A Good Adieu to Galaxy Season

I was fortunate to spend a few nights under wonderfully dark skies at Manning Park last week. The first night was a bit of a disaster with trying out some new astrophotography equipment, so I switched to visual observing on the second night with the goal of observing some Messier Galaxies, M59, M60 and M89, that I had not yet checked off my Messier observing list.

I was joined by Hayley Miller, RASC’s event coordinator, and we started setting up near the boat launch at Lightning Lake around 8:30 pm. It is a gorgeous site with the lake in the foreground and mountains in the background.

Image of Lightning Lake observing site.
Observing Site – Lightning Lake at Manning Park

We had the area largely to ourselves with just one car in the parking lot and the silence was only disturbed by a few ducks and geese out on the lake. To the west, a beautiful sliver of the 4-day old Moon was heading down towards the mountains.

We watched the brighter stars (Capella, Vega, Arcturus, Spica, Castor and Pollux) and constellations (Cygnus Lyra, Bootes, Virgo, Gemini, Ursa Minor and Ursa Major) pop in to view until around 10:30pm when the skies had turned truly dark – the skies at Manning Park are Bortle class 2 and I measured the sky quality as 21.6 with a unihedron sqm-l.

I then turned my Edge HD 8 scope towards my target galaxies in the Virgo cluster. The north-east part of the constellation Virgo is littered with galaxies.

Virgo galaxy cluster
The Virgo Cluster of Galaxies. Image credit: Rogelio Bernal Andreo, APOD Aug 4th, 2015.

Early March to Mid-April is known as Galaxy Season because of the sheer number of galaxies in the Virgo cluster and the close-by constellations of Coma Berenices, Canes Venatici, and Leo. The image below is a visual explanation for why this time of year is known as Galaxy Season.

Imaging-worthy galaxy locations by optimal viewing date. Image credit: Charlie Bracken

Each red dot is an imaging-worthy galaxy. The Y-axis shows the galaxy’s declination and the X-axis shows the best time of year to observe the galaxy – that is, the time of year when it crosses the meridian at midnight.

I spent the next two hours galaxy hopping through the Virgo Cluster, Coma
Berenices and a little way into Leo. My scope was mounted on a Stellarvue M2 alt-az mount which was easily pushed from one target to the next. My original targets, M59, M60, and M89 were easy to find but I also spent time on M88, M90, M100, M85, the Coma Pinwheel Galaxy, the Siamese Twins, NGC 4503, M87 (with its black hole), Markarian’s Chain, and others. Anything down to magnitude 11 was easy and I’m sure better eyes than mine would easily have gone much deeper.

The night was a wonderful way to say adieu to Galaxy Season for this year. The waxing Moon will interfere with observing faint galaxies until the next new Moon on June 3rd and by then there is only about one hour of true darkness between the end of Astronomical Twilight at 12:35 am and the start of Twilight on the “next day” at 1:45 am. So goodbye to galaxy season but I expect to say hello to some summer Globular Clusters, double stars, and to spend more time on solar observing.