Messier 87 – the Virgo A Supergiant Galaxy

M87 and the jet streaming away from its central supermassive black hole. Credits: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgment: P. Cote (Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics) and E. Baltz (Stanford University)

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the supergiant elliptical galaxy known as Messier 87 (aka. Virgo A)!

During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noticed the presence of several “nebulous objects”  while surveying the night sky. Originally mistaking these objects for comets, he began to catalog them so that others would not make the same mistake. Today, the resulting list (known as the Messier Catalog) includes over 100 objects and is one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is the supergiant galaxy Messier 87, also known as the Virgo A (or the Smoking Gun) galaxies. Located at a distance of about 53.5 million light years from Earth, this galaxy is home to several trillion stars, 15,000 globular clusters, and a supermassive black hole. It is one of the brightest galaxies in the northern part of the Virgo Cluster, second only to Messier 49, and the dominant member of that group.

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Messier 86 – the NGC 4406 Elliptical Galaxy

Messier 86. Credit: Wikisky

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the elliptical (lenticular) galaxy known as Messier 86!

During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noticed the presence of several “nebulous objects”  while surveying the night sky. Originally mistaking these objects for comets, he began to catalog them so that others would not make the same mistake. Today, the resulting list (known as the Messier Catalog) includes over 100 objects and is one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is the elliptical (lenticular) galaxy known as Messier 86. Located in the southern constellation Virgo, roughly 52 million light years from Earth, this galaxy is another member of the Virgo Cluster – the closest large galaxy cluster to the Milky Way. Because of its distance and proximity to other bright galaxies, this galaxy can only be seen with a telescope, or as a faint patch with binoculars when viewing conditions are sufficient.

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Messier 85 – the NGC 4382 Elliptical (Lenticular) Galaxy

Credits: NASA, ESA and R. O’Connell (University of Virginia)

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the elliptical galaxy also known as Messier 85!

During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noticed the presence of several “nebulous objects”  while surveying the night sky. Originally mistaking these objects for comets, he began to catalog them so that others would not make the same mistake. Today, the resulting list (known as the Messier Catalog) includes over 100 objects and is one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Space Objects.

Continue reading “Messier 85 – the NGC 4382 Elliptical (Lenticular) Galaxy”

New Map Shows the Motion of all the Galaxies in Our Supercluster

A mosaic of telescopic images showing the galaxies of the Virgo Supercluster. Credit: NASA/Rogelio Bernal Andreo

For almost a century, astronomers have understood that the Universe is in a state of expansion. This is a consequence of General Relativity, and the rate at which it is expanding is known as the Hubble Constant – named after the man who first noticed the phenomena. However, astronomers have also learned that withing the large-scale structures of the Universe, galaxies and clusters have also been moving closer and relative to one other.

For decades, astronomers have sought to track how these movements have taken place over the course of cosmic history. And thanks to the efforts of international team of astronomers, the most detailed map to date of the orbits of galaxies that lie within the Virgo Supercluster has been created. This map encompasses the past motions of almost 1,400 galaxies within 100 million light years of space, showing how our cosmic neighborhood has changed.

The study which details their research recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal under the title “Action Dynamics of the Local Supercluster“. Led by Edward J. Shaya of the University of Maryland, the team included members from the UH Institute of Astronomy, the Racah Institute of Physics in Jerusalem, and the Institute for Research of the Fundamental Laws of the Universe (IRFU) in Paris.

Orbits of galaxies in the Local Supercluster. Credit: Brent Tully.

For the sake of their study, the team used data from the CosmicFlows surveys, a series of three studies that calculated the distance and speed of neighboring galaxies between 2011 and 2016. Several members of the study team were involved in these surveys, which they then paired with other distance and gravity field estimates to construct a massive flow study of the Virgo Supercluster.

From this, they were able to create computer models that charted the motions of almost 1,400 galaxies within 100 million light years, and over the course of 13 billion years (just 800 million years after the Big Bang). As Brent Tully, an astronomer with the UH Institute of Astronomy and a co-author on the study, explained in a UH press release:

“For the first time, we are not only visualizing the detailed structure of our Local Supercluster of galaxies but we are seeing how the structure developed over the history of the universe. An analogy is the study of the current geography of the Earth from the movement of plate tectonics.”

What they found was that their models fit the present day velocity flow well, meaning that the structures and speeds they observed in their models fit with what has been observed from galaxies in the present day. They also determined that within the area of space they mapped, the main gravitational attractor is the Virgo Cluster – which is located about 50 million light years away and contains between 1300 and 2000 galaxies.

Moreover, their study indicated that more than a thousand galaxies have fallen into the Virgo Cluster in the past 13 billion years, while all galaxies within 40 million light-years of the cluster will eventually be captured. At present, the Milky Way lies just outside this capture zone, but both the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy are destined to merge in the next 4 billion years.

Once they do, the fate of the resulting massive galaxy will be similar to the rest of the galaxies in the area of study. This was another takeaway from the study, where the team determined that these merger events are merely part of a larger pattern. Basically, within the region of space they observed, there are two overarching flow patterns. Within one hemisphere of this region, all galaxies – including the Milky Way – are streaming towards a single flat sheet.

At the same time, every galaxy over the entire volume of space is moving towards gravitational attractors that are located far beyond the area of study. They determined that these outside forces are none other than the Centaurus Supercluster – a cluster of hundreds of galaxies, located approximately 170 million light years away in the Centaurus constellation – and the Great Attractor.

The Great Attractor is located 150 million light years away, and is a mysterious region that cannot be seen because of its location (on the opposite side of the Milky Way). However, for decades, scientists have known that our galaxy and other nearby galaxies are moving towards it. The region is also the core of the Laniakea Supercluster, a region that spans more than 500 million light-years and contains about 100,000 large galaxies.

In short, while the Universe is in a state of expansion, the dynamics of galaxies and galaxy clusters indicate that they still gravitate into tighter structures.  Within our cosmic neighborhood, the main attractor is clearly the Virgo Cluster, which is affecting all galaxies within a 40 million light-year radius. Beyond this, it is the Centaurus Supercluster and the Great Attractor (as part of the larger Laniakea Supercluster) that is tugging at our strings.

By charting this process of attraction that has been taking place over the past 13 billion years, astronomers and cosmologists are able to see just how our Universe has evolved over the course of the majority of its history. With time, and improved instruments that are capable of looking even deeper into the cosmos (such as the James Webb Space Telescope) we are expected to be able to probe even further back towards the beginning of the cosmos.

Charting how our Universe has changed over time not only confirms our cosmological models and verifies predominant theories about how matter behaves on the largest of scales (i.e. General Relativity). It also allows scientists to predict the future of our Universe with a fair degree of certainty, modelling how galaxies and superclusters will eventually come together to form even larger structures.

The team also created a video showing the results of their study, as well as an interactive model that let’s users examine the frame of reference from multiple vantage points. Be sure to check out the video below, and head on over to the UH page to access their interactive model.

Further Reading: University of Hawaii, The Astrophysical Journal

Messier 61- the NGC 4303 Barred Spiral Galaxy

The Messier 61 galaxy, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA/G. Chapdelaine, L. Limatola and R. Gendler

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the barred spiral galaxy known as Messier 61.

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 barred spiral galaxy known as Messier 61. As one of the larger galaxies located in the Virgo Cluster, this galaxy is roughly 52.5 million light years from Earth and contains some spectacular supernovae. It also has an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN), meaning it has a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) at its center, and shows evidence of considerable star formation.

What You Are Looking At:

Spanning about 100,000 light years across and about the same size as our own Milky Way Galaxy, this grand old spiral is one of the largest in the Virgo Cluster… and one of the most active in terms of starbursts and supernovae. According to Luis Colina (et al) indicated in a 1997 study:

“A high-resolution Hubble Space Telescope WFPC2 F218W UV image of the barred spiral NGC 4303 (classified as a LINER-type active galactic nucleus [AGN]) reveals for the first time the existence of a nuclear spiral structure of massive star-forming regions all the way down to the UV-bright unresolved core of an active galaxy. The spiral structure, as traced by the UV-bright star-forming regions, has an outer radius of 225 pc and widens as the distance from the core increases. The UV luminosity of NGC 4303 is dominated by the massive star-forming regions, and the unresolved LINER-type core contributes only 16% of the integrated UV luminosity. The nature of the UV-bright LINER-type core—stellar cluster or pure AGN—is still unknown.”

The Virgo Cluster Galaxies. Credit & Copyright: Rogelio Bernal Andreo

Another fascinating aspect is Colina’s team has also identified a Super Star Cluster (SSC) withing Messier 61 as well. As Colina indicated in a 2002 study:

“These new HST/STIS results unambiguously show the presence of a compact SSC in the nucleus of a low-luminosity AGN, which is also its dominant ionizing source. We hypothesize that at least some LLAGNs in spirals could be understood as the result of the combined ionizing radiation emitted by an evolving SSC (i.e., determined by the mass and age) and a black hole accreting with low radiative efficiency (i.e., radiating at low sub-Eddington luminosities) coexisting in the inner few parsecs region. Complementary multifrequency studies give the first hints of the very complex structure of the central 10 pc of NGC 4303, where a young SSC apparently coexists with a low-efficiency accreting black hole and with an intermediate/old compact star cluster and where, in addition, an evolved starburst could also be present. If structures such as those detected in NGC 4303 are common in the nuclei of spirals, the modeling of the different stellar components and their contribution to the dynamical mass has to be established accurately before deriving any firm conclusion about the mass of central black holes of few to several million solar masses.”

Of course, studies don’t just stop there. As D. Tschoke (et al) indicated in a 2000 study:

“The late-type galaxy NGC 4303 (M61) is one of the most intensively studied barred galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. Its prominent enhanced star formation throughout large areas of the disk can be nicely studied due to its low inclination of about 27 degr. We present observations of NGC 4303 with the ROSAT PSPC and HRI in the soft X-ray (0.1-2.4 keV). The bulk of the X-ray emission is located at the nuclear region. It contributes more than 80% to the total observed soft X-ray flux. The extension of the central X-ray source and the L_X/L_Halpha ratio point to a low luminous AGN (LINER) with a circumnuclear star-forming region. Several separate disk sources can be distinguished with the HRI, coinciding spatially with some of the most luminous HII regions outside the nucleus of NGC 4303. The total star formation rate amounts to 1-2 Msun/yr. The X-ray structure follows the distribution of star formation with enhancement at the bar-typical patterns. The best spectral fit consists of a power-law component (AGN and HMXBs) and a thermal plasma component of hot gas from supernova remnants and superbubbles. The total 0.1-2.4 keV luminosity of NGC 4303 amounts to 5×10^40 erg/s, consistent with comparable galaxies, like e.g. NGC 4569.”


Hubble picture is the sharpest ever image of the core of spiral galaxy Messier 61. Taken using the High Resolution Channel of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Credit: ESA/NASA/HST

When it comes right down to it, it’s all about that star-forming ring. Said Eva Schinnerer (eta al) in a 2002 study:

“The UV continuum traces a complete ring that is heavily extincted north of the nucleus. Such a ring forms in hydrodynamic models of double bars, but the models cannot account for the UV emission observed on the leading side of the inner bar. Comparison with other starburst ring galaxies where the molecular gas emission and the star-forming clusters form a ring or tightly wound spiral structure suggests that the starburst ring in NGC 4303 is in an early stage of formation.”

How will today’s technologies continue to study the magnificent M61? Just take a look at what MOS can do! The very efficient multi-object-slit observing technique with the multi-mode instrument FORS1 has been demonstrated on the Virgo cluster galaxy NGC 4303 . Nineteen moveable slits at the instrument focal plane are positioned so that the faint light from several H II regions in this galaxy can pass into the spectrograph, while the much stronger “background” light (from the nearby areas in the galaxy and, to a large extent, from the Earth”s upper atmosphere) is blocked by the mask.

History of Observation:

M61 was discovered by Barnabus Oriani on May 5, 1779 when following the comet of that year. Said he, “Very pale and looking exactly like the comet.” As for our hero, Messier, he had also seen it on the same night – but thought it was the comet! Because Charles Messier was a good astronomer, he returned nightly to observe movement and it only took him a few days to realize his mistake and to admit it in his own notes:

“May 11, 1779. 61. 12h 10m 44s (182d 41′ 05″) +5d 42′ 05″ – Nebula, very faint & difficult to perceive. M. Messier mistook this nebula for the Comet of 1779, on the 5th, 6th and 11th of May; on the 11th he recognized that this was not the Comet, but a nebula which was located on its path and in the same point of the sky.”

Supernova SN2008in in the spiral galaxy Messier 61. Credit: Hewholooks/ Wikipedia Commons

Sir William and Sir John Herschel would also later return to M61 to assign it their own catalog numbers, both resolving certain portions of this wonderful galaxy – but neither truly beginning to understand what they were seeing. That took Admiral Smyth, who recorded in his notes:

“A large pale-white nebula, between the Virgo’s shoulders. This is a well defined object, but so feeble as to excite surprise that Messier detected it with his 3 1/2 foot telescope in 1779. Under the best action of my instrument it blazes towards the middle; but in H. [John Herschel]’s reflector it is faintly seen to be bicentral [an illusion caused by the bar], the nuclei 90″ apart, and lying sp [south preceding, SW] and nf [north following, NE]. It is preceded by four telescopic stars, and followed by another. Differentiated with the following object [17 Virginis], from which it bears about south by west, and is within a degree’s distance. This object is an outlier of a vast mass of discrete but neighboring nebulae, the spherical forms of which are indicative of compression.”

Locating Messier 61:

Locating Messier 61 is the Virgo Galaxy fields is relatively easily because it is so large and bright compared to any others in the area. Begin your hunt by identifying Beta and Delta Virginis. Between this pair you will see finderscope or binocular visible stars 17 and 16 Virginis. You destination is between this pair of stars. While M61 is binocular possible, it would require astronomical binoculars of approximately 80mm aperture and dark skies – although with excellent sky conditions the nucleus can be glimpsed with apertures as small as 60mm.

This star chart for M61 represents the view from mid-northern latitudes for the given month and time. Credits: NASA/Stellarium

In a small aperture telescope, M61 will appear as a very faint oval with a bright central region. As size increases, so do details and resolution. At 6-8″ in size, the nucleus becomes very clear and beginnings of spiral arms start to resolve. In the 10-12″ range, spiral structure becomes clear and some mottling texture becomes clear.

Enjoy your observations!

And here are the quick facts on Messier 61 to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 61
Alternative Designations: M61, NGC 4303
Object Type: Type SABbc Spiral Galaxy
Constellation: Virgo
Right Ascension: 12 : 21.9 (h:m)
Declination: +04 : 28 (deg:m)
Distance: 60000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 9.7 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 6×5.5 (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.