Messier 60 – the NGC 4649 Galaxy

The Messier 60 Elliptical Galaxy. Credits: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the elliptical galaxy known as Messier 60.

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 the notable objects in this catalog is Messier 60, an elliptical galaxy located approximately 55 million light-years away in the Virgo constellation. Measuring some 60,000 light years across, this galaxy is only about half as large as the Milky Way. However, it still manages to pack in an estimated 400 billion stars which, depending on which estimates you go by, is between four times and the same amount as our own.

What You Are Looking At:

Located about 60 million light years away and spanning about 120 million light years of space, M60 is the third brightest elliptical in the Virgo group and and is the dominant member of a subcluster of four galaxies, which is the closest-known isolated compact group of galaxies. In larger telescopes, you’ll see another nearby galaxy – NGC 4647 – which might first be taken for a interactor, but may very well lay at a different distance since there is no tidal evidence so far found.

Messier 60. Credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

As L.M. Young (et al.) explained in their 2006 study:

“We present matched-resolution maps of H I and CO emission in the Virgo Cluster spiral NGC 4647. The galaxy shows a mild kinematic disturbance in which one side of the rotation curve flattens but the other side continues to rise. This kinematic asymmetry is coupled with a dramatic asymmetry in the molecular gas distribution but not in the atomic gas. An analysis of the gas column densities and the interstellar pressure suggests that the H2/H I surface density ratio on the east side of the galaxy is 3 times higher than expected from the hydrostatic pressure contributed by the mass of the stellar disk. We discuss the probable effects of ram pressure, gravitational interactions, and asymmetric potentials on the interstellar medium and suggest it is likely that a m = 1 perturbation in the gravitational potential could be responsible for all of the galaxy’s features. Kinematic disturbances of the type seen here are common, but the curious thing about NGC 4647 is that the molecular distribution appears more disturbed than the H I distribution. Thus, it is the combination of the two gas phases that provides such interesting insight into the galaxy’s history and into models of the interstellar medium.”

Although a search for young optical pulsars turned up negative after a recent supernova event, astronomer’s did discover something rather exciting… a supermassive black hole! As Philip J. Humphrey (et al) indicated in their 2008 study:

“We present a Chandra study of the hot ISM in the giant elliptical galaxy NGC4649. In common with other group-centred ellipticals, its temperature profile rises with radius in the outer parts of the galaxy. Under the assumption of hydrostatic equilibrium, we demonstrate that the central temperature spike arises due to the gravitational influence of a quiescent central super-massive black hole. This is the first direct measurement of MBH based on studies of hydrostatic X-ray emitting gas, which are sensitive to the most massive black holes, and is a crucial validation of both mass-determination techniques. This agreement clearly demonstrates the gas must be close to hydrostatic, even in the very centre of the galaxy, which is consistent with the lack of morphological disturbances in the X-ray image. NGC4649 is now one of only a handful of galaxies for which MBH has been measured by more than one method.”

History of Observation:

Both M59 and neighboring M60 were discovered on April 11, 1779 by Johann Gottfried Koehler who wrote: “Two very small nebulae, hardly visible in a 3-foot telescope: The one above the other.” It was independently found one day later by Barnabus Oriani, who missed M59, and four days later, on April 15, 1779, by Charles Messier, who also found nearby M58. In his notes Messier writes:

“Nebula in Virgo, a little more distinct than the two preceding [M58 and M59], on the same parallel as Epsilon [Virginis], which has served for its [position] determination. M. Messier reported it on the Chart of the Comet of 1779. He discovered these three nebulae while observing this Comet which passed very close to them. The latter passed so near on April 13 and 14 that the one and the other were both in the same field of the refractor, and he could not see it; it was not until the 15th, while looking for the Comet, that he perceived the nebula. These three nebulae don’t appear to contain any star.”

William Herschel would later perceive it as a double nebula and so would son John, calling it “A very fine and curious object.” However, it was Admiral Smyth who must have finally had a clear viewing night a took a look at what was all around!

“The hypothesis of Sir John Herschel, upon double nebulae, is new and attracting. They may be stellar systems each revolving round the other: each a universe, according to ancient notions. But as these revolutionary principles of those vast and distant firmamental clusters connot for ages yet be established, the mind lingers in admiration, rather than comprehension of such mysterious collocations. Meantime our clear duty is, so industriously to collect facts, that much of what is now unintelligible, may become plain to our successors, and a portion of the grand mechanism now beyond our conception, revealed. ‘How much,’ exclaims Sir John Herschel, ‘how much is escaping us! How unworthy is it in them who call themselves philosophers, to let these great phenomena of nature, these slow but majestic manifestations of power and the glory of God, glide unnoticed, and drop out of memory beyond the reach of recovery, because we will not take the pains to note them in their unobstrusive and furtive passage, because we see them in their every-day dress, and mark no sudden change, and conclude that all is dead, because we will not look for signs of life; and that all is uninteresting, because we are not impressed and dazzled.’ ….. ‘To say, indeed, that every individual star in the Milky Way, to the amount of eight or ten millions, is to have its place determined, and its motion watched, would be extravagant; but at least let samples be taken, at least let monographs of parts be made with powerful telescopes and refined instruments, that we may know what is going on in that abyss of stars, where at present imagination wanders without a guide!” Such is the enthusiastic call of one, whose father cleared the road by which we are introduced to the grandest phenomena of the stellar universe.'”

Locating Messier 58:

M59 is a telescopic only object and requires patience to find. Because the Virgo Galaxy field contains so many galaxies which can easily be mis-identified, it is sometimes easier to “hop” from one galaxy to the next! In this case, we need to start by locating bright Vindemiatrix (Epsilon Virginis) almost due east of Denebola.

Let’s starhop four and a half degrees west and a shade north of Epsilon to locate one of the largest elliptical galaxies presently known – M60. At a little brighter than magnitude 9, this galaxy could be spotted with binoculars, but stick with your telescope. In the same low power field (depending on aperture size) you may also note faint NGC 4647 which only appears to be interacting with M60.

In a smaller telescope, do not expect to see much. What will appear at low power is a tiny egg-shaped patch of contrast change with a brighter center. As aperture increases, a sharper nucleus will begin to appear as you move into the 4-6″ size range at dark sky locations, but elliptical galaxies do not show details. As with all galaxies, dark skies are a must!

Enjoy your own observations of the Virgo galaxy fields….

The location of Messier 60 in the Virgo constellation. Credit: IAU

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

Object Name: Messier 60
Alternative Designations: M60, NGC 4649
Object Type: E2 Galaxy
Constellation: Virgo
Right Ascension: 12 : 43.7 (h:m)
Declination: +11 : 33 (deg:m)
Distance: 60000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.8 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 7×6 (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.