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.


The Canes Venatici Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we will be dealing with Canes Venatici constellation.

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of the then-known 48 constellations. His treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come. Today, this list has been expanded to include the 88 constellations recognized by the IAU.

One of these is known as Canes Venatici, a small northern constellation that is bordered by Ursa Major to the north and west, Coma Berenices to the south, and Boötes to the east. Canes Venatici belongs to the Ursa Major family of constellations, along with Boötes, Camelopardalis, Coma Berenices, Corona Borealis, Draco, Leo Minor, Lynx, Ursa Major, and Ursa Minor.

Name and Meaning:

The small northern constellation of Canes Venatici represents the hunting dogs – Chara and Asterion – of Boötes. It is also one of three constellations that represent dogs, along with Canis Major and Canis Minor. Given its comparatively recent origin, there is no real mythology associated with this asterism. However, it does have an interesting history.

Canes Venatici depicted in Hevelius's star atlas. Note that, per the conventions of the time, the image is mirrored. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Atlas Coelestis
Canes Venatici depicted in Hevelius’s star atlas. Note that, per the conventions of the time, the image is mirrored. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Atlas Coelestis

History of Observation:

During Classic Antiquity, the stars of Canes Venatici did not appear very brightly in the night sky. As such, they were listed by Ptolemy as unfigured stars below the constellation Ursa Major in the Almagest, rather than as a distinct constellation. During the Middle Ages, the identification of these stars as being the dogs of Boötes arose due to a mistranslation.

Some of the component stars in the nearby constellation of Boötes (which was known as the “herdsman”) were traditionally described as representing his cudgel. When the Almagest was translated from Greek to Arabic, the translator – the Arab astronomer Hunayn ibn Ishaq – did not know the Arabic word for cudgel.

As such, he chose the closest translation in Arabic – “al-`asa dhat al-kullab” -which literally means “the spearshaft having a hook” (possibly in reference to a shepherd’s crook). When the Arabic text was later translated into Latin, the translator mistook the Arabic word “kullab” for “kilab” – which means “dogs” – and wrote the name as hastile habens canes (“spearshaft having dogs”).

This representation of Boötes having two dogs remained popular and became official when, in 1687, Johannes Hevelius decided to designate them as a separate constellation. The northern of the two hunting dogs was named Asterion (‘little star’) while the southern dog was named Chara – from the Greek word for ‘joy’,.

Canes Venatici can be seen in the orientation they appear to the eyes in this 1825 star chart from Urania's Mirror. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Library of Congress
Canes Venatici can be seen in the orientation they appear to the eyes in this 1825 star chart from Urania’s Mirror. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Library of Congress

Notable Features:

The constellation’s brightest star is Cor Caroli, which is perhaps one of the most splendid of all colorful double stars. The name literally means “Charles’ heart”, and was named by Sir Charles Scarborough in honor of Charles I – who was executed in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The star is also associated with Charles II of England, who was restored to the throne after the interregnum following his father’s death.

Cor Caroli is a binary star with a combined apparent magnitude of 2.81 which marks the northern vertex of the Diamond of Virgo asterism. The two stars are 19.6 arc seconds apart and are easily resolved in small telescopes and steady binoculars. The system lies approximately 110 light years from Earth. It’s main star, a² Canum Venaticorum, is the prototype of a class of Spectral Type A0 variable stars (the so-called a² Canum Venaticorum stars).

These stars have a strong stellar magnetic field, which is believed to produce starspots of enormous extent. Due to these starspots, the brightness of a² Canum Venaticorum stars varies considerably during their rotation. Their brightness also varies between magnitude +2.84 and +2.98 with a period of 5.47 days.  The companion, a¹ Canum Venaticorum (a spectral type F0 star), is considerably fainter at +5.5 magnitude.

Y CVn, and a simulation of what it would look like close-up, created using Celestia. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kirk39
Y CVn, “La Superba”, and a simulation of what it would look like close-up, created using Celestia. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kirk39

Next up is Y Canum Venaticorum (Y CVn), which was named “La Superba” by 19th century astronomer Angelo Secchi for its uncommonly beautiful red color. This name was certainly appropriate, since it is  one of the reddest stars in the sky, and one the brightest of the giant red “carbon stars”.

La Superba is the brightest J-star in the sky, a very rare category of carbon stars that contain large amounts of carbon-13. Its surface temperature is believed to be about 2800 K (~2526 °C; 4580 °F), making it one of the coldest  true stars known. Its appearance, temperature and composition are all indications that it is currently in the Red Giant phase of its life-cycle.

Y CVn is almost never visible to the naked eye since most of its output is outside the visible spectrum. Yet, when infrared radiation is considered, Y CVn has a luminosity 4400 times that of the Sun, and its radius is approximately 2 AU. If it were placed at the position of our sun, the star’s surface would extend beyond the orbit of Mars.

Canes Venatici is also home to several Deep Sky Objects. For starters, there’s the tremendous globular cluster known as Messier 3 (M3). Messier 3 has an apparent magnitude of 6.2, making it visible to the naked eye. It was first resolved into stars by William Herschel around 1784. This cluster is one of the largest and brightest, made up of around 500,000 stars, and is located about 33,900 light-years away from our solar system.

The 51st entry in Charles Messier's famous catalog is perhaps the original spiral nebula--a large galaxy with a well defined spiral structure also cataloged as NGC 5194. Over 60,000 light-years across, M51's spiral arms and dust lanes clearly sweep in front of its companion galaxy, NGC 5195. Image data from the Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys was reprocessed to produce this alternative portrait of the well-known interacting galaxy pair. The processing sharpened details and enhanced color and contrast in otherwise faint areas, bringing out dust lanes and extended streams that cross the small companion, along with features in the surroundings and core of M51 itself. The pair are about 31 million light-years distant. Not far on the sky from the handle of the Big Dipper, they officially lie within the boundaries of the small constellation Canes Venatici. Image Credit: NASA
Messier 51, aka. the Whirlpool Galaxy, is a spiral nebula – a large galaxy with a well defined spiral structure located over 60,000 light-years across. Credit: NASA

Then there’s the Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as Messier 51 or NGC 5194. This  interacting, grand-design spiral galaxy is located at a distance of approximately 23 million light-years from Earth. It is one of the most famous spiral galaxies in the night sky, for both its grace and beauty. The galaxy and its companion (NGC 5195) are easily observed by amateur telescopes, and the two galaxies may even be seen with larger binoculars.

Canes Venatici is also home of the Sunflower Galaxy (aka. Messier 63 and NGC 5055), an unbarred spiral galaxy consisting of a central galactic disc surrounded by many short spiral arm segments. It is part of the M51 galaxy group, which also includes the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). In the mid-1800s, Lord Rosse identified the spiral structure within the galaxy, making this one of the first galaxies in which “spiral nebulae” were identified.

Now hop over to the barred spiral galaxy known as Messier 94 for some comparison. It was discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1781 and catalogued by Charles Messier two days later. Although some references describe M94 as a barred spiral galaxy, the “bar” structure appears to be more oval-shaped. The galaxy is also notable in that it has two ring structures, an inner ring with a diameter of 70″ and an outer ring with a diameter of 600″.

These rings appear to form at resonance locations within the disk of the galaxy. The inner ring is the site of strong star formation activity and is sometimes referred to as a starburst ring. This star formation is fueled by gas that is dynamically driven into the ring by the inner oval-shaped bar-like structure.

Messier 63, also known as the Sunflower Galaxy, seen here in a new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST
Messier 63, also known as the Sunflower Galaxy, seen here in an image from the  Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST

For a completely different galaxy, try Messier 106 (NGC 4258). This spiral galaxy is about 22 to 25 million light-years away from Earth. It is also a Seyfert II galaxy, which means that due to x-rays and unusual emission lines detected, it is suspected that part of the galaxy is falling into a supermassive black hole in the center. Nearby NGC 4217 is a possible companion galaxy.

The constellation does not have any stars with known planets, and there is one meteor shower associated with the constellation – the Canes Venaticids.

Finding Canes Venatici:

While it basically consists of only two bright stars, the Canes Venatici constellation is still fairly easy to locate and is bordered by Ursa Major, Boötes and Coma Berenices. It can be spotted with the naked eye on a clear night where light conditions are favorable. However, for those using binoculars, finderscopes and small telescopes, the constellation has much to offer the amateur astronomer and stargazer.

The location of the Canes Venatici constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky&Telescope magazine
The location of the Canes Venatici constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky&Telescope magazine

It’s brightest star, Cor Calroli can be found at RA 12h 56m 01.6674s Dec +38° 19′ 06.167″, while beautiful Y Canum Venaticorum (aka. “La Superba”) can be seen at RA 12f 45m 07s Dec +45° 26′ 24″. And M51 is easy to find by following the easternmost star of the Big Dipper, Eta Ursae Majoris, and going 3.5° southeast. Its declination is +47°, so it is circumpolar for observers located above 43°N latitude.

We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates.

Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it!

For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Canes Venatici and Constellation Families.


Seeing the Red of ‘La Superba,’ a Magnificent Springtime Carbon Star

The Universe can be a very gray place. But this week, we’ll look at a fine example of a class of objects that defies this trend.

Many first time stargazers are surprised when the Trifid or the Orion Nebula fails to exhibit the bright splashy colors seen in Hubble photos. The fault lies not with the Universe, but in our very own eyes.

This is because the light sensitive fovea of our eye has two different types of photoreceptor cells; rods and cones. These act like slow and fast speed film (for those of us old enough to remember actual film!) Under low light conditions, objects have a very black-and-white appearance. It’s only with an increase in brightness that the color receptors in the cone cells of our eye begin to kick in.

One class of stars can induce this effect. They’re known as carbon stars.

A fine example of just such an object rides high in the late spring sky for northern hemisphere observers. This is the variable star Y Canum Venaticorum, also abbreviated as Y CVn or “La Superba” (The magnificent). This name was given to the star by Father Angelo Secchi in the mid-19th century. It is one of the reddest stars in the sky.

Astronomers gauge the “redness” of a star by measuring its magnitude contrast through a blue and visible (green peaking) filters. This is what is known as its B-V index, and the higher the value, the redder the star.

La Superba has a B-V value of +2.5. For contrast, the familiar orange-red stars Antares and Betelgeuse have a B-V value of +1.83 & +1.85, respectively.

Some other classic carbon stars and their B-V values are;

TX Piscium: +2.5

Herschel’s Garnet Star: +2.35

V Hydrae: +4.5

R Leporis (Hind’s Crimson Star): +2.7

Many of these are also variable stars, and they can appear redder visually near their minimum brightness. In the case of La Superba, it ranges from magnitude +4.8 to +6.3 over a span of 160 days, with a longer super-imposed cycle of about 6 years. We’re just coming off of a peak cycle in late May 2013, and La Superba is easy to spot with binoculars about a third of the way between the brilliant double star Cor Caroli (visited by the Enterprise in the Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode “Allegiance”) and Delta Ursa Majoris.

I’ve shown off carbon stars such as La Superba and Hind’s Crimson Star at public star parties to great effect. They can be an excellent star party “secret weapon” when every other ‘scope down the line is aimed at the Orion nebula.

For a faint constellation, Canes Venatici has lots to offer. One of the best globular clusters in the sky M3 can be found within its borders, as can a handful of decent galaxies. La Superba lies in a rather empty region of the constellation high above the galactic plane. In fact, an area about 15° degrees north of location in the adjoining constellation Ursa Major was picked for the famous Hubble Deep Field image for this very reason.

Burnham’s Celestial Handbook describes La Superba as “one of the reddest of all the naked eye stars, (with) a truly odd and vivid tint in large telescopes.” Astronomer Agnes Clerke described its appearance in 1905 as an “extraordinary vivacity of prismatic rays, separated into dazzling zones of red, yellow, and green by broad spaces of profound obscurity.”  (Note: the “spaces” referred to gaps in its spectra).

Through the telescope at low power, we see La Superba as an orange-red ember with shades of white. It’s an easy catch with binoculars, and one of the very few carbon stars that is visible to the naked eye under dark skies. We’d judge that only TX Piscium rivals it in brightness, and only V Hydrae and Hinds appear ruddier. I always like to ask first time observers of colored stars what they see… human eye-brain perception can vary greatly!

The coordinates of La Superba are:

Right Ascension: 12 Hours 45’ 08”

Declination: +45 26’ 25”

La Superba is about 600-800 light years distant. Physically, it is a massive star at three times the mass of our Sun. It’s also a monster in terms of diameter, at four astronomical units in size.  If you placed it within our solar system, it would swallow up the orbits of the interior planets out to Mars!

La Superba is thus much less dense than our own Sun, and at a surface temperature of about 2,800K, relatively cool. It is also the brightest “J-type” carbon star in the sky, a rare sub-type characterized by the presence of the isotope carbon-13 in its atmosphere.  A carbon star is a sun near the end of its life, accumulating carbon compounds in its outer atmosphere as it fuses heavier elements in one last “hurrah” before shedding its outer layers and forming a white dwarf embedded inside a planetary nebula. Carbon stars are much brighter in the infrared, and we see the very tail end of this absorption in the visible red end of the spectrum. In fact, La Superba is a full 9 magnitudes (nearly 4,000 times) brighter in the near-infrared than in the ultraviolet!

All amazing facts to ponder as we view a star near the end of its career, seeding the cosmos with the very element that makes life possible. Next time you’re out observing, be sure to go “into the red” and check out the fine carbon star!