Thursday night turned out to be a very special night for me (May 21 2020) the sky was very clear, and fully transparent with average seeing at the remote dark sky location where I planned to go and set up the telescope at sundown. This location is about an hour and a half drive West of Ottawa and a bit south of Renfew. I arrived and drove my car up the hill on the rough path off the road (I really need to consider getting something 4×4 for my next vehicle). I set up the scope. Swarms of black-flies and mosquitoes harassed me the entire time. When I had completed collimation and the scope was ready, I got back in the car and decided to wait out the bugs – sundown is their bedtime, apparently. The other thing that helped was the wind.
I started the night just looking at Arcturus, big and bright and high in the South East. Someone at https://www.cloudynights.com/ made a thread about Picot 1, AKA Napoleon’s Hat. I had never actually heard of it. I looked around and there it was! Very cool!
Before the sky was even fully dark I was able to observe the Leo Triplet. I found M66 first but quickly also spotted M65. I had to wait until a bit later to be able to see NGC 3628, The Hamburger Galaxy. I didn’t spend more time with these, just enough to compare their shapes and brightness, and to almost make out the dust lane in NGC 3628. Next I moved on to the M95 group, including the small trio comprised of M105, NGC 3384 and NGC 3389. I also got to NGC 3412, NGC 3377, NGC 3367 and NGC 3338.
Next I went to the Leo Quartet (NGC 3190 Group) glad I got this one in because in the past I’ve always had trouble from less dark skies. This is one of those galaxy groups that make me want more aperture.
I moved on to the Virgo galaxy cluster itself. I start with the Great Galactic Face portion of Markarian’s Chain as I find it easy to identify. I moved East along the chain past Copeland’s Eyes and to where it curves around north terminating with NGC 4459. Next I went a bit further East to M88 and M91. I returned to Copeland’s Eyes as the jump-off point to M87 and its smaller, fainter companions. I could not make out the jet that is the tell-tale sign of the monstrous black hole there. As I looked at M87, I imagined that I was looking in the direction of “downtown” – M87 is the center of the Virgo supercluster and our local group of galaxies certainly is part of this cluster. It’s like the Milky Way galaxy is a country cousin of these big ellipticals, of which M87 is the most massive. I got in M89, M90, M58, M59 and M60. In every direction were more faint fuzzies that I couldn’t identify, I think it will take me some time to really get to know the Virgo Cluster, but it will be worth it.
I also wanted to get in some globular clusters. I wanted to start with M3, but couldn’t find it or the triangle of stars it sits in. Then I found something, a faint, but relatively large blob which I immediately identified as NGC 5466 – The Snowglobe Cluster. I was quite happy, I think this was only my second time observing it. Now I went after M53, which is easy to find just next to Diadem in Coma Berenices. M53 seems quite compact and glitters beautifully with thousands of stars. I also checked out the less-than-spectacular NGC 5053, which, faint as it is, I was able to resolve into stars. Again I went after M3 and quickly found it.
Back to galaxies. I wanted to compare M64, the Black Eye Galaxy to M104, The Sombrero Galaxy. I enjoy looking for M104 by starting at Algorab in Corvus and moving up ‘The Arrow’ asterism, until I get to The Stargate. A triangle of stars inside a triangle of stars! Very cool. From here I found ‘The Jaws’ and there it was, The Sombrero galaxy. Small, bright, with that unmistakable edge-on shape. I popped in the 10mm Hyperion EP for a closer look and could just make out this galaxy’s prominent dust-lane. Awesome! Moving next to M64, I also went in for a closer look at higher power and could make out the dark patch that gives it its famous name. Seeing wasn’t the best, and thought at times I could see it, other times the famous Black Eye would be lost in a blur. I always note the 11th magnitude star to the side where the dark patch is.
As fun as Black Eyes and Sombreros are, I wanted to go somewhere much, much further. Coma Berenices is home to another well-known galaxy supercluster. At the center of this cluster are two giant elliptical galaxies, NGC 4874, and the formidable Coma B, NGC 4889. This cluster is actually insanely easy to find, thanks to a small asterism of stars formed by HIP 63405, HIP 63407 and HIP 63252. I would say it’s a quarter of the way from the corner of the right angle in the constellation West towards Al Dafirah. The first time I spotted these giant galaxies it struck me the kind of ‘s’ shape they form with the three stars. Under darker skies, both galaxies are bright, and maybe to an untrained eye are almost starlike. But, upon closer inspection, they are clearly galaxies, with bright halos and starlike centers. This time I spent some time here, in this cluster of galaxies. http://www.cleardarksky.com said full transparency this night with good seeing. As I looked back and forth from Coma B and NGC 4874 (by the way, what makes it a radio galaxy?) Many fainter ones started appearing, at times on the border of visibility. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if I had actually seen a fuzzy or not, but as I looked around the field of view and then came back the same little dso’s were still there. I guess it’s a bit like observing some of the great open clusters – the more you look at them the more you get to know them and the faint stars there. Each time, if seeing is good, more faint objects appear. And now, here in Coma Berenices, more and more faint distant galaxies began to appear. The cluster is also known as Abell 1656. It’s about 320 million light years away from our Sun. I tried in vain to galaxy-hop East of Coma B in hopes of finding NGC 4921. I could not positively identify it, though finding more little fuzzies. I will have to come back another time to the Coma cluster.
Next I spent some time with M13 and viewed it at different magnifications. I always feel like I can discern ‘The Propeller’ but I’m never quite sure. Then off to M92. Another amazing globular cluster. I tried for NGC 6229, but no dice. Next time.
I stopped by NGC 6811 in Cygnus. It’s a nice open cluster fairly close to center of the galactic disk.
Then I remembered what I had come for. Galaxies. I found myself next going to Canes Venatici, one corner specifically. From past experience I knew that M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, is always quickly and easily found under a dark sky. Of course I cheat and always starhop from 24 CVn – M51 is sort of south-south-east. The galaxy suddenly sprang into the field of view. Immediate, obvious spiral structure. Several faint foreground galactic stars visible against M51’s disk, especially and easily that 13th mag. star opposite the galaxies core from the companion, NGC 5195. As always, the brief glimpses of finer details, in the arms, dust lanes, brighter concentrations. Both spiral arms fairly apparent. Obvious in averted vision. I really love this galaxy. The incredible Hubble images come to mind, and one immediately dreams of what the first M51 images from James Webb will be like. The eye seeks to know finer and finer into the details, and to see what is there. For me, observing M51 is always a reminder of a distant world that is there, very real, and not just a dim patch of light or a splashy Hubble photo.
I got lost looking at galaxies. I dropped by both M94 The Croc’s Eye Galaxy and M63, The Sunflower Galaxy. I jumped to M109, and then some fainter ones south of there. I made sure to drop by M106, big and bright, and with a curious shape. I suspect that in time I will be able to observe spiral arms there. Haven’t yet. I looked at M108, The Surfboard Galaxy. No visit to M108 is complete without a peek at the Owl Nebula, M97. Pretty sure I could make out the owl’s eyes, two circular dark patches against the bright face of this planetary nebula. Like the Ring Nebula or the Dumbbell Nebula, M97 is a star that went nova. This means a star not massive enough to supernova, but dramatic enough in its own right. Also, how is it that these planetary nebula all have ‘7’ in them: M27, M57, M97 … what did Messier know about these objects?
NGC 2768, NGC 2742, NGC 2841 The Tiger’s Eye Galaxy. I always like to check out The Whale Galaxy, NGC 4627, and its smaller fainter irregular companion NGC 4656, The Hockey Stick Galaxy. The Whale is a gorgeous edge-on spiral, and it’s bright. Heading further south I came to The Koi Fish Galaxy, NGC 4559. Then NGC 4725 (seemed brighter than I expected) and finally NGC 4565, The Needle Galaxy. This is truly a spectacular edge-on spiral, and even this time, my second time observing it, I could see the dust-lane. Incredible.
I also got to a small group of galaxies just below the Big Dipper, the two bright ones being NGC 3718 and NGC 3729. I also always check out M81 and M82 when I go stargazing. At higher power they are incredible, and reveal greater detail. I always get in the other two galaxies in this group, NGC 3077 and NGC 2976. I also got to the Phantom Frisbee Galaxy, NGC 3079 this time. Another very nice edge-on galaxy. There were so many. I think that there are a good number of galaxies that I enjoyed observing last Thursday night that I am forgetting about now. Besides, how long can I go on with this astronomy report?
My last and most amazing memory from that night is a super well-known galaxy I haven’t mentioned yet. It is one that is always visible in the northern hemisphere’s night sky. How could I forget M101, the famous Pinwheel Galaxy. Here is another one that is very easy to find because it forms a nearly perfect equilateral triangle with Alkaid and Mizar. I have observed M101 several previous times, and always it has been a bit of a disappointment. But not this night. Big like a full-moon, bright, and somehow the contrast being good enough that made spiral structure visible, with lots of detail to boot. Again, it’s important to remember, that even despite the wind, seeing occasionally got quite good. It was just a matter of waiting calmly while looking in the eyepiece, and there, spiral arms! Irregular globs of brightness, mottling, even within the arms. These beautiful views were fleeting, and in a moment everything was just a blurry blob. That was it. I looked a few more times. I looked around at the whole sky with just my eyes and stood in amazement for quite some time. Suddenly I wished I had a fire, and maybe a bit more energy. I packed up the scope and my gear. I began the long drive home and thought about how in the future, I would come back to M101 again and again.