See The Finest Sights Before You Die With “Wonders of the Night Sky”

Framed by stars reflected by water, a kayaker leans back to take in the grandeur of the night sky. The photo appears in my new book in the chapter titled “Stars on Water.” Credit: Bob King

After months parked in front of a computer, I’m thrilled to announce the publication of my new book. The full title is — get ready for this — Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die: The Guide to Extraordinary Curiosities of Our Universe. In a nutshell, it’s a bucket list of cosmic things I think everyone should see sometime in their life. 

I couldn’t live without the sky. The concerns of Earth absorb so much of our lives that the sky provides an essential relief valve. It’s a cosmos-sized wilderness that invites both deep exploration and reflection. Galileo would kill to come back for one more clear night if he could.

Cover of Wonders of the Night Sky. 57 different sights are featured.

To me, the stars are irresistible, but my sense is that many people don’t look up as much as they’d like. We forget. Get busy. Bad weather intervenes. So I thought hard about the essential “must-sees” for any watcher of the skies. Some are obvious, like a total solar eclipse or Saturn through a telescope, but others are just as interesting — if sometimes off the beaten path.

For instance, we always hear about asteroids in the news. What does a real one look like from your own backyard? I give directions and a map for seeing the brightest of them, Vesta. And if you’ve ever looked up at the Big Dipper and wondered how to find the rest of the Great Bear, I’ll get you there. I love red stars, so you’re going to find out where the reddest one resides and how to see it yourself. There’s also a lunar Top 10 for small telescope users and chapters on the awesome Cygnus Star Cloud and how to see a supernova.

You can see most of the sky wonders described in the book from the northern hemisphere, but I included several essential southern sights like the Southern Cross.

The 57 different sights are a mix of naked-eye objects plus ones you’ll need an ordinary pair of binoculars or small telescope to see. At the end of each chapter, I provide directions on how and when to find each wonder. Because we live in an online world with so many wonderful tools available for skywatchers, I make extensive use of mobile phone apps that allow anyone to stay in touch with nearly every aspect of the night sky.

For the things that need a telescope, the resources section has suggestions and websites where you can purchase a nice but inexpensive instrument. Of course, you may not want to buy a telescope. That’s OK. I’m certain you’ll still enjoy reading about each of these amazing sights to learn more about what’s been up there all your life.

Northern spectacles like the Perseus Double Cluster can’t be missed.

While most of the nighttime sights are visible from your home or a suitable dark sky site, you’ll have to travel to see others. Who doesn’t like to get out of the house once in a while? If you travel north or south, new places mean new stars and constellations. I included chapters on choice southern treats like Alpha Centauri, the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds, the closest and brightest galaxies to our own Milky Way.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the epilogue, where I share a lesson my dog taught me about the present moment and cosmic time. I like to joke that if nothing else, the ending’s worth the price of the book.

The author with his 10-inch Dobsonian reflector. Credit: Linda Hanson

The staff at Page Street Publishing did a wonderful job with the layout and design, so “Wonders” is beautiful to look at. Everyone who’s flipped through it likes the feel, and several people have even commented on how good it smells!  And for those who understandably complained that the typeface in my first book, Night Sky with the Naked Eye, made it difficult to read, I’ve got good news for you. The new book’s type is bigger and easy on the eyes.

“Wonders” is 224 pages long, printed in full color and the same size as my previous book. Unlike the few but longer chapters of the first book, the new one has many shorter chapters, and you can dip in anywhere. I think you’ll love it.

The publication date is April 24, but you can pre-order it right now at Amazon, BN and Indiebound. I want to thank Fraser Cain here at Universe Today for letting me tell you a little about my book, and I look forward to the opportunity to share my night-sky favorites with all of you.

Messier 66 – the NGC 3627 Intermediate Spiral Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the intermediate spiral galaxy known as Messier 66.

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects he initially mistook for comets. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, hoping to prevent other astronomers from making the same mistake. This list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to become one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.

One of these objects is the intermediate elliptical galaxy known as Messier 66 (NGC 3627). Located about 36 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the Leo constellation, this galaxy measures 95,000 light-years in diameter. It is also the brightest and largest member of the Leo Triplet of galaxies and is well-known for its bright star clusters, dust lanes, and associated supernovae.


Enjoying life some 35 million light years from the Milky Way, the group known as the “Leo Trio” is home to bright galaxy Messier 66 – the easternmost of the two M objects. In the telescope or binoculars, you’ll find this barred spiral galaxy far more visible and much easier to see details within its knotted arms and bulging core.

Hubble image of the intermediate spiral galaxy Messier 66. Credits: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration/Davide De Martin/Robert Gendler

Because of interaction with its neighboring galaxies, M66 shows signs of a extremely high central mass concentration as well as a resolved noncorotating clump of H I material apparently removed from one of the spiral arms. Even one of its spiral arms got it noted in Halton Arp’s collection of Peculiar Galaxies! So exactly what did it collide with?As   Xiaolei Zhang (et al) indicated in a 1993 study:

“The combined CO and H I data provide new information, both on the history of the past encounter of NGC 3627 with its companion galaxy NGC 3628 and on the subsequent dynamical evolution of NGC 3627 as a result of this tidal interaction. In particular, the morphological and kinematic information indicates that the gravitational torque experienced by NGC 3627 during the close encounter triggered a sequence of dynamical processes, including the formation of prominent spiral structures, the central concentration of both the stellar and gas mass, the formation of two widely separated and outwardly located inner Lindblad resonances, and the formation of a gaseous bar inside the inner resonance. These processes in coordination allow the continuous and efficient radial mass accretion across the entire galactic disk. The observational result in the current work provides a detailed picture of a nearby interacting galaxy which is very likely in the process of evolving into a nuclear active galaxy. It also suggests one of the possible mechanisms for the formation of successive instabilities in postinteraction galaxies, which could very efficiently channel the interstellar medium into the center of the galaxy to fuel nuclear starburst and Seyfert activities.”

Ah, yes! Star forming regions… And what better way to look deeper than through the eyes of the Spitzer Space Telescope? As R. Kennicutt (University of Arizona) and the SINGS Team observed:

“M66’s blue core and bar-like structure illustrates a concentration of older stars. While the bar seems devoid of star formation, the bar ends are bright red and actively forming stars. A barred spiral offers an exquisite laboratory for star formation because it contains many different environments with varying levels of star-formation activity, e.g., nucleus, rings, bar, the bar ends and spiral arms. The SINGS image is a four-channel false-color composite, where blue indicates emission at 3.6 microns, green corresponds to 4.5 microns, and red to 5.8 and 8.0 microns. The contribution from starlight (measured at 3.6 microns) in this picture has been subtracted from the 5.8 and 8 micron images to enhance the visibility of the dust features.”

Colour composite image of the spiral galaxy M66 (or NGC 3627) obtained with the FORS1 and FORS2 multi-mode instruments (at VLT MELIPAL and YEPUN, respectively). Credit: ESO

Messier 66 has also been deeply studied for evidence of forming super star clusters, too. As David Meier indicated:

“Super star clusters are thought to be precursors of globular clusters and are some of the most extreme star formation regions in the universe. They tend to occur in actively starbursting galaxies or near the cores of less active galaxies. Radio super star clusters cannot be seen in optical light because of extreme extinction, but they shine brightly in infrared and radio observations. We can be certain that there are many massive O stars in these regions because massive stars are required to provide the UV radiation that ionizes the gas and creates a thermally bright HII regions. Not many natal SSCs are currently known, so detection is an important science goal in its own right. In particular, very few SSCs are known in galactic disks. We need more detections to be able to make statistical statements about SSCs and fill in the mass range of forming star clusters. With more detections, we will be able to investigate the effects of other environments (e.g. bars, bubbles, and galactic interaction) on SSCs, which could potentially be followed up in the far future with the Square Kilometer Array to discover their effects on individual forming massive stars.”

But there’s still more. Try magnetic properties in M66’s spiral patterns. As M. Soida (et al) indicated in their 2001 study:

“By observing the interacting galaxy NGC 3627 in radio polarization we try to answer the question; to which degree does the magnetic field follow the galactic gas flow. We obtained total power and polarized intensity maps at 8.46 GHz and 4.85 GHz using the VLA in its compact D-configuration. In order to overcome the zero-spacing problems, the interferometric data were combined with single-dish measurements obtained with the Effelsberg 100-m radio telescope. The observed magnetic field structure in NGC 3627 suggests that two field components are superposed. One component smoothly fills the interarm space and shows up also in the outermost disk regions, the other component follows a symmetric S-shaped structure. In the western disk the latter component is well aligned with an optical dust lane, following a bend which is possibly caused by external interactions. However, in the SE disk the magnetic field crosses a heavy dust lane segment, apparently being insensitive to strong density-wave effects. We suggest that the magnetic field is decoupled from the gas by high turbulent diffusion, in agreement with the large Hi line width in this region. We discuss in detail the possible influence of compression effects and non-axisymmetric gas flows on the general magnetic field asymmetries in NGC 3627. On the basis of the Faraday rotation distribution we also suggest the existence of a large ionized halo around this galaxy.”

History of Observation:

Both M65 and M66 were discovered on the same night – March 1, 1780 – by Charles Messier, who described M66 as, “Nebula discovered in Leo; its light is very faint and it is very close to the preceding: They both appear in the same field in the refractor. The comet of 1773 and 1774 has passed between these two nebulae on November 1 to 2, 1773. M. Messier didn’t see them at that time, no doubt, because of the light of the comet.”

Both galaxies would be observed and cataloged by the Herschel family and further expounded upon by Admiral Smyth:

“A large elongated nebula, with a bright nucleus, on the Lion’s haunch, trending np [north preceding, NW] and sf [south following, SE]; this beautiful specimen of perspective lies just 3deg south-east of Theta Leonis. It is preceded at about 73s by another of a similar shape, which is Messier’s No. 65, and both are in the field at the same time, under a moderate power, together with several stars. They were pointed out by Mechain to Messier in 1780, and they appeared faint and hazy to him. The above is their appearance in my instrument.

“These inconceivably vast creations are followed, exactly on the same parallel, ar Delta AR=174s, by another elliptical nebula of even a more stupendous character as to apparent dimensions. It was discovered by H. [John Herschel], in sweeping, and is No. 875 in his Catalogue of 1830 [actually, probably an erroneous position for re-observed M66]. The two preceding of these singular objects were examined by Sir William Herschel, and his son [JH] also; and the latter says, “The general form of elongated nebulae is elliptic, and their condensation towards the centre is almost invariably such as would arise from the superposition of luminous elliptic strata, increasing in density towards the centre. In many cases the increase of density is obviously attended with a diminution of ellipticity, or a nearer approach to the globular form in the central than in the exterior strata.” He then supposes the general constitution of those nebulae to be that of oblate spheroidal masses of every degree of flatness from the sphere to the disk, and of every variety in respect of the law of their density, and ellipticity towards the centre. This must appear startling and paradoxical to those who imagine that the forms of these systems are maintained by forces identical with those which determine the form of a fluid mass in rotation; because, if the nebulae be only clusters of discrete stars, as in the greater number of cases there is every reason to believe them to be, no pressure can propagate through them. Consequently, since no general rotation of such a system as one mass can be supposed, Sir John suggests a scheme which he shows is not, under certain conditions, inconsistent with the law of gravitation. “It must rather be conceived,” he tells us, ” as a quiescent form, comprising within its limits an indefinite magnitude of individual constituents, which, for aught we can tell, may be moving one among the other, each animated by its own inherent projectile force, and deflected into an orbit more or less complicated, by the influence of that law of internal gravitation which may result from the compounded attractions of all its parts.”

Messier 66 location. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Locating Messier 66:

Even though you might think by its apparent visual magnitude that M66 wouldn’t be visible in small binoculars, you’d be wrong. Surprisingly enough, thanks to its large size and high surface brightness, this particular galaxy is very easy to spot directly between Iota and Theta Leonis. In even 5X30 binoculars under good conditions you’ll easy see both it and M65 as two distinct gray ovals.

A small telescope will begin to bring out structure in both of these bright and wonderful galaxies, but to get a hint at the “Trio” you’ll need at least 6″ in aperture and a good dark night. If you don’t spot them right away in binoculars, don’t be disappointed – this means you probably don’t have good sky conditions and try again on a more transparent night. The pair is well suited to modestly moonlit nights with larger telescopes.

May you equally be attracted to this galactic pair!

And here are the quick facts on M66 to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 66
Alternative Designations: M66, NGC 3627, (a member of the) Leo Trio, Leo Triplet
Object Type: Type Sb Spiral Galaxy
Constellation: Leo
Right Ascension: 11 : 20.2 (h:m)
Declination: +12 : 59 (deg:m)
Distance: 35000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.9 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 8×2.5 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier ObjectsM1 – The Crab Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.


Messier 64 – The Black Eye Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at that “evil” customer known as Messier 64 – aka. the “Black Eye Galaxy”!

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects he initially mistook for comets. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, hoping to prevent other astronomers from making the same mistake. This list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to become one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.

One of these objects is known as Messier 64, which is also known as the “Black Eye” or “Evil Eye Galaxy”. Located in the Coma Berenices constellation, roughly 24 million light-years from Earth, this spiral galaxy is famous for the dark band of absorbing dust that lies in front of the galaxy’s bright nucleus (relative to Earth). Messier 64 is well known among amateur astronomers because it is discernible with small telescopes.


Residing about 19 million light years from our home galaxy, the “Sleeping Beauty” extends across space covering an area nearly 40,000 light years across, spinning around at a speed of 300 kilometers per second. Toward its core is a counter-rotating disc approximate 4,000 light years wide and the friction between these two may very well be the contributing factor to the huge amounts of starburst activity and distinctive dark dust lane.

Infrared image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, which penetrated the dust clouds swirling around the centers of the M64 galaxy. Credits: Torsten Boeker, Space Telescope Science Institute and NASA/ESA

Stars themselves appear to be forming in two waves, first evolving outside following the density gradient where abundant interstellar matter was waiting, and then evolving slowly. As the material from the mature stars began beig pushed back by their stellar winds, supernovae, and planetary nebulae, increased amounts of interstellar matter once again compressed, beginning the process of star formation again. This “second wave” may very well be represented by the dark, obscuring dust lane we see.

But, M64 isn’t without it share of turmoil. Its dual rotation may have started as a collision when two galaxies merged some billion years ago – or so theory would suggest. But did it? As Robert Braun and Rene Walterbos explained in their 1995 study:

“This galaxy is known to contain two nested, counter rotating, gas disks of a few 108 solar mass each, with the inner disk extending to approximately 1 kpc and the outer disk extending beyond. The stellar kinematics along the major axis, extending across the transition region between the two gas disks, show no hint of velocity reversal or increased velocity dispersion.  The stars always rotate in the same sense as the inner gas disk, and thus it is the outer disk which ‘counterrotates’. The projected circular velocities inferred from the stellar kinematics and from the H I disks agree to within approximately 10 km/s, supporting other evidence that the stellar and gaseous disks are coplanar to approximately 7 deg. This upper limit is comparable to the mass of detected counter rotating gas. This low mass of counter rotating material, combined with the low-velocity dispersion in the stellar disk, implies that NGC 4826 cannot be the product of a retrograde merger of galaxies, unless they differed by at least an order of magnitude in mass. The velocities of the ionized gas along the major axis are in agreement with that of the stars for R less than 0.75 kpc. The subsequent transition toward apparent counter rotation of the ionized gas is spatially well resolved, extending over approximately 0.6 kpc in radius. The kinematics of this region are not symmetric with respect to the galaxy center. On the southeast side there is a significant region in which vproj (H II) much less than vcirc approximately 150 km/s, but sigma (H II) approximately 65 km/s. The kinematic asymmetries cannot be explained with any stationary dynamical model, even is gas inflow or warps were invoked. The gas in this transition region shows a diffuse spatial structure, strong (N II) and (S II) emission, as well as the high-velocity dispersion. These data present us with the conundrum of explaining a galaxy in which a stellar disk, and two counter rotating H I disks, at smaller and much larger radii, appear in equilibrium and nearly coplanar, yet in which the transition region between the gas disks is not in steady state.”

So is all what it really appears to be? Are new stars being born in the darkness? As A. Majeed (et al) indicated in their 1999 study:

“The Evil Eye galaxy (NGC 4826; M64) is distinguished by an asymmetrically placed, strongly absorbing dust lane across its prominent bulge. We obtained a long-slit spectrum of NGC 4826, with the slit across the galaxy’s nucleus, covering equal parts of the obscured and the unobscured portions of the bulge. By comparing the spectral energy distributions at corresponding positions on the bulge, symmetrically placed with respect to the nucleus, we were able to study the wavelength dependent effects of absorption, scattering, and emission by the dust, as well as the presence of ongoing star formation in the dust lane. We report the detection of strong extended red emission (ERE) from the dust lane within about 15 arcsec distance from the nucleus of NGC 4826. The ERE band extends from 5400 A to 9400 A, with a peak near 8800 A. The integrated ERE intensity is about 75 % of that of the estimated scattered light from the dust lane. The ERE shifts toward longer wavelengths and diminishes in intensity as a region of star formation, located beyond 15 arcsec distance, is approached. We interpret the ERE as originating in photoluminescence by nanometer-sized clusters, illuminated by the galaxy’s radiation field, in addition to the illumination by the star-forming complex within the dust lane. When examined within the context of ERE observations in the diffuse ISM of our Galaxy and in a variety of other dusty environments such as nebulae, we conclude that the ERE photon conversion efficiency in NGC 4826 is as high as found elsewhere, but that the size of the nanoparticles in NGC 4826 is about twice as large as those thought to exist in the diffuse ISM of our Galaxy.”

Messier 64 (“Black Eye Galaxy”) imaged using amateur telescope. Credit: Jeff Johnson.

But the debate is still on. As R.A. Walterbos (et al) expressed in their 1993 study:

“The close to coplanar orientation of the gas disks is one aspect which is in good agreement with what is expected on the basis of a merger model for the counter-rotating gas. The rotation direction of the inner gas disk with respect to the stars, however, is not. In addition, the existence of a well defined exponential disk probably implies that if a merger did occur it must have been between a gas-rich dwarf and a spiral, not between two equal mass spirals. The stellar spiral arms of NGC 4826 are trailing over part of the disk and leading in the outer disk. Recent numerical calculations by Byrd et al. for NGC 4622 suggest that long lasting leading arms could be formed by a close retrograde passage of a small companion. In this scenario, the outer counter-rotating gas disk in NGC 4826 might be the tidally stripped gas from the dwarf. However, in NGC 4826 the outer arms are leading, while it appears that in NGC 4622 the inner arms are leading. A realistic N-body/hydro simulation of a dwarf-spiral encounter is clearly needed. It may also be possible that the counter-rotating outer gas disk is due to gradual infall of gas from the halo, rather than from a discrete merger event.”

History of Observation:

M64 was discovered by Edward Pigott on March 23, 1779, just 12 days before Johann Elert Bode found it independently on April 4, 1779. Roughly a year later, Charles Messier independently rediscovered it on March 1, 1780 and cataloged it as M64. Said Pigot:

“.. on the 23rd of March [1779], I discovered a nebula in the constellation of Coma Berenices, hitherto, I presume, unnoticed; at least not mentioned in M. de la Lande’s Astronomy, nor in M. Messier’s ample Catalogue of nebulous Stars [of 1771]. I have observed it in an acromatic instrument, three feet long, and deduced its mean R.A. by comparing it to the following stars Mean R.A. of the nebula for April 20, 1779, of 191d 28′ 38″. Its light being exceedingly weak, I could not see it in the two-feet telescope of our quadrant, so was obliged to determine its declination likewise by the transit instrument. The determination, however, I believe, may be depended upon to two minutes: hence, the declination north is 22d 53″1/4. The diameter of this nebula I judged to be about two minutes of a degree.”

However, Pigott’s discovery got published only when read before the Royal Society in London on January 11, 1781, while Bode’s was published during 1779 and Messier’s in late summer, 1780. Pigott’s discovery was more or less ignored and recovered only by Bryn Jones in April 2002! (May the good Mr. Pigot know that he was remembered here and his reports placed first!!)

Messier 64, the Black Eye Galaxy. Credit: Miodrag Sekulic

So how did it get the name “Black Eye Galaxy”? We have Sir William Herschel to thank for that: “A very remarkable object, much elongated, about 12′ long, 4′ or 5′ broad, contains one lucid spot like a star with a small black arch under it, so that it gives one the idea of what is called a black eye, arising from fighting.” Of course, John Herschel perpetuated it when he wrote in his own notes:

“The dark semi-elliptic vacancy (indicated by an unshaded or bright portion in the figure,) which partially surrounds the condensed and bright nucleus of this nebula, is of course unnoticed by Messier. It was however seen by my Father, and shown by him to the late Sir Charles Blagden, who likened it to the appearance of a black eye, an odd, but not inapt comparison. The nucleus is somewhat elongated, and I have a strong suspicion that it may be a close double star, or extremely condensed double nebula.”

Locating Messier 64:

Locating M64 isn’t particularly easy. Begin by identifying bright orange Arcturus and the Coma Berenices star cluster (Melotte 111) about a hand span to the general west. As you relax and let your eyes dark adapt, you will see the three stars that comprise the constellation of Coma Berenices, but if you live under light polluted skies, you may need binoculars to find its faint stars. Once you have confirmed Alpha Comae, star hop approximately 4 degrees north/northwest to 35 Comae. You will find M64 around a degree to the northeast of star 35.

While Messier 64 is binocular possible, it will require very dark skies for average binoculars and will only show as a very small, oval contrast change. However, in telescopes as small as 102mm, its distinctive markings can be seen on dark nights with good clarity. Don’t fight over it… There’s plenty of dark dustlane in this Sleeping Beauty to go around!

The location of Messier 64 in the Coma Berenices constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

And here are the quick facts on this Messier Object to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 64
Alternative Designations: M64, NGC 4826, The Black Eye Galaxy, Sleeping Beauty Galaxy, Evil Eye Galaxy
Object Type: Type Sb Spiral Galaxy
Constellation: Coma Berenices
Right Ascension: 12 : 56.7 (h:m)
Declination: +21 : 41 (deg:m)
Distance: 19000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.5 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 9.3×5.4 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier ObjectsM1 – The Crab Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.


Messier 63 – the Sunflower Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the “Sunflower Galaxy”, otherwise known as Messier 63.

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects he initially mistook for comets. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, hoping to prevent other astronomers from making the same mistake. This list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to become one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.

One of these objects is the spiral galaxy known as Messier 63 – aka. the Sunflower Galaxy. Located in the Canes Venatici constellation, this galaxy is located roughly 37 million light-years from Earth and has an active nucleus. Messier 63 is part of the M51 Group, a group of galaxies that also includes Messier 51 (the ‘Whirlpool Galaxy’), and can be easily spotted using binoculars and small telescopes.


Messier 63 is what is known as a a flocculent spiral galaxy, consisting of a central disc surrounded by many short spiral arm segments – one not connected by a central bar structure. Drifting along in space some 37,000 light years from our own galaxy, we known it interacts gravitationally with M51 (the Whirlpool Galaxy) and we also know that its outer regions are rotating so quickly that if it weren’t for dark matter – it would rip itself apart.

Infrared image of the Sunflower Galaxy (Messier 63) taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SINGS Team

As Michele D. Thornley and Lee G. Mundy, of the Maryland University Department of Astronomy, indicated in a 1997 study:

“The morphology and inematics described by VLA observations of H I emission and FCRAO and Berkeley-Illinois-Maryland Association (BIMA) Array observations of CO emission provide evidence for the presence of low-amplitude density waves in NGC 5055. The distribution of CO and H I emission suggests enhanced gas surface densities along the NIR spiral arms, and structures similar to the giant molecular associations found in the grand design spirals M51 and M100 are detected. An analysis of H I and H? velocity fields shows the kinematic signature of streaming motions similar in magnitude to those of M100 in both tracers. The lesser degree of organization along the spiral arms of NGC 5055 may be due to the lower overall gas surface density, which in the arms of NGC 5055 is a factor of 2 lower than in M100 and a factor of 6 lower than in M51; an analysis of gravitational instability shows the gas in the arms is only marginally unstable and the interarm gas is marginally stable. The limited extent of the spiral arm pattern is consistent with an isolated density wave with a relatively high pattern speed.”

There very well could be a massive object hidden within. As Sebastien Blais-Ouellette of the Universite de Montreal said in a 1998 study:

“In a global kinematical study of NGC 5055 using high resolution Fabry-Perot, intriguing spectral line profiles have been observed in the center of the galaxy. These profiles seem to indicate a rapidly rotating disk with a radius near 365 pc and tilted 50 deg with respect to the major axis of the galaxy. In the hypothesis of a massive dark object, a naive keplerian estimate gives a mass around 10^7.2 to 10^7.5 M.”

Infrared image of the M63 galaxy made by Médéric Boquien, using data retrieved on the SINGS project public archives of the Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But that’s not all they’ve found either… How about a lopsided, chemically unbalanced nucleus! As V.L. Afanasiev (et al) pointed out in their 2002 study:

“We have found a resolved chemically distinct core in NGC 5055, with the magnesium-enhanced region shifted by 2″.5 (100 pc) to the south-west from a photometric center, toward a kinematically identified circumnuclear stellar disk. Mean ages of stellar populations in the true nucleus, defined as the photometric center, and in the magnesium-enhanced substructure are coincident and equal to 3-4 Gyr being younger by several Gyr with respect to the bulge stellar population.”

Yep. It might be beautiful, but it’s warped. As G. Battaglia of the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute indicated in a 2005 study:

“NGC 5055 shows remarkable overall regularity and symmetry. A mild lopsidedness is noticeable, however, both in the distribution and kinematics of the gas. The tilted ring analysis of the velocity field led us to adopt different values for the kinematical centre and for the systemic velocity for the inner and the outer parts of the system. This has produced a remarkable result: the kinematical and geometrical asymmetries disappear, both at the same time. These results point at two different dynamical regimes: an inner region dominated by the stellar disk and an outer one, dominated by a dark matter halo offset with respect to the disk.”

Sunflower Galaxy (Messier 63). Credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

History of Observation:

Messier Object 63 was the very first discovery by Charles Messier’s friend and assistant Pierre Mechain, who turned it up on June 14, 1779. While Mechain himself did not write the notes, Messier did:

“Nebula discovered by M. Mechain in Canes Venatici. M. Messier searched for it; it is faint, it has nearly the same light as the nebula reported under no. 59: it contains no star, and the slightest illumination of the micrometer wires makes it disappear: it is close to a star of 8th magnitude, which precedes the nebula on the hour wire. M. Messier has reported its position on the Chart of the path of the Comet of 1779.”

Messier 63 would go on to be observed and resolved by Sir William Herschel and cataloged by his son John. It would be descriptively narrated by Admiral Symth and exclaimed over by many astronomers – one of the best of which was Lord Rosse: “Spiral? Darkness south flowing nucleus.” Of all the descriptions, perhaps the best belongs to Curtis, who first photographed it with the Crossley Reflector at Lick Observatory: “Has an almost stellar nucleus. The whorls are narrow, very compactly arranged, and show numerous almost stellar condensations.”

Locating Messier 63:

The beautiful Sunflower Galaxy is among one of the easiest of the Messier objects to find. It’s located almost precisely between Cor Caroli (Alpha Canes Venetici) and Eta Ursa Majoris. With the slightest of optical aid, stars 19, 20 and 23 CnV will show easily in finderscope or binoculars and M63 will be positioned right around two degrees away towards Eta UM.

The location of Messier 63 in the Canes Venatici constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

While this spiral galaxy has a nice overall brightness, it’s going to be very faint for binoculars, only showing as the tiniest contrast change in smaller models. However, even a modest telescope will easily see a faint oval shape with a concentrated nucleus. The more aperture you apply, the more details you will see. As size approaches 8″ and larger, expect to see spiral structure!

Power up… And look for the spiral in the Sunflower!

Object Name: Messier 63
Alternative Designations: M63, NGC 5055, Sunflower Galaxy
Object Type: Type Sb Spiral Galaxy
Constellation: Canes Venatici
Right Ascension: 13 : 15.8 (h:m)
Declination: +42 : 02 (deg:m)
Distance: 37000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.6 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 10×6 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier ObjectsM1 – The Crab Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.