Sea of Galaxies

Observing notes from the evening of Tuesday, May 6, 1997

It has been a while since I've actually done some real observing. All of my time has been dedicated to observing and trying to photograph Comet Hale-Bopp. Although we had partly cloudy skies at sunset, the local weather dude had said it would be clear for the night. Two co-workers (Michael King and Donald Major), another club member (Jeff McAdams), and I decided to go for it. We all met at Farrington Point, Lake Jordan, NC. It's about a 35 minute drive from my house. It's a boating ramp that stays open all night long, and has no streetlights. Except for the occasional car that drives through (I guess cruising around out of boredom), it's a decent place to observe. You do get some skyglow from the nearby cities, but it's better than my backyard.

I was equipped with my 10" Meade Starfinder scope, on it's homemade dobsonian mount. Jeff had his 10" Z-Scope dobsonian, Donald had a new 8" Orion dobsonian, and Michael had an 8" Meade 8800 reflector on an equatorial mount. We set up the scopes in the parking lot, and began the hunt. Our main targets tonight would be the spring time galaxies.

My first targets of the night were the galaxies M65 and M66 in the constellation of Leo. M65 is an elongated galaxy while M66 appears as more of a spiral. Also in the same field of view, forming a triangle with the other two, was the elongated galaxy NGC3628. All of these galaxies are big and bright and easy to find. I love that you can fit them all in the same field of view.

I then nudged my scope over into the Virgo region and seemed to be literally swimming in a sea of galaxies (hence the name of these notes). Passing a scope through this area you see tens of galaxies. It was so many that you can hardly figure out which ones you are looking at. I decided to identify a few of them. Consulting my Sky Atlas 2000.0, I zeroed in on M84 and M86. These are round galaxies and very bright. But, within the same field of view, were at least three other galaxies. The elongated galaxies NGC4438 and NGC4435 could be seen, as well as the edge on galaxy NGC4388. I think I might have seen a couple more galaxies, but these are the ones I could identify positively. A slight nudge of the scope to the left and the round galaxy M87 came into view. Moving the scope around, I could see countless other galaxies. All of these objects were new observations for me. I definitely need to get more detailed starcharts and explore this area more thoroughly.

Another object I bagged in Virgo was M104, the Sombrero Galaxy. Although I might have seen this object through another scope during an observing session, this was the first time I have found it and was able to make detailed observations. Under more power, the dark lane that helps give the galaxy its name was clearly visible. Pretty neat sight.

Michael caught the Beehive cluster, M44 in Cancer, before it slipped behind the trees. We all took a look. Nice, open cluster of stars that literally fill the eyepiece. We could see it as a fuzzy patch of light above the treetops with the naked eye.

I briefly aimed my scope at Mars, located in Leo, but the skies weren't steady enough for good viewing. A hint of the northern polar cap, and a few markings suggested themselves, but that's about it.

I then decided to move to the north, to explore the objects in and around Ursa Major. First up on the list was the remarkable spiral galaxy, M51, the Whirlpool galaxy, located in Canes Venatici. It's big, and bright, and face-on. With averted vision, I could see the spiral structure of the arms. Donald remarked how big it was. I then moved to M101, a spiral galaxy located in Ursa Major. Donald had tried to find this object last week and failed, and he saw why he failed tonight. Through my scope, M101 was barely detectable. It was more of a slight glow than anything else. This is a big galaxy with its brightness spread out. The skyglow at this location just didn't offer much detail within M101. A couple of times I thought I might have seen structure, but I think it was more my imagination and knowing what the galaxy really looks like.

Next up came my two favorite galaxies in Ursa Major, M81 and M82. M81 is a bright spiral galaxy while M82 is a bright elongated galaxy. Both fit within the same field of view, and both are easy to see. With some pumped up magnification, I observed the mottled appearance of M82 through Jeff's scope.

Jeff then pointed his scope at the elongated galaxy M108 and the Owl Nebula, M97. Both of these objects also reside in Ursa Major and could be seen within the same field of view. Since we were in the area, I pointed my scope at the elongated galaxy M109. M109 is very easy to find because it is right beside of the bright star, Phecda, in the Big Dipper. In fact, if you can stand the brightness of Phecda, they will both fit in the same field of view. I like to do this when showing it to other people because they can easily see exactly where the telescope is pointed.

Since I had just seen an article that mentioned the Ghost of Jupiter planetary nebula, NGC3242, I decided to try and find it. It is located in Hydra, and it's location was just above the trees. Donald nailed it first, followed by Jeff. I just couldn't seem to find it. I moved my scope back to make sure it wasn't in the trees. Only after taking a look at Jeff's scope to see exactly where it was pointed, did I finally get it in my field of view. I experimented with various powers but couldn't get any features out of it. I guess you need better skies and/or bigger scopes to see the "Jupiter" impression. It did however, have a bluish tint to it. The is yet another new object to add to my list of observations.

Michael wanted a good object to find, so I suggested the globular cluster M13 in Hercules. It didn't take him long to have it in his scope, so I took a look. Many, many stars in a little ball greeted me. With increased power, it easily resolved further. This is my favorite globular cluster and probably the best in the northern skies.

Next up was the planetary nebula NGC4361 in Corvus. This is an easy to find planetary and I'm surprised I have not observed it before. It forms a triangle with two bright stars in the constellation. I'll have to study this one in more detail later on. List it as another new object for me.

This next object is a maybe for me. Jeff pointed his scope at some globular cluster. I took a look and was really impressed....I just love globular clusters anyway. It was bright and easily resolved. Jeff looked at a couple of globulars, but the one I think I looked at was M92, located in Hercules. If so, this is a new object for me.

It was getting late, but since I could see Scorpius poking its head above the trees, I decide to go for the globular cluster M4. An easy find, this globular always seems to disappoint me. It's big and resolvable, but just doesn't seem that bright. I don't know if its washed out appearance is due to the sky conditions or its celestial location (i.e. intervening dust clouds or something).

It was time to pack up, but I decided to try for one more object, that eluded me last year, despite its size and beauty. Since I could see Scorpius, I knew Centaurus was skirting the southern horizon. Within this constellation lies one of the biggest and most spectacular globular clusters, NGC5139, otherwise known as the Omega Centauri. It was so bright it was thought to be a star in early times. The reason I have not been able to find it is that because at my latitude, about 35 degrees north, the cluster does not get very high above the horizon. According to my starcharts, it should be almost directly south at about 6 degrees above the horizon. Using the star hop method and my trusty Telrad, hop....hop...hop....and I was staring at the biggest globular cluster I've ever seen!!!!! I found it!!! The skyglow and horizon murk made for poor viewing, but it was definitely resolved. Hundreds upon hundreds of points of starlight seemed to fill my eyepiece. This must truly be a magnificent sight from southern latitudes. With my thumbs in my ears, and my fingers waving back and forth, I say "nana...nana....nana..." to my friends in the Seattle area!!! You'll never see this object from your latitude. Time to pack up and head south!!!

This was a great observing session. I netted lots of new objects and had fun observing with some friends. I can hardly wait to get my feet wet again in that "sea of galaxies" in Virgo. I encourage you to explore that region yourself.

Jeffrey L. Polston


Listed below are all the objects observed. Objects with an asterisk are new objects for me.

M81 (NGC3031), Bode's Nebula, spiral galaxy, Ursa Major

M82 (NGC3034), elongated galaxy, Ursa Major

M108 (NGC3556), elongated galaxy, Ursa Major

M97 (NGC3587), Owl Nebula, planetary nebula, Ursa Major

M109 (NGC3992), elongated galaxy, Ursa Major

M101 (NGC5457), spiral galaxy, Ursa Major

M51 (NGC5194), Whirlpool Galaxy, spiral galaxy, Canes Venatici

M13 (NGC6205), Great Cluster in Hercules, globular cluster, Hercules

M65 (NGC3623), elongated galaxy, Leo

M66 (NGC3627), spiral galaxy, Leo

NGC3628, elongated galaxy, Leo

*M84 (NGC4374), round galaxy, Virgo

*M86 (NGC4406), round galaxy, Virgo

*NGC4438, elongated galaxy, Virgo

*NGC4388, edge on galaxy, Virgo

*NGC4435, The Eyes, elongated galaxy, Virgo

*M87 (NGC4486), round galaxy, Leo

*M104 (NGC4594), Sombrero Galaxy, edge on galaxy, Virgo

*NGC4361, planetary nebula, Corvus

M4 (NGC6121), globular cluster, Scorpius

M44 (NGC2632), Beehive Cluster or Praesepe, open cluster, Cancer


*NGC3242, Ghost of Jupiter, planetary nebula, Hydra

*NGC5139, Omega Centauri, globular cluster, Centaurus

*M92 (NGC6341), globular cluster, Hercules

* Back to home page *