55 mm Fluorite Messier Survey: The Heart of Virgo

1998 Apr 16

On the night of April 16, 1998, I continued my Messier survey with the 55 mm Vixen fluorite, from my yard in Palo Alto. The sky was again clear, though not quite so transparent as the evening before. Using a Brandon 12 mm eyepiece for 37x, I started at rho Virginis and star-hopped into the central part of the Virgo galaxy cluster. Rho is my usual jumping-off point for the area, and though there are few naked-eye stars, a decent chart shows plenty for a small finder, and certainly for 55 mm. I was using the _Millennium_Star_Atlas_. It was well that I could find handy stars, for with this aperture and in suburban conditions, the only Messier object in central Virgo that I could hold with direct vision was M87. Anyhow, I worked north to M60, then turned west to M58, M58 and M87. From there it is only a short distance more to M86 and M84, but I got lost and did not find them on the first try. I spotted a small asterism I recognized, a little dart of stars at about 12:39 +13.8 (epoch 2000), and from there navigated my way back via M90 and M89, and found the two big galaxies right where they should have been. I may have seen some of the brighter galaxies in Markarian's Chain, but none well enough to log. I worked my way out to M88 and M91, then took a breather.

Returning to the finder, I stepped from Denebola out to 6 Coma -- easily recognized by four nearby stars slightly too faint for a Flamsteed number. M98, M99, and M100 lay nearby, almost too faint to see. Another finder hop found M85 -- the second object of the evening bright enough for direct vision. Then I lined up alpha Coma in the finder, and found globular cluster M53 -- refreshingly easy, and showing a hint of granularity. The Black-Eye galaxy, M64, was not far off, near 35 Coma, but it showed no trace of the dark feature which gives its name.

On the way north, I picked up M3 in the 6x30 finder, and briefly dropped in an 8 mm Brandon for 55x. Even at that low magnification, it showed the rich graniness of incipient resolution. Cor Caroli served as waypost for M94 and M63 -- both bright and easy, and the former with an obviously concentrated center. M106 was harder, a few Flamsteed stars south of gamma UMa, and M51 was also easy, right under the dipper's handle. I could see its companion galaxy, NGC 5195.

I thought that some of the stuff in Ursa Major might be too faint for conditions, but when I found I could almost hold M109 with direct vision, I decided to persevere. M97, the Owl Nebula, was too faint to show the eyes, but M108 was bright enough to show its streaky shape. Double star M40 was easily resolved. M101 was big and faint, but there were enough reference stars nearby to know just where to look. M81 was bright, and M82 showed a hint of texture -- the only galaxy of the evening to show detail.

That made twenty-eight Messier objects in an hour and a half, and with the observations in the past week, a 55 mm Messier survey almost half done, and all from suburbia. I can hardly wait till the summer Milky Way rises. What fun!

Jay Reynolds Freeman; 1998 Apr 16