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An ocean of galaxies

Map 10: Equatorial Region 1
Pisces to Eridanus
m77_noao_250
Spiral galaxy M77 is located in the constellation Cetus.
NOAO/AURA/NSF

Two large but faint constellations dominate this equatorial star chart — Cetus the Whale and Pisces the Fish. Lots of galaxies populate this region, which lies far from the Milky Way. Charles Messier pinpointed only one object in each of these giant constellations, but a patient observer equipped with an 8-inch or larger telescope under a dark sky will see much more than two bright galaxies.

We'll start with an object that's not a galaxy — planetary nebula NGC 246. To find it, make an equal-sided triangle with Phi1 and Phi2 Ceti. You'll see the nebula in small telescopes, but this magnitude 10.9 object's details start to emerge only through 6-inch or larger instruments. Double the aperture to 12 inches, and you'll see the planetary's bright northeast rim and five superimposed stars. Add a nebula filter, and NGC 246's irregular inner structure will jump out at you.

Follow NGC 246 with — what else? — NGC 247 (9° south, on Map 16). The given brightness of this galaxy, magnitude 8.8, is deceptive. Because NGC 247 measures 20' by 7', its light is spread over a larger area than most galaxies'. Its low surface brightness makes it a target for larger scopes, although you can glimpse it through a 3-inch under a dark sky.

With a 12-inch or larger telescope at a dark site, you can spot IC 1613, which lies about 1° north-northeast of 26 Ceti. IC 1613 is another low-surface-brightness galaxy, but it's worth finding because it belongs to the Local Group. Use a wide-field eyepiece under a dark sky to scan for this magnitude 9.2 irregular galaxy. Look for a fairly large (20' across) brightening of the sky background.

The showpiece object in Cetus is its sole Messier object: M77. This magnitude 8.9 spiral galaxy lies less than 1° east-southeast of Delta Ceti. Through a 4-inch telescope, the core of M77 appears starlike with a wispy halo. Because the halo is denser to the northwest, the galaxy has a vague comet-like appearance. An 8-inch or larger scope reveals structure in the central 2' of this 8' by 7' galaxy, but you'll need at least 12 inches of aperture to resolve the closely wound spiral arms. A magnitude 10 star glows 1.5' to the east-southeast.

Almost exactly 0.5° north-northwest of M77 lies the equally beautiful edge-on spiral NGC 1055. You'll see both galaxies in any eyepiece that shows you the entire Full Moon, and they're quite a sight through a large telescope. Through a 6-inch scope, you'll see NGC 1055 as a 4' by 1' spindle aligned east-west. Increase your aperture to 10 inches, and you'll notice the dust lane that cuts this galaxy in two lengthwise. The dark lane's northern edge is easiest to spot.

Hop north to Aries, and a bit more than 1° east of Gamma Arietis (a great double star) to find spiral galaxy NGC 772. This magnitude 10.3 object is more than 50-percent longer than it is wide (7.3' by 4.6'). NGC 772 also is classified as a peculiar galaxy, mainly due to its gravitational interaction with NGC 770. You easily can see the nucleus of NGC 770 just off the southern edge of NGC 772's halo.

Aries also is home to a small galaxy group. The brightest member is NGC 877, a magnitude 11.9 barred spiral. Use at least a 12-inch telescope to see it and its fainter companions: NGC 876 lies to the southwest, and NGC 871, the brightest of several dim galaxies, is east of NGC 877.

In Eridanus the River, NGC 1300 deserves your attention. This barred spiral galaxy lies 2° north of Tau4 Eridani and glows at magnitude 10.4. The galaxy's nucleus stands out nicely. Next, in order of visual prominence, are the two nodules at the ends of the bar. Most difficult to see are NGC 1300's spiral arms, which wind tightly around the inner parts.

Look a bit more than 1.5° southwest of Pi Eridani for peculiar galaxy NGC 1421. Barely visible through a 6-inch telescope, NGC 1421 shows lots of detail through a 10-inch or larger scope. It appears spindle-like (3' by 0.5') with its long axis aligned north-south. Crank up the power, and you'll see irregular structure in the form of several knotty regions. The core, which stretches 1', appears brighter on its northern end.

Moving to Pisces, look slightly more than 2° southwest of Mu Piscium for spiral galaxy NGC 488. The outer regions of this magnitude 10.3 object are difficult to see, but the central 1' is bright and gets brighter toward the core. NGC 488 measures 5.4' by 3.9'.

Spiral galaxy NGC 676 shines at 10th magnitude, or maybe 11th. The uncertainty comes from a magnitude 9.5 star positioned in front of the galaxy's nucleus. The star is bright enough that you'll have trouble seeing the galaxy through a 6-inch telescope. Through a 12-inch, however, you'll see NGC 676 as lens-shaped, measuring 3' by 1' and aligned roughly north-south. Look for NGC 676 roughly 2° east-northeast of Nu Piscium.

The great face-on spiral galaxy M74 is Pisces' highlight object. Find it 1.3° east-northeast of Eta Piscium. M74 extends 10' in diameter, so its magnitude 8.5 brightness is spread out. Even a 2.4-inch telescope shows half the galaxy's extent, but a large scope (12 inches and above) reveals both stellar associations and gas clouds. The core is broad — 2.5' across — and condensed. Adding to M74's appearance, six stars lie in our line of sight to this galaxy, two of them superimposed on its nucleus.

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