consists of M65, M66, and NGC 3628, and is located in the constellation Leo, about 35 million light years from Earth. After about 10 p.m., look east and use a star chart, your favorite phone app, or a planetarium software package to locate Leo. This group is located near the lion’s rear end and back feet. A modest scope with a field of view about the same as the full moon should be able to see all three is a single view.
Next up is the M81 and M82 pair of galaxies. These are favorite targets for astrophotographers due to their close proximity to one another, their relative brightness, and the colorful nature of these interacting bodies. Finding these guys is pretty straightforward since they are in Ursa Major, the Great Bear, or more commonly referred to as the Big Dipper. Look north and find the dipper. This pair of galaxies is located above and to the right of the cup of the dipper if the cup is right side up. M81, also known as Bode’s Galaxy, is a beautiful spiral galaxy located about 12 million light years distant, and M82, or the Cigar Galaxy, is a starburst galaxy at about the same distance. These two have collided in the past and the interaction set M82 on fire; it is now a very active star forming galaxy.
Let’s stay in Ursa Major for our last target. The Pinwheel Galaxy, or M101, is a beautiful face-on spiral galaxy. Photographically, the core of the Pinwheel Galaxy is evident even in short exposures. To capture the outer arms, longer guided exposures are needed. This gorgeous galaxy is located 21 million light years from Earth. To find M101, move your gaze near the tail of the Great Bear between the last two stars that make up the handle of the dipper and up a little. This is a more challenging target than the others we have looked at here, but stick with it and let me know if you find it.
In general, galaxies can be difficult to spot and a little disappointing to the novice observer. There are very far away and very dim at the eyepiece. If you have a chance to view these through a larger aperture telescope you will get much more out of the experience.
I hope you get out this galaxy season and discover the wonder and vastness of our beautiful universe. Please let me know if you see any of these with your own eyes.
Till next time!
Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
Find Chris on Facebook (or, if you’re lucky, at your campground). (Editor: Check out his amazing photos on his Facebook page!)