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The Lion's galaxies

Map 12: Equatorial Region 3
Cansis Minor to Virgo
ngc_3227_250
Planetary nebula NGC 4361 is located in the constellation Corvus.
Elliot Gellman and Duke Creighton/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Leo the Lion dominates this map. No fewer than five Messier objects — all bright galaxies — await you here.

Before you begin hunting galaxies, however, pull out your binoculars, and look toward Cancer the Crab at the open cluster called the Beehive (M44). Binoculars labeled 7x50 will show you the Beehive's overall structure, but 15x or higher binoculars reveal star patterns that resemble arcs or chains. For best results, mount your binoculars on a sturdy camera tripod. If you choose to observe M44 through a telescope, use low power.

Next, focus on M67 in Cancer. Through binoculars, you might mistake M67 for a magnitude 6.0 globular cluster. It is, in fact, an open cluster that large telescopes show to be 30' across — the same size as the Full Moon. Through an 8-inch scope, you'll see 50 stars, and nearly double that through a 12-inch instrument.

In Leo, light from brilliant Regulus (Alpha Leonis) hides one of the Milky Way's dwarf companion galaxies, Leo I (it doesn't have an NGC number). This object shines at magnitude 10.2 — bright for a galaxy, but more than 4,300 times fainter than Regulus. Leo I lies 20' due north of Regulus, so place the bright star out of your field of view to the south, and look for a moderate brightening of the background roughly 8' across.

While you're in Leo, scan 1.5° south of Lambda Leonis to find NGC 2903 (Map 6). This spiral galaxy often is overlooked in favor of Leo's five Messier objects. NGC 2903, however, is brighter than all but M66. A 10-inch scope shows a halo measuring 4' by 2' around a bright core.

Midway between Gamma and Delta Leonis lies Hickson 44, a group of four galaxies centered on NGC 3190 (Map 6). Hickson 44 is one of 100 compact galaxy groups in a catalog compiled in the 1980s by Canadian astronomer Paul Hickson. Magnitude 11.2 NGC 3190 is the brightest member of the group, which also includes NGC 3185, NGC 3187, and NGC 3193. You'll need at least a 10-inch telescope to see all four.

Less than 1° east of Gamma Leonis lies magnitude 10.3 NGC 3227. The galaxy is a fine target on its own, but what makes it special is its interaction with NGC 3226, a magnitude 12.3 elliptical galaxy seemingly attached to NGC 3227's northern end. NGC 3227 appears nearly round, measuring 4.1' by 3.9'.

Draw a line between Rho and Theta Leonis, then travel 4° along this line to three bright Messier objects. These galaxies — M95, M96, and M105 — and six others belong to the M96 Group. You can view M95, M96, and M105 together if you use an eyepiece that gives at least a 1.5° field of view. M95 is a spiral galaxy that shines at magnitude 9.7. M96 is also a spiral, but it's a half-magnitude brighter at 9.2. Just a tad fainter, elliptical galaxy M105 glows at magnitude 9.3.

Three more bright galaxies — the Leo Triplet — lie 2.5° southeast of Theta Leonis, midway between it and Iota Leonis. An eyepiece with a 1° field of view encompasses all three, but you'll want to crank up the power on each to examine its details.

First is spiral galaxy M65, which marks the Triplet's southwestern corner. M65 shines at magnitude 8.8 and measures 4 times as long as it is wide. Through a 10-inch or larger telescope, look for irregular structure near M65's core. This galaxy appears somewhat inclined to the line of sight. Measurements show M65 tilts 15° from being classified as edge-on.

At magnitude 9.0, spiral galaxy M66 ranks as one of the 20 brightest galaxies in the sky. M66 measures 8' by 4', and its arms wrap tightly around its core. Use at least a 12-inch telescope to pick out its arms.

NGC 3628 completes the triplet and appears much fainter than M65 or M66. At magnitude 9.5, it's really not that much dimmer than its neighbors, but its light is spread over an area measuring 14' by 4'. Look for a faint dust lane south of NGC 3628's center.

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