Spring time is galaxy time; of the 38 Messier objects between
RA 9:00 and RA 15:00, 33 are galaxies. This will come
as a rude shock to novices who have been breezing through
the bright open clusters of the winter sky. Aside from M31,
the Andromeda Galaxy, all of the galaxies visible from
northern latitudes are much subtler and harder to see than
any of the winter Messier clusters. This is true even under
dark skies, and light pollution exacerbates the problem
tremendously. A novice who plunges straight into the Virgo
Cluster under urban or suburban skies is likely to see
nothing at all. You need to train your eyes and your
expectations to see galaxies properly, even with large
scopes under dark skies, and much more so with modest
scopes under bright skies.
Fortunately, the first two galaxies to be well placed in
the spring for northern observers are M81 and M82, and
these are also the two easiest galaxies to see, always
excepting M31. The next two, M95 and M96, are not so easy.
When I was a novice, attempting to survey the Messier
objects with my 70mm refractor, M95 nearly stopped me
cold. Everything had been going smoothly up until then,
but M95 remained invisible both under urban skies and
suburban skies. Only when I went to the country could
I see it, and even then, it was hard to believe that
M95 was real, and not a figment of my imagination. But
once I really came to believe in my heart of hearts that the
faint smudge that I saw was actually a galaxy, the rest of the
Messier list -- and indeed, the rest of my observing career --
followed sweetly and smoothly.
To minimize frustration for novices, I will present the early
spring galaxies not in the order that they become visible but
rather in the order that makes most sense for an inexperienced
observer, introducing M65 and M66 early on, because they form
a bridge from the relatively easy M81 and M82 to the much
harder galaxies to follow.
I am also including in this section all of the objects in
Ursa Major and Canes Venatici, even though many of those lie
between RA 12:00 and RA 15:00, which would naturally put them
in the late-spring chapter. But because of their far northern
declination, all of these objects are well placed for
northern observers quite early in the spring, or even late
in the winter. It is a good idea to observe them early if
you are attempting to observe the complete Messier list;
saving all 28 objects between RA 12:00 and RA 15:00 for
a six-week period is likely to prove overwhelming. But
if you miss some of the objects in Ursa Major and Canes
Venatici, do not despair. Again because of their far-
northern declination, many of them remain readily visible
well into the summer.
Here is the list of objects covered in this section:
For a key to this table, see
Key to the Tables.
If you exhaust the objects listed in this section, you can
move straight on to the Virgo Cluster, described in the next
section, which will certainly be well placed by then.
Of the objects from the late-winter section, only M67 and M44
are far enough north to remain visible well into the spring
for northern observers.
M81 and M82
M81 and M82 probably form the finest galaxy pair in the sky.
They just barely fit together in the 48' field of an 8" SCT
with a 32mm Plossl, but they are well framed in a one degree
field or larger. Each of the galaxies is extraordinary in
its own right. M81 is a classic spiral seen at an oblique
angle, very much like M31 but on a smaller scale. M82 is an
exotic galaxy with a highly unusual shape, and many times
brighter than any galaxy of its size has a right to be. It
is amazing good luck that our own Milky Way happens to be so
close to this showpiece.
The far southern skies, permanently invisible to observers
from latitude 30N north, contain numerous showpiece objects
with no counterpart in the northern skies: the two closest
and brightest galaxies (the Magellanic Clouds), the brightest
emission nebulae (Eta Carina), and the magnificent globular
cluster 47 Tucanae. Set against these, M81 and M82 are the
consolation showpieces of the far northern sky.
M81 is the second only to M31 in ease of visibility for northern
observers under significant light pollution. (M33 is arguably
easier under dark skies). This has to be put in persepective,
however; M31 is fully 20 times as bright as M81. M81 requires
averted vision using my 7x35 binoculars from the city, and it
is subtle although readily visible using those binoculars from
the suburbs, or using my 70mm refractor in the city. M82 is
quite a bit fainter, at the limit of visibility in my 7x35
binoculars in the city. I generally find M82 rather hard to
locate in my 70mm scope due to its thin profile, but once
found, it is easy to see. In my 178mm scope, both galaxies
are easy to see under any skies.
M81 and M82 can be quite a chore to locate under very bright
skies. Even when M82 is the primary target, it is usually
easiest to start by locating M81. The general vicinity is
easy to find by extending a line from Gammma Ursae Majoris
(Phecda) through Alpha UMa (Dubhe) and continuing on in the
same direction for the same distance. But it is hard to land
straight on top of M81 this way given the fact that Dubhe
is over ten degrees away, and yet may be the closest star
visible to the naked eye. Under decent suburban skies,
the star 24 Ursae Majoris should be visible two degree
farther along that same line, past M81, making it much
easier to pinpoint the location. 24 UMa makes a rather
striking elongated triangle together with Rho and Sigma UMa
some 3.5 degrees to the SW.
Like M31, M81 has an extraordinarily intense core, which shows
up as a slightly fuzzy star-like point in small instruments and
at low power. In my 178mm Dob at 60X or higher, the core is
prominent even under bright skies, a bright fuzzy disk perhaps
0.5' to 1' across.
The central part of M81's disk is also abnormally bright, showing
somewhat better (although on a much smaller scale) than the disk
of M31. The disk is elliptical, much brighter along the major axis
than towards the edges, and oriented roughly north-south, pointing
slightly west of M82. The brightness falls off evenly
towards the edge, so that the portion of the disk that is visible
increases continuously with larger apertures and darker skies.
The disk is invisible in my 70mm scope from the city, and shows
perhaps 5' x 3' using that scope in the suburbs, or using my 178mm
scope in the city. In the 178mm scope under suburban skies, the
major axis extends at least 10'. The spiral arms of M81, which
show beautifully in photographs, are hard to see even under dark
skies, and seem quite hopeless in the suburbs.
M82 is also strikingly elongated, showing about 6' x 2' under
urban or suburban skies, but it is more like a bar than an ellipse,
nearly as wide at the ends as at the middle. The shape is often
described as cigar-like, which seems apt. Even more unusual is
the fact that M82's light is spread more or less evenly along the
bar, instead of being concentrated towards a central core. M82
also has an extraordinarily high surface brightness, allowing
it to show well at surprisingly high magnifications, higher than
for any other galaxy I have ever viewed. I have used as much as
100X in my 70mm scope and 200X in my 178mm scope.
My 70mm scope is too small to show much detail in M82 even
under the best skies; the galaxy just appears as a long thin
line or bar, slightly irregular. In the 178mm scope, however,
careful viewing at high magnification shows that there is a
strong concentration about 1/3 of the way in from the E end
of the galaxy and another condensation, subtler and hard to see,
just W of center. Between these two bright patches, barely visible
with averted vision in the city and only slightly easier in the
suburbs, is the famous dark lane that splits M82 in half.
The view of M81 and M82 so large and so close in a single telescopic
field illustrates two important facts about galaxies. First, they
almost always come in clusters. Second, they are quite large,
comparable in size to the distance between them. The combination
of those two facts means that galaxies interact quite frequently;
in fact, it is not at all unusual for two galaxies to collide
head-on, with the larger galaxy absorbing the smaller. This is
strikingly different from stars, which are almost inconceivably
miniscule compared to the distances between them. Therefore,
stars collide only where they are most densely packed, in the
centers of galaxies and globular clusters, and rarely even there.
By contrast, astronomers believe that all of the large galaxies
in the universe, including our own, have grown to that size
by absorbing numerous smaller galaxies.
There is no consensus exactly what makes M82 so extraordinarily
bright, and what gives it its exotic shape. Whatever the precise
mechanism, it is almost certainly due to a recent close encounter
with M81, whose tidal force has sparked a burst of star formation
and other activity. This encounter has also left its mark on
M81, but much less so, because M81 is five or ten times as
massive as M82.
A third galaxy, NGC 3077, lies about as far ESE from M81 as
M82 is north. It may be faintly visible in larger telescopes
under good suburban skies. These are the central galaxies
of the M81 group, one of the three galaxy groups nearest to
our own Local Group, at a distance of about 10 million light
years. The other two nearby groups are the Sculptor Group,
centered around magnificent NGC 253, which is a little far
south to be convenient for northern observers, and the Maffei
Group, which is nearly blocked from our sight by the body of
the Milky Way.
M65 and M66
The M65/M66 pair is probably M81/M82's main competitor for
title of finest galaxy pair. The galaxies are much fainter
than M81 and M82, but they are still two of the most impressive
galaxies in the sky. Also, M65 and M66 form a much closer pair
than M81 and M82.
Actually, this is usually considered a triplet, together with
NGC 3628 some 35' to the N. But unlike M65 and M66, NGC 3628
has very low surface brightness and lacks a bright core,
making it hard to see in the presence of significant light
pollution. Under dark skies, the contrast between the
great length and subtle shading of NGC 3628 and the concentrated
brilliance of M65 and M66 makes this triplet magnificent indeed.
M65 and M66 are very easy to locate, being almost exactly in
the middle of Leo's rear thigh, between Iota and Theta Leonis.
Theta should be obvious even in the worst skies, but Iota,
at magnitude 4.0, may require some effort from the center of a
large city. Under very good suburban skies, nearby 73 Leonis
(mag 5.3) may also be directly visible.
M66 is quite a bit brighter than M65. I can just see M66 with
my 7x35 binoculars using averted vision under suburban skies,
but M65 is invisible.
In my 70mm refractor, M66 is quite obvious under suburban skies,
showing as a bright core surrounded by a vague halo. Under urban
skies, M66 is just a subtle patch of light about 3' across. M65
is just a scrap of light, barely detectable under urban skies
and still not really easy under suburban skies. Both galaxies
show best to my eyes at around 60X.
In my 178mm scope, both galaxies are readily visible under any
skies, and both show much more detail, best at magnifications
between 80X and 120X. M65 is strongly elongated,
perhaps 1' x 3' under suburban skies, with a distinct but not
prominent core. M66 has a bright core about 0.5' across in
a vague elliptical halo, perhaps 1.5' x 2.5'. I have also
occasionally seen a second patch of light SW of the core,
which is probably the start of M66's brighter spiral arm.
I have never seen NGC 3628, the third member of the triplet, under
suburban skies, and not for want of trying. Under exurban skies,
I can see it with averted vision as a very faint, thin line about
These three galaxies are all spirals, all quite different, and seen
at different aspects. M66 is nearly face-on to us, and the bold,
ragged spiral arms visible in photographs indicate some kind of
unusual activity. M65 is seen at an oblique angle, like M31 and
M81, and it has a more classical shape spiral. NGC 3628 shows
as a thin line because it is edge-on to our own galaxy. As with
many edge-on spirals, the plane of dust right along the center
is clearly visible in photographs and faintly visible to the
eye in large telescopes under dark skies.
M95, M96, and M105
M95, M96, and M105 form another fine galaxy triplet, although
they are fainter than M65 and M66, and spread out over a larger
area. Actually, this is likely to show as a quadruplet;
NGC 3384 is quite close to M105 and nearly as bright.
A fifth galaxy, NGC 3389, lies in the same field, but you
are unlikely to see it under suburban skies.
These galaxies are far from any bright star, making them quite
difficult to locate under heavy light pollution. They are framed
nicely by the stars 52 and 53 Leonis, but at mag 5.5 and 5.3
respectively, those stars are likely to be invisible in all but
the best suburban skies. In brighter skies, you will have to
star-hop from Rho Leonis (mag 3.9) 4 degrees away, or failing
that, from Regulus 9 degrees away -- a very long distance.
None of these galaxies is visible in my 7x35 binoculars under
urban or suburban skies. Of the three, M95 is definitely hardest
to see, but it is diffiicult to say whether M96 or M105 is easier;
they are very different. They are nearly equal in total brightness,
but M96's light is spread out over a fairly large area, giving it
moderately low surface brightness, while most of M105's light is
concentrated in a pointlike core, making it relatively easy to
see but fairly hard to distinguish from a star.
In my 70mm scope from the city, M96 and M105 are both fairly
difficult even with averted vision, and I have not yet gotten a
definitive sighting of M95.
In my 70mm scope from the suburbs, M96 shows as a faintish
blob, fairly easy at 60X but slightly elusive at lower powers.
M95 is moderately hard to see as a faint circle with no core.
M105 and NGC 3384 show as twin, slightly fuzzy, starlike points.
The view of all four galaxies in my 178mm scope from the city is
quite similar to the suburban view in my 70mm scope.
In my 178mm scope from the suburbs, M96 is quite obvious, but M95
requires a little more effort. Both galaxies show as bright cores
surrounded by slightly elliptical halos. M95's core is smaller and
fainter, while M96's core is more prominent, but also blends more
uniformly into the halo. The cores of M105 and NGC 3384 both show as
fuzzy stars, but M105 also shows a vague circular halo about 2' across.
All four galaxies show best at fairly high powers, around 120X.
A field of view over 1.5 degrees across is required to fit all
four galaxies, and at such low power, some or all of the galaxies
may be hard to see. The M95/M96 pair requires a 1-degree field
to be framed well, but M105 and NGC 3384 fit together easily
at high power.
M97 and M108
M97 and M108 are easy to locate but hard to see. They lie
near one of the corners of the Big Dipper, the best-known
asterism in the northern sky, but they are two of the faintest
of all the Messier obects, and both also have low surface
brightness. M97 is improved tremendously by a narrowband
nebula filter, perhaps more so than any other Messier object.
The two objects have nothing in common except faintness and
apparent proximity. M97 is a planetary nebula, the remains
of a star that has exploded recently. M108 is a spiral galaxy
containing billions of stars, at least 20,000 times more
distant than M97. It is sheer coincidence that both objects
fit together in a low-power telescopic field.
M108 is barely visible from the suburbs in my 70mm refractor,
and completely invisible from the city. In my 178mm scope,
it is barely visible with averted vision from the city, but
reasonably easy to see in the suburbs. It shows as a small,
faint elliptical halo, about 1' x 2', around a tiny starlike
Without a filter, M97 is roughly equal to M108 in visibility;
it is fairly obvious in the 178mm scope in the suburbs,
quite difficult in the 178mm scope in the city, or in the
70mm scope in the suburbs, and invisible through the 70mm
scope in the city. However, a narrowband nebula filter
changes the situation dramatically, making M97 quite
obvious except through the 70mm scope in the city, where
the filter merely changes it from invisible to difficult.
M97 shows as a fairly large (3'), fairly uniform patch of
light. The 178mm scope with the filter in the suburbs
shows hints of structure, but it does not clearly show
the famous dark spots which give this the name of the
Owl Nebula. I find that M97 shows best at 40X-80X in
the 70mm scope and at 80X-120X in the 178mm scope, both
with and without the filter.
M109 is another spiral galaxy, even easier to locate than
M108, and nearly as hard to see. It fits in a low-power
telescopic field with Gamma Ursae Majoris, the bottom
left corner of the Dipper's bowl, but it is unlikely to
be visible unless that brilliant star is placed outside
M109 is invisible in my 70mm scope from the city, and
requires averted vision in that scope from the suburbs,
and also in the 178mm scope from both sites. It is
fairly large (about 3'), slightly elliptical, and shows
hints of a central condensation in the 178mm scope from
the suburbs. There is a faint star just S of the core
right at the edge of visibility in the larger scope that
masquerades as a secondary condensation.
M40 is probably the oddest of all the Messier objects,
recognized by Messier himself to be a double star rather
than a true deep-sky object. The components are quite far
apart, split easily at 40X, but the fainter component is
slightly difficult to see in my 70mm scope, especially
from the city.
M40 is easy to find off of Delta Ursae Majoris, at the
junction of the Dipper's handle and bowl. Delta UMa is
the faintest of the Big Dipper's stars by a large margin,
but it should still be visible in all but the worst skies.
Proceed 1 degree NE to 70 UMa (mag 5.5), and from there
16' NNE to M40.
M106, for a pleasant change, is a reasonably bright and
obvious galaxy. Unfortunately, it is also quite far from
any bright star, and so rather hard to locate. The best
bet is either to hop from Chi Ursae Majoris (mag 3.7),
5.5 degrees to the W, or from Gamma UMa in the Big Dipper
7.5 degrees to the NNW.
In my 70mm scope in the city, I can see it with averted vision
at 60X, especially while moving the scope, as a vague line of
haze. Using the same scope in the suburbs, I can see it easily
with averted vision and intermittenly with direct vision, a
rather large, bright core inside a 2' x 4' halo.
In my 178mm scope, only the circular core is visible in the city,
but M106 is rather attractive and interesting when I use that scope
in the suburbs. With averted vision at 120X, the halo grows to
an ellipse over 10' long and fairly narrow, with a hint of a
secondary condensation on the NW tip.
M94 is another bright galaxy, even easier to see than M106
because it is small and highly concentrated. It is also
fairly easy to locate, being 1.5 degrees N of the line
connecting Alpha Canes Venaticorum with Beta CVn, and just
about halfway between those two stars. At mag 4.3, Beta
CVn may be hard to see in urban skies, but Alpha CVn should
M94 is readily visible in both of my scopes at both sites.
At low powers, it tends to look like a slightly fuzzy star,
but the 1' - 2' circular halo shows at 40X and higher.
M63 is a bit harder to see than M94, but it is still fairly
bright and easy. I can usually locate it by the
point-and-hope method because it forms a nearly isoceles right
triangle with Alpha and Beta CVn. There is also a prominent
4-star asterism 1 degree to the S, and at mag 4.7 and 4.9,
two of its members are likely to be visible in suburban skies.
M63 is rather hard to see in my 70mm scope from the city, but
fairly easy using that scope in the suburbs or using my 178mm
scope in the city. It is quite easy to see using the 178mm
scope in the suburbs. In all cases, it appears as an ellipse
extended E-W, about 2' x 5', with a moderately small, moderately
M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, is one of the best-known and most
frequently photographed galaxies in the sky. In 1845, at the
eyepiece of his great 72-inch reflector, Lord Rosse made a
magnificent drawing of this galaxy, showing it to be the
archetype of a newly discovered class of objects -- the
M51 is fairly easy to locate, although it is just far enough
from the anchor star so that I sometimes miss on my first try.
If you extend a line from the end of the Big Dipper's handle
at right angles almost directly towards Alpha Canes Venaticorum,
M51 lies along that line 3.5 degrees from Eta Ursae Majoris.
There is little chance of seeing M51's spiral arms in a modest
telescope under suburban skies, but even under bad conditions,
the galaxy is striking due to its twin cores, one the core of
M51 itself and the other the core of NGC 5195 about 5' to
the N. NGC 5195 is nearly as bright as M51 and more concentrated,
making it sometimes appear even more prominent. The extraordinary
brightness and irregular shape of M51's spiral arms is undoubtedly
due to the ongoing encounter between these two galaxies.
In my 70mm refractor in the city, the galaxy is barely detectable,
and I cannot resolve the twin cores. Using that scope in the
suburbs at 40X-60X, or using my 178mm scope in the city at
approximately 80X, the galaxy is fairly easy to see, and the
twin cores are obvious.
The best view is in my 178mm scope in the suburbs at 120X.
Both cores are surrounded by halos, M51's halo being much
bigger than that of NGC 5195, and the halos sometimes seem
to merge in the middle, forming an hourglass shape. A
strong, elongated secondary concentration shows on the SW
edge of M51's halo. Comparing this to the photo, it is
apparently that this is the start of one of M51's spiral
M101 is one of my favorite galaxies under dark skies, but it
is perhaps the single Messier galaxy most seriously harmed
by light pollution. M101 has high total brightness, but it
is enormous, giving it very low surface brightness, and its
core is quite faint and diffuse.
M101 forms an elegant triangle with Eta and Zeta UMa at the
end of the Big Dipper's handle, but I do not recommend locating
M101 this way under bright skies, because one can easily land
directly on top of the galaxy and still not see it. Instead,
I prefer to star-hop from Zeta Ursae Majoris (Mizar). A line
from Mizar through its companion Alcor reaches 81 UMa in 1.3
degrees, and from there one can walk down the line of 83, 84,
and 86 UMa, and thence pinpoint M101's precise location before
attempting to see it.
It took me a long time and many attempts before I could see
M101 with my 178mm scope in the city, but when I finally
succeeded, it was surprisingly unmistakeable. It shows as
a large circular patch about 4'-5' across, only barely
brighter than the background, showing intermittently with
averted vision. My best view is at about 80X, and moving
the scope definitely enhances M101's visibility. I have
not yet succeeded in seeing M101 from the city with my
70mm scope, but I have not stopped trying. It does not
seem impossible, because the basic problem is low surface
brightness and low contrast rather than low total brightness.
M33 and M110 likewise combine high total brightness with
low surface brightness, and they are only marginally harder
to see in my 70mm scope than in my 178mm scope.
M101 is still difficult under suburban skies, but it is much
easier than in the city, and shows a huge, very faint 15' halo
around the vague 5' core. The 178mm scope also shows a 2'
inner core. Different magnifications show different aspects
of this galaxy; it is worth experimenting.
I have included M3 in this section because it lies just over
the border into Canes Venatici, although it is much closer
to the central stars of Coma Berenices and forms a natural
pair with M53, which is described in the late-spring section.
But it is nice to end this collection of galaxies with an
object that is bright and bold, and shows easily even under
heavy light pollution.
M3 is very far from any bright star, and it would be quite hard
to locate if not for the fact that it catches the eye as soon
as it enters the field of view, even in a small scope under
bright skies. Given that, one possible way to find M3 is by
scanning a line connecting Arcturus (Alpha Bootis) with Alpha
Canes Venaticorum, a little closer to Arcturus than to Alpha CVn.
Failing that, one can star-hop from Beta Comae Berenices
(mag 4.3) 6.5 degrees to the W, if that star is visible.
Otherwise, it is an extremely long 12-degree hop from Arcturus.
M3 shows easily in my 70mm scope under all skies at all powers,
but it shows very little detail. At best, it is a bold, bright
4' circle gathering towards a uniform central 2' core.
M3 shows much better in my 178mm scope, although that scope is
not quite big enough to resolve it well under urban or suburban
skies. One star is consistently visible on the edge of the halo
even under urban skies, and numerous other stars peek out
occasionally as I scan the cluster with averted vision,
especially under suburban skies, but it is hard to pin them