Nothing makes me contemplate the why and wherefore of the Universe more than looking at a galaxy in my backyard through a telescope.
Here on my own piece of earthly real estate, photons of light are hitting the back of my eyeball after traveling 31 million years at the speed of light.
The galaxy I’m looking at has a designation of M-104, and is called the Sombrero Galaxy. It is just one of dozens of galaxies that anybody can see through a modest telescope.
It’s spring galaxy time! The entire southeastern night sky is an open window into our celestial neighborhood in the vast Universe.
Most of the year the nights are filled with lots of nearby stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy. But during the months of April and May, our orbit around the Sun places Earth in an area where we can look away from our own Galaxy and into the rest of the Universe. And much of it is occupied by galaxies of all sizes and shapes, containing thousands of millions of stars.
There is no Moon in the evening skies for the next two weeks, and amateur astronomers everywhere are getting out their telescopes and praying for clear skies. At 9 pm DST, the huge constellation of Virgo occupies the southeast part of the night sky, and it is absent of any bright stars except one exceptionally bright one, called Spica.
Virgo is famous for its dozens of galaxies easy to find with a backyard telescope. They are too faint to be seen with the naked eye, but thousands are there—this area of the night sky is known as the “Realm of the Galaxies”. We are literally looking out a window away from our Milky Way, and seeing our neighbors.
The famous Virgo Cluster contains some 3,000 members that lie some 65 million Light Years away. That means that the light we see tonight in our telescopes left those galaxies when dinosaurs roamed the Earth!
Now a backyard stargazer can’t see all 3,000 members of the Virgo Cluster, but we can see a couple dozen. Photons from unfathomable distances stimulate the visual sensors of the human eye, and the stargazer’s brain processes the starry information.
And there are galaxies all over the Spring night sky, just beyond the eyesight of mere mortals. High overhead are the familiar stars of Leo the Lion, whose boundaries are also full of distant stellar islands of billions of suns. Toward the north, Ursa Major and its famous Big Dipper outline is also chock full of galaxies.
In the eyepiece of a backyard telescope at around 150 power, any distant galaxy looks like a gray smudge. Amateur astronomers fondly refer to them as “faint fuzzies.” In fact, modern photography in the 1900s was needed to make the distinction between the gaseous clouds of nebulae from the similar looking galaxies.
Some of the smudges look like cigars, others have a pinwheel shape. From our line of sight, we see some galaxies edge on, some tilted at various angles, and others full face. There are hundreds of spring galaxies out there in tonight’s night sky just beyond human eyesight, but waiting discovery by a modest backyard telescope.
The “faint fuzzies” seen with an average backyard telescope were categorized by French astronomer Charles Messier in the 18th Century. His famous list of 110 “M” objects are what newbie amateur astronomers cut their teeth on. We see M-66 and M-67, two spiral galaxies nearly side by side in Leo, in our telescopes just like Messier did.
But visual astronomers like Messier didn’t know the exact nature of what they were looking at. They had no idea that these tiny “clouds” were actually immense aggregates of stars. In fact, it has only been 100 years ago when astronomers like Edwin Hubble figured out there are other galaxies filled with billions of stars throughout an immense Universe.
Today, the Hubble Space Telescope has visually shown the existence of thousands of millions of galaxies in the Universe. Each galaxy containing thousands of millions of stars…which makes billions and billions of possibilities for the existence of intelligent life in the Universe.
I turn my modest, 8-inch telescope to M-104 in Virgo with only 150 power. It is a gigantic spiral galaxy that we see edge on, and resembles a Mexican sombrero hat, even in a small telescope. Photos show a bulging center ringed by a dark, dusty lane on its rim. The images from the Hubble Space Telescope are spectacular of the Sombrero Galaxy.
In a backyard telescope, I can see the Sombrero Galaxy as a gray, fuzzy bar with a dark line in its center and a noticeable central bulge. I’m seeing the combined light from billions of stars. That faint fuzzy I’m seeing in my telescope is 35 x 6 trillion miles away (according to the data in a handy reference and star map book). That light has been traveling at 186,000 miles a second for 35 million years to reach my eyes.
I know it’s all hard to understand. The idea to grasp is that our Sun, our Milky Way Galaxy, even our own Local Group of two dozen galaxies, are not alone in the Universe.
There are more stars in the Universe that there all the grains of sand on all the beaches all over the Earth. Times a million!
There are billions of galaxies in every direction we look. And these galaxies are attracted by gravity into clusters and super clusters of galaxies whose spacial immensity boggles even the minds of the world’s most brilliant cosmologists.
Our cosmos is beyond our comprehension.
Yet, with a telescope costing just hundreds of dollars and a good star map, I can find a dozen distant galaxies in an hour. And with the visual impression of light from a distant world, like M-104, the Sombrero Galaxy, I can later look up the photographic image of the galaxy and the factual data.
Then, I think, what are the odds that there are planets orbiting some of the stars of M-104, and what are the possibilities that just one of those stars has life? My imagination can roam from my backyard to worlds beyond our own Milky Way.
That’s why every chance we’re able, amateur astronomers like myself relish the chance to see a galaxy through any telescope. And looking across the cosmos through my telescope, I can imagine.