The evening sky of middle to late spring contains the heaviest
concentration of Messier objects; one fifth of them lie in a
single hour of Right Ascension, from 12:00 to 13:00. Almost
all of those are galaxies, and most of them lie in the Virgo
Cluster, the nearest large galaxy cluster to our own Local Group.
The Virgo Cluster, also called the Coma-Virgo Cluster, straddles
the boundary between Coma Berenices and Virgo, with the weight
on the Virgo side of the boundary. It contains several thousand
galaxies, as compared with two or three dozen in our own Local
Group, and occupies a huge chunk of the sky. There is an area
over one hundred square degrees where any moderate-sized
telescope, pointed at random, will show multiple galaxies
in a single field under dark skies. Outlying galaxies
extend for many hundreds of square degrees around that.
Our own Local Group is a member of the Virgo Supercluster,
a cloud of galaxy clusters orbiting loosely around the central
cluster. When we observe the Virgo Cluster, we are looking
at the most distant objects that interact with us. But
close as the Virgo Cluster is in cosmological terms, it
is more distant than most of the Messier galaxies. Only
galaxies that are inherently extremely bright can show
in small telescopes like Messier's at such a distance.
Most of those are elliptical galaxies that have grown to
enormous size by absorbing numerous other galaxies.
Unfortunately for the amateur observer, elliptical galaxies
are by definition amorphous, making them less interesting
and attractive than spiral galaxies. With a few notable
exceptions, the appeal of the Virgo Cluster lies in seeing
so many galaxies so close together rather than in the
The Virgo Cluster is notoriously difficult to navigate
due to the scarcity of stars and the profusion of galaxies;
it is probably the only area in the sky where it is common
to hop from galaxy to galaxy rather than from star to star.
But under bright urban skies, both stars and galaxies are
hard to see, and navigation can be difficult indeed.
The Virgo Cluster is framed by two stars that should be
readily visible even in the brightest skies: Denebola
(Beta Leonis) on the west and Vindemiatrix (Epsilon
Virginis) on the east, but both of those stars lie at
considerable distance from any of the Messier galaxies.
It is more convenient in practice to start at 6 Comae
Berenices on the west or Rho Virginis on the east, both
of which lie on the edge of the cluster, but at mag 5.1
and 4.9 respectively, those stars may be invisible to the
naked eye under very bright skies. In such situations,
it is essential to learn how to find 6 Com and Rho Vir
as targets in their own right, and to memorize the star
fields around them so that they are instantly recognizable.
On purely logistical grounds, it would make sense to
observe the Virgo Cluster from west to east, in the order
that the galaxies transit the meridian. However, I prefer
to approach the cluster in the opposite direction, starting
with Rho Virginis on the east. Rho Vir is the center of
an unmistakeable asterism of four bright stars tight enough
to fit easily in a low-power field in almost any telescope,
yet wide enough to split easily in a low-power finderscope.
The arms of the asterism point off in three different
directions, making it an ideal anchor for star hops.
In addition, one approaches the Virgo Cluster from the
east starting with M60 and M59, which are relatively
bright, whereas most of the galaxies near the western
edge of the cluster are quite faint.
The objects described in this section are listed below:
For a key to this table, see
Key to the Tables.
All of the objects listed in the early-spring section are
well north of the celestial equator, and many of them remain
well-placed for observation throughout the spring, and even
into the summer. Toward the end of the spring, many of the
objects listed in the early summer section are also available
for observation, and they may provide a welcome relief from
the faint galaxies described here.
All of the observations in this section are at 60X in my 70mm
scope and at 120X in my 178mm scope unless otherwise specified.
M60 and M59
M60 and M59 are easy to locate off Rho Virginis, but Rho
itself, at mag 4.9, may be hard to see under bright skies.
It should be fairly easy to land within a degree or so of
Rho by going 1/3 of the way from Episilon to Omicron
Virginis. If Omicron (mag 4.1) is hard to see, the best
idea is to star-hop from Epsilon to Rho and then memorize
how Rho is placed with respect to Epsilon and Denebola
(Beta Leonis, mag 2.1).
M60 and M59 are 23' apart, fitting easily together in a
medium-power field. They lie almost due N of Rho Vir,
and 1.5 degrees distant. M60 is one of the brightest
galaxies in the Virgo Cluster, visible even in my 70mm
scope under bright skies, and fairly striking under
darker skies, or in a larger scope. M59 is quite a
bit fainter and harder to see, roughly comparable to
M95. I have never succeeded in seeing M59 in my 70mm
scope from the city, but it is not hard under darker
M60 is both bigger and brighter than M59, but they are
otherwise quite similar. Both are elliptical galaxies,
spread out more or less evenly in three dimensions in
space instead of being concentrated into a thin disk
a spiral galaxy. Both M59 and M60 have cores that are
quite bright compared to the galaxy as a whole. M60's
core is much brighter and larger, while M59's core is
fainter but highly concentrated, almost starlike.
The faint galaxy NGC 4647 may be visible near the N edge
of M60 in larger scopes and darker skies. NGC 4638 lies
between M60 and M59 and a bit to the S; it is significantly
fainter than M59, but comparable in visibility to the faintest
Messier galaxies, like M98.
Extending the line from M60 through M59 W for 1 degree, you
reach M58, just a few arcminutes short of a (telescopically)
bright mag 8.0 star. In telescopes of modest size, M58 appears
very much like M60 and M59, although it is in fact a barred spiral
rather than an elliptical galaxy. M58 is slightly brighter
than M59; I can just make it out in the city in my 70mm scope.
It is reasonably easy in larger scopes and/or darker skies.
M58's halo is nearly identical to M59's, but its core is bigger
and brighter, more like the core of M60.
A mag 8.0 star lies just W of M58, and a mag 9.1 star 20' N
of that. If you proceed NW from M58 through a point halfway
between those stars and continue for another degree, you
reach a mag 9.0 star, with M89 13' NE of that star.
M89 has a bright core which shows easily in my 178mm scope even
under bright skies. Although the core's surface brightness is
high, it is a bit of a stretch for my 70mm scope, barely
detectable under urban skies and difficult under suburban skies.
A faint halo 1.5-2' in diameter is faintly visible with averted
vision in my 70mm scope, and fairly obvious in the 178mm scope.
There are two ways to proceed from M89: north to M90, M91,
and M88, or west to M87, M84, and M86. Let us go west first,
because M87, M84, and M86 are the heart of the Virgo Cluster.
There are various ways to approach M87 from the east. Starting
at Rho Virginis, one can proceed through the large asterism
of mag 8 stars arranged along the lines of a right angle to
the WNW of Rho Vir. Starting at M58, one can proceed through
the mag 8 star to the W and angle about 20 degrees N, continuing
for 1.7 degrees. From M89, M87 lies about 1 degree almost due W,
slightly N of the line from M89 through the nearby mag 9 star.
If arriving from the west, one will probably pass through the
asterism 45' SW of M87, which is described in the following
section on M84 and M86. It is worth memorizing this asterism,
and how to get from it to M87.
M87 itself is quite bright and prominent. It makes a distinctive
formation with the mag 8.5 star 5' to the N and the mag 8.1 star
20' to the SE, being only slightly fainter than those two stars.
In my 70mm scope from the city, it shows only with averted vision,
but is nonetheless fairly tangible, a circle about 1.5' across.
It is quite obvious in my 178mm scope under all skies, showing
as a circular halo 2-3' across brightening gradually to a large
1' core. In the 178mm scope under suburban skies or darker,
the companion galaxy NGC 4478 is visible about 9' to the WSW.
It appears similar to M87 but half the size and much fainter.
M87 is a very unusual and important galaxy. It is one of the
most massive galaxies known, and presumably reached that size
by absorbing numerous other galaxies. M78 is surrounded by a
cloud of over one thousand globular clusters which are probably
left-overs from those digested galaxies.
An ultra-massive and highly active black hole lies at M87's
center, emitting vast amounts of energy in the radio and X-ray
frequencies. The black hole shoots a jet of matter about 5,000
light years long, which is visible in good astrophotographs, and can
even be seen visually in large amateur telescopes under dark skies.
M84 and M86
A bright but somewhat formless asterism of mag 8 and mag 9 stars
lies about 45' WSW of M87. This asterism can also be located
easily off the giant right-angle asterism lying 1-2 degrees
WNW of Rho Virginis. It forms a natural jumping-off point for
M84 and M86, and also for M87 if one happens to be approaching
it from this direction.
M84 and M86 lie about 1 degree NW of the asterism, about 18'
apart from each other, so that they fit easily together in
a high-power field. There is a dearth of bright stars in the
immediate vicinity, which can make these two galaxies hard to
pinpoint in small scopes and/or bright skies. They are barely
detectable in my 70mm scope under urban skies, but are
reasonably easy to see in larger scopes and/or darker skies.
The galaxies are similar in appearance to M87 and nearly twins
of each other, both appearing about 2-3' across in suburban skies.
M86 is distinctly fainter than M87, and M84 is a tad fainter yet.
Either galaxy alone would be rather non-descript, but they form
a very striking pair.
In larger scopes under reasonably dark skies, M84 and M86
are seen to be the brightest galaxies in Markarian's Chain,
which is probably the most spectacular agglomeration of
galaxies in the sky. In my 318mm scope under dark skies,
I can make out 15 galaxies in a field about half a degree
wide and two degrees long, stretching NE towards M88.
The formation is very impressive both photographically
and visually, but few of the galaxies are likely to show
under urban or suburban skies.
M90 lies 40' ENE of M89, visible together in the same
medium-power field. It is easy to locate, lying at one
corner of an acute right triangle with a mag 8.2 star
13' to the SE and a mag 9.2 star 30' to the WSW, but
it can be quite hard to see because of its low brightness
and large size.
Under urban skies, M90 is quite invisible in my 70mm scope
and barely visible in my 178mm scope as a huge diffuse
glow about 4' across. Under suburban skies, it becomes
apparent that the galaxy is strongly elliptical, about 1.5'
by 4' pointing almost due N-S. It is still barely visible
in my 70mm scope, most obvious when panning the scope over
the field, but a moderately bright and well-defined core
becomes visible in the 178mm scope, giving some definition
to the large, vague, elliptical halo.
M91 is hard to locate and very hard to see, being one
of the faintest of all the Messier objects. Extend a
line from the mag 9.0 star 34' SSE of M90 through the
mag 8.2 star 13' SE of M90, and continue another 1.25
degrees, bearing slightly E. You reach a lone mag 8.9
star. M91 lies 28' NW of that, and 8' E of a mag 10.3 star.
M91 is hard in my 70mm refractor even under fully dark skies,
and hopeless from the city. In the suburbs, I can see it
intermittently with averted vision and controlled breathing.
Curiously, despite marginally visible, it does show some
detail, a seedlike core in a 1' halo.
In my 178mm scope, it is extremely hard under urban skies,
a vague circular patch about 2' across. Under suburban skies,
it shows best with averted vision at 80X, slightly elliptical,
with a very faint core.
M88 is 50' W of M91, so that both galaxies fit together in the
same low-to-medium power field. It is easy to navigate back
and forth between the two galaxies via the arc of three mag 9
and 10 stars just to their N.
M88 is much easier to see than M90 or M91, and it is one of the
more interesting and attractive galaxies in the Virgo Cluster.
It is intermittently visible using averted vision in my 70mm
scope under urban skies as a fairly large patch of light.
It still requires averted vision in my 178mm scope under urban
skies, but shows considerable structure, an elliptical patch
2' x 4' with a brighter circular patch about 1' at the center.
Under suburban skies, M88 can be seen with direct vision in
both scopes, again as a 2' x 4' patch of fairly uniform
brightness. The 178mm scope reveals that the unusually large
and bright central core is also slightly elongated in the
The remaining galaxies in the northern part of the Virgo
Cluster are best approached from the west, starting at the
star 6 Comae Berenices. At mag 5.1, 6 Com may be invisible
under bright skies. It is fairly easy to locate by the fact
that it forms an almost equilateral triangle with Denebola
(Beta Leonis) and Omicron Virginis, or one third of the way
from Denebola to Vindemiatrix (Epsilon Virginis) and slightly
north of the line connecting them. One can also star-hop
6.5 degrees from Denebola. 6 Comae Berenices lies at the NW
edge of a large asterism together with three mag 6 - 7 stars
to the E, with a few fainter stars sprinkled in.
M98 lies half a degree due W of 6 Com. It is low in brightness
and large in size, giving it very low surface brightness, and
making it one of the most difficult of all the Messier objects.
It is one of the two Messier objects (together with M68) that
I have never conclusively sighted under urban skies with either
of my scopes.
Under suburban skies, M98 is extremely difficult in my 70mm scope
and requires averted vision at 80X in my 178mm scope. In both
scopes, it shows as a very faint, featureless ellipse 2' x 6',
with no visible core.
M99 is easy to locate within the asterism lying E and SE of 6 Com,
10' SW of a mag 6.5 star. It is hard to see, but not as hard as
M98. Under urban skies, it is invisible in my 70mm scope and
intermittently visible with averted vision in my 178mm scope.
M99 is considerably more prominent under suburban skies, showing
fairly easily even in my 70mm scope at low power (20X). My best
view in that scope is with averted vision at 40X. In the 178mm
scope, it is fairly big, fairly bright, circular, and nearly
uniform in brightness. It shows about 2.5' across in the smaller
scope and 4' in the larger.
M100 is the brightest of the three Messier galaxies near 6 Comae
Berenices, by a fair margin. It can be located easily by
proceeding from 6 Com through the mag 6 star half a degree to
the NE, continuing 50' past another mag 6 star, and then
another 34' to M100, which lies 10' NNE of a mag 9.7 star.
Under urban skies, M100 is invisible in my 70mm scope and shows
as a vague 3' circle using averted vision in my 178mm scope,
seen most easily when I pan the scope over it.
Under suburban skies, M100 is fairly difficult in my 70mm scope,
showing best at 40X. It is rather attractive in my 178mm scope
at 80X, showing a small seedlike core with averted vision inside
a very large circular halo about 5' across fading gradually
from the center to the edge.
M85 is a bright galaxy near the northern edge of the Virgo Cluster,
well into the constellation of Coma Berenices. It is easily
located 70' ENE of the mag 4.7 star 11 Comae Berenices and 20'
NE of a mag 8.6 star. 11 Com may be visible directly, or it
can be reached by star-hopping from 6 Com or M100.
Under urban skies, M85 is intermittently visible in my 70mm scope
and fairly easy in my 178mm scope, showing as a nearly stellar
core surrounded by a 1.5' circular halo.
Under suburban skies, M85 shows quite bright and fairly large in
both scopes, best at 40X in my 70mm scope and 80X in my 178mm scope.
It has an extended core somewhat under 1' across inside a 2.5'
M49 lies well to the south of most of the Messier galaxies in the
Virgo Cluster, but still far from the southern edge of the cluster.
It is easy to reach from Rho Virginis. Extend a line between the
two mag 7 stars S of Rho 3.4 degrees SW to a mag 6 star, considerably
brighter than any star encountered along the way. M49 lies half
a degree NW of that star, 2/5 of the way to another mag 6 star.
M49 is the brightest galaxy in the Virgo Cluster, not counting
the outlying member M104. Under urban skies, it is easy with
averted vision in my 70mm scope, and I can just hold it with
direct vision. It is quite easy to see in larger scopes and
under darker skies. In all cases, it shows as a circle about
2' - 3' across, fairly uniformly bright across the disk, but
with a modest core.
M61 lies far from any other Messier galaxy, but still well
within the main body of the Virgo Cluster. If the mag 5.0
star 16 Virginis is visible to the naked eye, M61 can be
located quite easily 75' to the NNE; otherwise, it is a
long starhop from M49, or from mag 3.9 Eta Virginis 5
degrees to the S.
M61 is one of the hardest of the Messier galaxies to see
under bright skies, having both low total brightness and
low surface brightness. Under urban skies, it shows
intermittently with averted vision in my 178mm scope as
a vague circular 3' patch, most clearly visible when I
pan the scope over the area.
M61 is much easier to see in suburban skies, showing clearly with
averted vision in my 70mm scope. M61 is quite attractive in my
178mm scope, showing best at around 80X. It is a large faint
patch about 5' across, slightly elongated N-S, nearly uniform
in brightness, but with a slight concentration near the center.
M104, the Sombrero Galaxy, is probably an outlying member of the
Virgo Cluster, lying some 20 degrees south of the main concentration.
If so, it is the brightest member of the cluster, and the one that
shows best by far under bright skies, despite its southerly declination.
M104 is most easily reached from Chi Virginis (mag 4.7) 3.5 degrees
to the N, or from Delta Corvi (mag 2.9) 5.5 degrees to the SSW.
Delta Corvi is a particularly convenient starting point under
bright skies because the four main stars of Corvus form such
a distinctive pattern, and because nearby Eta Corvi (mag 4.3)
and the two mag 8 stars north of Delta and Eta form ideal
directional markers. A wonderful asterism of four mag 8
and mag 9 stars lies 23' WNW of M104, with three stars in
a perfect line pointing towards M104 and a fourth star at
right angles to those three. The two stars near the corner
are distinctly reddish.
In photographs, M104 is one of the most distinctive of all
galaxies, apparently an edge-on spiral, but with a central
bulge nearly as big as the entire disk, and with a very
striking dark lane cutting the galaxy in half. Many of those
features are visible through a medium-to-large scope under
dark skies, but they do not show under urban or suburban skies.
M104 is readily visible in both of my scopes under all skies.
It is strongly elongated E-W, perhaps 1' x 3', and quite bright,
with a small, extremely bright core.
M64, the Blackeye Galaxy, appears to be near the Virgo Cluster,
but it actually lies only about 15 million light years distant,
as opposed to some 55 million light years for the Virgo Cluster.
M64 is easy to locate under dark skies, lying as it does just
45' NE of the mag 5.0 star 35 Comae Berenices. However, this
star is likely to be invisible or very difficult to see under
urban or suburban skies. In fact, under truly poor skies,
even the three brightest stars of Coma Berenices (Alpha, Beta,
and Gamma, all roughly mag 4.3) may be invisible. In that
case, it is a character-building 11-degree starhop north
from Videmiatrix (Epsilon Virginis), or 8 degrees ENE from M85.
M64 is a face-on spiral galaxy with fairly high surface brightness,
making it relatively easy to see under bright skies. I can see it
with direct vision in my 70mm scope under urban skies; for a change,
I find that it shows better at lower powers (20X) than high. In
my 178mm scope from the city, it is quite bright and obvious, and
again shows best at fairly low powers, around 40X.
In the suburbs, it is detectable but not easy in my 7x35 binoculars.
It is quite bright and somewhat detailed in my 70mm scope, showing
at 60X as a round 1' core surrounded by a 2' x 3' halo. At lower
powers, it shows less detail, but it is nicely framed by the
surrounding field of mag 7 and mag 9 stars. In my 178mm scope,
it shows larger than in the 70mm scope, but less elongated,
perhaps 4' x 3', and the core seems smaller, around 0.5'.
This galaxy gets its popular name from the dark patch north of
the center which shows strikingly well in photographs. I have
seen this in large scopes under exuburban skies, but never
under suburban or urban skies.
M68 is a moderately faint globular cluster with fairly low
surface brightness, but it is disproportionately difficult
to see in or around cities at my latitude of 42N, where
it never rises out of the horizon-hugging haze of light
pollution, due to its southerly declination. From cities
significantly far north, it would probably be completely
out of the question, while from cities near the southern
edge of the North Temperate Zone, as in Florida, it is
probably quite easy to see.
Under all but the worst skies, M68 is easily located off the
striking constellation of Corvus. None of Corvus's stars is
particularly bright -- the four main ones range from mag 2.5
to mag 3.0, but the rhomboid pattern is quite distinctive;
it is surprising that this constellation is not better known.
If you can't see the stars of Corvus naked-eye, you probably
won't be able to see M68 through your telescope.
If you take a line down the left-hand side of Corvus, starting
at Delta Corvi, passing through Beta Cor, and continuing then
for half that distance, you reach a mag 5.4 star that should
show easily in binoculars or a finderscope. M68 lies just
35' NE of that star, in a field rich with mag 9 and mag 10 stars.
The deleterious effect of the light pollution is much stronger
in the city, where M68 is one of the two Messier objects
(together with M98) that I have never conclusively sighted
in either of my scopes.
Under suburban skies, where the haze of light pollution along
the horizon is both lower and fainter, M68 is fairly easy to
see in my 70mm scope using averted vision at 60X, showing as
a largeish circle about 3' - 4' across. Using my 178mm scope
under the same conditions, I can see M68 fairly easily with
direct vision, and it appears considerably bigger, about 5',
and slightly concentrated towards the center.
M83 is significantly south even of M68, and it is a face-on
spiral galaxy, normally the class of Messier objects with the
lowest surface brightness. Therefore, I had low hopes when
I set to find it under urban skies. What I had forgotten is
that this is an unusually bright galaxy, with an exceptionally
Navigating to M83 is a chore even under dark skies, and doubly
so under urban or suburban skies. One possibility is to
start at Gamma Hydrae (mag 3.0), which is readily located off
of Corvus. But it is nearly an 8-degree hop from there to M83.
If Pi Hydrae (mag 3.2) is visible, it may be a better starting
point both because the hop is slightly shorter and because the
mag 5.5 star 70' SW of Pi points in exactly the right direction.
One might also try to triangulate from Gamma and Pi to land
directly on the mag 5.8 star 25' NE of M83, but that is a bit
of a long shot.
The core of M83 is surprisingly easy to see in my 178mm scope
under urban skies. At 120X, it shows as a fuzzy star, possibly
surrounded by a faint 2' halo. I have vague impressions of
something there in my 70mm scope, but nothing I can swear to.
Under suburban skies, the view is similar in my 178mm scope,
except that the core is brighter and the halo more definite.
The core shows best at 120X, but the halo shows better at 60X.
In my 178mm scope, the halo is the most obvious feature,
showing quite large and very faint with averted vision at 60X.
The core is visible, but indistiguishable from a star.
After all these galaxies, ranging from faint to fainter, it is
nice to end the late-spring section with M53, a bright globular
cluster that is readily visible even under bright skies. I can
even see M53 from the city in my 7x35 binoculars, using averted
If you can see Alpha Comae Berenices (mag 4.4), then M53 is easy
to find one degree NE of that star. However, Alpha Com may be
difficult or impossible to see under poor urban skies. If so,
it is a 7-degree starhop N from Vindemiatrix (Epsilon Virginis).
M53 is readily visible in my 70mm scope at all powers under
all skies, but it shows little detail under urban skies. It
is more interesting and attractive under suburban skies, where
it shows as a small bright core inside a halo somewhat larger
than 2' across.
Like most globular clusters, M53 shows much better in my 178mm
scope than in my 70mm scope, regardless of sky conditions.
I cannot resolve individual stars and urban skies, but it
is distinctly grainy at 120X. Under suburban skies, the
bright 1' core is very striking, and the halo grows
gradually from 2.5' to 5' the longer I look. At 120X,
several stars pop out intermittently with averted vision,
but there is only one that I can pin down clearly, near
the N edge of the inner halo.