Spring is Galaxy Season!

Spring is when the galaxies in Leo and Virgo are at their best.

I bought a 15″ scope in 2008, partly so I could see more objects through the city skyglow, but also to give me better views of things like the galaxies in the Virgo cluster.  Yet somehow, weather and events had conspired to keep me from seeing them in 2009 and 2010.  This spring, I was bound and determined to finally hunt down Markarian’s Chain, the Leo triplet, etc with my no longer quite so new scope.  Until last night, I thought I might be stymied for another season.

I had my scope out on the front lawn on the one clearish night we got in mid-March, but between the haze, the city lights and the rising just past full moon, I could just barely make out M66.  After poring over charts to make sure I was in the right area, I eventually managed to convince myself that I could see the smudge of M65 where it was supposed to be.  It felt like an accomplishment to have found them, but wasn’t very satisfying viewing.

So I was quite excited when the clear sky clock promised decent viewing for yesterday evening.  I decided to drag my scope out to Boundary Bay to take advantage of the darker skies.  The drive there was a bit daunting.  I could see two rainstorms over Vancouver Island, a giant cumulus cloud over toward Maple Ridge and a wall of high haze well up the southern sky.  I feared a repeat of my mid-March near washout, but decided I would set up anyway.  I’m glad that I did.

I set up at the south end of 72nd Street.  The last strollers on the dike startled a heron, a small raptor and a few ducks as they returned to their car and drove away.  I nervously watched the rainstorms over Vancouver Island as I set up and collimated my scope, but they didn’t seem to be coming nearer.  The haze to the south started to clear.

While waiting for full dark, I turned my scope on the crescent moon.  The edges of the sunlit craters were highlighted in sharp relief by the slanting light of the lunar dawn.  The earthshine was bright enough that I could make out Tycho, Copernicus, Aristarchus, their rays and all of the lunar maria.  It was worth setting up the scope just for that.

Next up was Orion.  I used the middle star of his belt to align my telrad, then shifted my view to the nebula.  Even though it was not yet full dark, I could see lots of detail in the dark filaments that give the nebula such a rich texture.  I took a quick peek at Sirius, but the seeing down low wasn’t good enough to let me glimpse its companion.

Finally, it was time to start my galaxy hunt.  I began by returning to M65 and M66, since my March hunt had taught me where to find them near Chertan in Leo’s hind leg.  This time it took me less than a minute to get them in the scope.  Both M65 and M66 were clearly visible, with NGC3628 also easy to spot nearby.  A quick hunt also brought me to NGC3593, a nice edge-on spiral.

I was so excited by how quickly I found these little treasures that I didn’t take time to enjoy them.  I wanted more!  The hunt slowed down as I started looking for things I hadn’t found before.  With the glow and haze of Vancouver skies, there aren’t too many naked-eye landmarks near M95, M96 and M105.  After some poking around and three or four consultations of my Collins Atlas of the Night Sky, I decided that although I love my 13mm Ethos eyepiece, it might not be the right tool for the job.  I switched to the wider field 24mm Panoptic and almost immediately stumbled on M105.  One of the nearby NGCs, 3384 or 3389, I’m not sure which, was quite obvious while the other was invisible.  That had me wondering whether I was in the right place, but once I spotted M95 and M96 there wasn’t much doubt.  From there it was a short hop up to the star 52 Leonis which makes a nice triangle with galaxies NGC3367 and 3377.  Still, I was on a hunt, so once I found them, I didn’t linger.  It was now full dark and Virgo had risen a bit higher above the murk, so I set off for the wonders of the Virgo galaxy cluster.

I seem to be a bit slow at learning the sky and I often get confused about how the charts map to what I’m looking at.  I spent about half an hour trying to find M84 and M86, which are supposed to be bright and easy to locate halfway between bright Denebola in Leo’s tail and fainter Vindemiatrix in Virgo.  There are so many galaxies nearby, it should have been almost impossible not to stumble across at least one of them as I pushed the scope back and forth.  Eventually I realized that the star which I had thought was Vindemiatrix was actually Omicron Virginis.  Oops.  I had been searching one of the few patches of sky in the area that didn’t contain any bright galaxies.

Looking at the right patch of sky brought immediate rewards.  M84 and M86 were visible as fuzzy patches almost immediately.  I could just make out the “Eyes”, NGCs 4435 and 4438 which are the next link in Markarian’s Chain of galaxies.  I spent the next hour or so making my way through the neighbourhood, spotting lots of galaxies and trying to identify them.  Truth be told, there were often big differences between what I could see through my scope and what I expected based on the charts.  Many of the dozen or so galaxies I found were probably different objects than what I was trying to find.  Still, the stars around M87 are distinctive enough that I can be confident I saw it.

I hope to go out again tonight if it’s clear.  Maybe I’ll be able to tear myself away from the galaxies long enough to look at Saturn this time.

Clear skies!