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Galaxy Cluster Introduction


David Levi
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I've had quite a busy week for me and so I hadn't been following the weather forecast with my normal attentiveness. It was a surprise then to discover at tea time yesterday that it was going to be partially clear in Cardiff and completely clear for most of the night in the western Brecon Beacons. The weather has been so bad once again at this time of year that it looked like I would miss out for a second year in a row on observing the Virgo Galaxy Cluster. In this hobby it seems that it really is important to grab the opportunities when they present themselves. With this thought in mind I drove for an hour and 20 mins to Pont-Ar-Wysg, not far from Usk reservoir, for a session of galaxy hunting.

I arrived just after sunset and after setting up had an unsatisfactory look at Venus. I think that tube currents were distorting the view. It wasn't properly dark yet and after less than half an hour condensation started to appear on the outside of the telescope tube and so I decided to put the covers back on the telescope and wait in the car until the sky had fully darkened.

During this time I tried to memorize as much as possible the layout of the Virgo Galaxy cluster west of the star Vindemiatrix. When I could wait no more, Virgo was still quite low in the sky and so I started the galaxy quest in the constellation of Leo. I have observed the Leo Triplet on several occasions and after centering the star Chertan in my finderscope I moved slowly south until I found the now familiar star field pattern around 73 Leo. The moonless sky gave superb clear views of M65, M66 and NGC 3628. These bright galaxies are a real treat and they fitted nicely into the same field of view at 58x magnification. I love the contrast that the elongated NGC 3628 gives against the other two galaxies.

From the hind leg of the lion I decided to move to the belly of the beast. I have seen M105, M95 and M96 before but I have usually struggled to locate them and hop between them. Practice makes perfect as they say and it is getting easier. Starting at ρ Leo, I hopped across to 53 Leo and from there moved slowly northwards until I found M96. M95 was easily located west of it and further north I hit the closely spaced M105 and NGC 3384. There was also a slight suggestion of NGC 3389 using averted vision.

I had been itching to get to the constellation of Virgo and now was the time. Naked eye, I could see the U shape of the constellation made by ο Vir, η Vir (Zaniah), γ Vir (Porrima), δ Vir (Minelauva) and ε Vir (Vindemiatrix). This mental exercise confirmed that I was aiming the telescope correctly at my selected starting point of Vindemiatrix. I took a while to recognize the star patterns in the finderscope compared with Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas. It didn't help that dew was already misting the finderscope lenses slightly. I used my 12V hairdryer and power supply to clear this off. I knew that dew would be a problem. It normally affects my secondary mirror after about an hour and a half. It's very annoying as from then on you then spend as much time trying to clear the condensation as you do observing. To prevent this happening as quick, I made a dew shield from a camping mat that I already had in the house in half an hour before leaving to observe. I had planned to do this and had read the threads on the forum on this topic (thank you to the generous people freely and gladly giving their knowledge) and so it didn't take long to fashion the dew shield in the short time between deciding to go out and actually going out.

From Vindemiatrix I eventually recognized the L shape of HIP 63081, 41 Vir and 34 Vir. This invented geometric pattern points to the galaxy M60 and M59 also comes into view. The observing session turned into an orientation session. Not having viewed these galaxies before and seeing on the maps how many of them there are in this region of the sky I wanted to get my head around how to locate them. The whole session was carried out with the TeleVue Delos 17.3mm eyepiece giving 58x magnification.

M60 and M59 point to M58 twice the distance away to the west. In my head M58 forms part of a 3 legged propeller. Northwest from M58, M89 forms the centre of the propeller with M90 to the north and M87 to the southwest. I sometimes got lost while galaxy hopping and went back to the start at the star Vindemiatrix as I gradually built up a mental picture of the galaxy locations. I was eventually able to move between them knowing where they were and what I was looking at. From M87 to the west I came across M84, the bottom end of Markarian's Chain. I then moved up through the chain observing M86, NGC 4438, NGC 4435, NGC 4473, NGC4477 before jumping slightly to M88 and across eastwards to M91.

West of Markarian's Chain is a recognizable line of stars where you can find the galaxies M98, M99 and M100. M85 is just to the north of these. During the session I could see many other smaller galaxies in the eyepiece but I limited myself to observing the Messier objects and the brighter of the NGC galaxies for now.

Despite two pairs of gloves and a mild 2°C (very cold for me but no doubt summer like for our North American and continental European friends), my fingers were beginning to suffer lack of circulation. The new dew shield had done it's job brilliantly although there was a slight suggestion of haze around the brighter stars. So after 3 hours and the air starting to get foggy, I decided to wind up the session with a visit to Coma Berenices where I saw M64 the Black-Eye Galaxy and the bright globular cluster M53. I didn't up the magnification to see if I could see any dark lanes in the galaxy. I tried and failed to see NGC 5053 not far from M53. This is the second time that I have tried to observe this globular cluster. The first time was from my back garden last year and now I realise that I stood no chance from that location given my failure last night from a dark sky site. Just to end on a success I visited the globular cluster M3 in Canes Venatici.

I'm pleased that I have now finally made a start on observing the Virgo Galaxy Cluster and hope next time to get more quality time on each individual galaxy rather than the mini Messier marathon that I had last night.

Thanks for reading. Let's hope we get more clear skies soon.

 

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Very good report. I observed the Virgo cluster for the first time myself during my Messier Marathon last month. It was rather awe inspiring being able to distinguish as many as six, seven, or even more galaxies in the eyepiece at one time.

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What a great report. Exactly my thoughts but better articulated. The Hamburger is a challenging foe for my 4 inch though. I was doing similar last night (I think I'd do it every night if I could). This time I rose up from Porrima to M49 and hopped to M60 from there. It really is the most amazing part of the sky. 

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3 minutes ago, domstar said:

This time I rose up from Porrima to M49 and hopped to M60 from there. It really is the most amazing part of the sky. 

I've still got the bottom half as it were of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster including M49 still to explore. There's so many galaxies there that it can be quite daunting to get your head around a strategy of how to tackle them all or even some of them.

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Yes, that's true. I really liked the bit in your report about trying to memorise everything because that's how I try to do it too (and the bit about going back and starting again). Last night I was stuck at home on the balcony so I took the opportunity to repeatedly check stellarium. The payback was lack of darkness. 

Did you happen to see asteroid Kalliope by Vindemiatrix? Perfectly placed last night but obscured behind a wall for me (and probably too faint). Anyway, I think it was you who showed me the best method of working with these galaxies last year so thanks again- it really works.

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4 minutes ago, domstar said:

Last night I was stuck at home on the balcony so I took the opportunity to repeatedly check stellarium

I like using Stellarium when observing. I used to take my computer with me when I travelled to a dark sky site but it used to get very wet, it was just another piece of equipment to carry and it affects your night vision. The zoom function allows me to find where I am in the sky a lot quicker than the atlas.

9 minutes ago, domstar said:

Did you happen to see asteroid Kalliope by Vindemiatrix?

I missed that one. That was the lack of preparation.

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