February 18, 2012 Viewing Session – Galaxies

I went on a bit of a galaxy hunt. I felt the need to take advantage of the crystal clear skies and the fact that there was no moon visible in the sky. I didn’t get out until around 10pm at which point I checked the astronomical seeing by magnifying Mars. I had no luck and couldn’t even make out a polar cap. At that point I decided it was going to be a night of deep sky observing. Without having a motor to track with I decided it would be a good night for sketching. It wasn’t unbearably cold out tonight, around 26°F, quite a treat after last weekends real feel in the negatives. My favorite thing about sketching is that it is exactly what I’m seeing through the telescope, no long exposure to get more detail out of it.

My first target of the night was a Messier object in the constellation Canes Venatici which in my location is only two stars visible; Alpha and Beta Canes Venatici. The object I located was the Whirlpool Galaxy, M51a&b. These two spiral galaxies are in the middle of a collision 23 million light years away, and M51 has a diameter of 38,000 light-years. The cores of both the galaxies are noticeable through the telescope, and you can just make out the connection between the two. Although I am unable to make out any spiral features from my light polluted skies this was still a great object to view.

M51a&b sketch with quick notes. Click to enlarge.

Even though there are quite a few other galaxies to view within Canes Venatici I moved on to another constellation after the galaxy M63 gave me a hard time – more like I couldn’t find it. So I moved on to a completely different area of the sky.

Ever since I got my first scope I have wanted to see the Leo Triplet in the constellation of, well I’m sure you can guess, Leo. I have not been able to see these until tonight. The Leo Triplet, also known as the M66 group, contains the three Galaxies; M65, M66, and NGC 3628 which are aroung 35 million light-years away. These three galaxies are below the 3.3 magnitude star Theta Leonis, and also happen to be above the planet Mars, so there are some easy ways to find this grouping. M65 and M66 are both intermediate spiral galaxies, while NGC 3628 is an unbarred spiral galaxy, which is almost directly edge on with our view. Having the three of these in my view immediately made me think of a smiley face with the two Messier galaxies as the eyes and NGC 3628 as the mouth.

The Leo Triplet from left to right: M65, M66, NGC 3628. Click to enlarge
As I got done with sketching this I looked up to see where I could point to do another sketch, I was on a roll. When I looked up I noticed that the majority of the sky was covered in clouds. Unfortunately I had to end my night there. I wanted to keep going, especially since the galaxy cluster between Leo and Virgo were just coming out from behind a tree. I’m sure I’ll get another chance.