Spring and autumn are the best seasons for galaxy observing. Leo and Virgo, two spring constellations, are home to hundreds of distant star cities that can be observed with amateur telescopes. The autumn constellations, Pegasus, Aries, Pisces and Cetus, also harbor a sea of galaxies. The reason these seasons are so galaxy-rich is simple. The night side of Earth is oriented such that we are looking through the thin disk of the Milky Way. The North Galactic Pole is located in Coma Berenices amidst the spring galaxies. The South Galactic Pole resides in Sculptor just across the border from Cetus. Understanding the orientation of our planet with respect to the outlying universe explains a lot about the types of objects we are able to enjoy as the seasons change.
|Autumn Sky Tour: M77 (Cetus) RA: 02h 42.7m / DEC: -00° 00'.8|
In much the same way, understanding the true nature of a galaxy can make the observing experience more enjoyable. Most galaxies show very little structure, especially when observed with a small telescope. One such galaxy resides in Cetus, the sea monster. The head of the sea monster is a pentagonal arrangement of naked eye stars, the brightest being 2.5 magnitude Menkar. Menkar is about 220 light-years distant which means the light we see began its journey toward Earth about the same time as the American Continental Congress was drawing up the United States Constitution.
M77 shines at 9.6 magnitude and is easily detected in small apertures. It features a bright stellar core embedded within a 3' diameter inner region. These are encased within a 5'x4' outer halo. Spiral structure is difficult to detect. However, M77 is a Seyfert galaxy, an extremely powerful source of ultraviolet radiation. Seyfert galaxies are believed to have a supermassive black holes at their cores. When you look at M77, imagine a dark object having 10,000,000 times the mass of the Sun greedily devouring core matter.
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Revised: February 14, 2002 [WDF]