Volume XVII, Issue 17 # April 23 - April 29, 2009

Sky Watch by J. Alex Knoll

Looking into Deep Space

Catch a ride to a distant galaxy

As part of the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, Galaxy Week continues through Sunday, April 26. With the new moon Friday, this is a great time to look for these deep-space objects, but you’ll need binoculars or, better yet, a telescope.

Galaxies are named after French astronomer Charles Messier, who published his famous Catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters in the late 18th century.

Messier 81 (M81), in Ursa Major, is one of the easiest galaxies to spot. At magnitude 6.8, this spiral galaxy is one of the brightest, and several viewers have reported seeing its faint glow with the unaided eye during extremely clear and dark skies. Still, stellar objects dimmer than magnitude 5 — lower numbers into the negatives being brighter — typically reside beyond the realm of our sight.

A huge interstellar dust cloud obscures much of the light from M64, hence its nickname, the Black Eye galaxy. Armed with binoculars, you should be able to discern its irregular oval shape.

Lurking beneath the tail of Hydra, the spiral galaxy M83 is the southernmost in Messier’s catalog. Although the third galaxy to be discovered, Messier wrote that “one is only able with the greatest concentration to see it at all.”

Even harder to see, despite its prominent location above the handle of the Big Dipper, is M101, the first spiral discovered but also one of the last galaxies cataloged by Messier. In binoculars and smaller telescopes, only the galaxy’s center is visible, while you begin to see its spiral arms in four-inch-diameter and greater telescopes.

While not a galaxy, the Pleiades star cluster appears flanked by the new crescent moon a few degrees above and Mercury, magnitude –1, a few degrees below in Sunday’s twilight.

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