Western Slope Skies - Guide to Spring Galaxies

Apr 17, 2020

In 2004, NASA scientists pointed the Hubble Telescope towards a blank patch of sky in the constellation Fornax the Furnace to see what lies out there in the deepest parts of space. What they recorded has become one of the most profound images in modern history - the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

In a tiny patch of sky just one tenth the size of the full moon, there are nearly ten thousand visible galaxies. And if the deep expanses of outer space were not obscured by the glow from the billions of stars in our home galaxy, we would be able to see galaxies like this all around us. We are surrounded by galaxies.

In the evenings this time of year, look up to the patch of sky encircled by the constellations Leo to the west, Virgo to the south, and northward to the Big Dipper. Here there is a swath of sky loaded with countless distant galaxies accessible to the backyard observer.

One of the best spots for galaxy gazing is Markarian's Chain, famous for being the place in the sky with the most number of visible galaxies that can fit in the eyepiece of a common amateur telescope. Pointing my telescope at this spot, I see at least eight fuzzy patches of light. It amazes me to ponder that these galaxies are each home to billions of stars of their own.

Another favorite is the edge-on spiral known as the Needle Galaxy. In my 8" reflector, this galaxy appears as a long, thin slash across the sky with a bright core at its center. On an exceptionally clear and dark night, the one hundred thousand light-year long spiral of stars appears to cut across a section of sky about half the size of the full moon in my eyepiece. And at an estimated distance of about forty million light years away, the scale is almost unimaginable.

Scanning around from there, my telescope reveals galaxy after galaxy, so many that it’s easy to get lost. At this point I am often overtaken with feelings of wonder and awe.

So get outside after dark this Spring, take a look up and out the galactic window, and marvel at the billions of galaxies in our universe.

Western Slope Skies is produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written and recorded by Aaron Watson.