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 galaxies themselves.
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.
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 skies.
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 same direction.
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′ circular halo.
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.
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 7×35 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 bright core.
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 7×35 binoculars, using averted vision.
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