Tony Flanders' Astronomy Site
Messier Guide: Early Spring
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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:

Obj S178S70U178U70 TypeConRADec MagPBrtSBrtSize
M81 2B2B2B3B GALUMa09:55.6+69:04 6.917.822.027x14
M82 2A2B2A3B GALUMa09:55.8+69:41 8.418.821.211x4.3
M95 3C4C4C-- GALLeo10:44.0+11:42 9.719.722.27.4x5.0
M96 2C3C3C4D GALLeo10:46.8+11:49 9.319.221.97.6x5.3
M105 3C3C3C4D GALLeo10:47.8+12:35 9.318.921.55.4x4.8
M108 3C4D4D-- GALUMa11:11.5+55:40 10.019.821.88.7x2.2
M97 3C3C5D-- PLNUMa11:14.8+55:01 9.921.121.13.3
M97f 2B2C3C4C PLNUMa11:14.8+55:01 -----------3.3
M65 2C3D3C4D GALLeo11:18.9+13:05 9.319.321.69.8x2.9
M66 2B2C2B3C GALLeo11:20.2+12:59 8.919.021.59.1x4.2
M109 3C4D4C-- GALUMa11:57.6+53:23 9.820.422.37.6x4.7
M106 2B3C3C4C GALCVn12:19.0+47:18 8.419.222.419x7.2
M40 2C3C2C4C OTHUMa12:22.3+58:05 9.1----17.50.9
M94 2C3C3C3C GALCVn12:50.9+41:07 8.217.721.811x9.1
M63 2B3B3B4C GALCVn13:15.8+42:02 8.619.322.213x7.2
M51 2A3B3B4C GALCVn13:29.9+47:12 8.419.321.711x6.9
M3 1B2B2B3C GCLCVn13:42.2+28:23 6.216.820.816
M101 3B4B5C-- GALUMa14:03.2+54:21 7.920.323.829x27

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 6' long.

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 core.

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

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 the field.

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

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

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

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 be obvious.

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

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 faint core.

M51

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 spiral galaxy.

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 arms.

M101

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.

M3

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 down precisely.