Lost among the galaxies

OK, I’M TRYING not to panic but I’m definitely lost.

I’m supposed to be at the spiral galaxy M98, but this really looks more like M87. Or maybe it’s M99.

Don’t you hate it when you’re 50 million light-years from home and you get off at the wrong stop?

When you’re exploring the Virgo galaxy cluster, it’s easy to lose your way. This is my first journey into an incredible conglomeration of galaxies with a larger scope, which can bring out the “faint fuzzies,” each of which represents billions upon billions of stars.

You can track down the brightest galaxies with binoculars, through which they will look like out-of-focus stars.

But in a good-sized telescope (an eight- to 12-inch Dobsonian or Schmidt-Cassegrain), you can tease out hints of structure such as the arms of spiral galaxies, which look so spectacular in long-exposure pho­tographs.

This huge Virgo cluster of about 2,000 galaxies lies about 50 to 90 mil­lion light-years away. How many you can actually see in a telescope de­pends on light pollution — galaxy hunting requires dark skies away from city lights — and your scope.

For example, in my Dobsonian reflector, which has an eight-inch mirror, I should be able to nab over 20 members of the cluster. That number zooms up to more than 100 if you have a 12-inch telescope, according to Saint Mary’s astronomer David Lane, a fellow member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He also has created a telescope and planetarium software program called Earth-Centred Universe, which can be used to calculate just this sort of thing. (Go to www.nova-astro.com for more information.)

Once you start exploring the clus­ter, you’ll notice most of the galaxies appear as oval blobs of light, like faint comets. These are called elliptical galaxies, which are the most numer­ous and brightest type in the Virgo region. They’re not as interesting visually as spiral galaxies, which boast starry arms curling out from a bright core, but ellipticals are far from boring.

A bright elliptical, M87, lies at the heart of the Virgo cluster, to the west of the star Denebola that marks the tail of Leo, the Lion.  It’s an unimaginably huge city of stars — M87’s mass has been estimated in the range of several trillion times that of our sun. Even at 80 million light-years away, it’s visible in large binoculars and certainly small telescopes.

Besides sheer size and luminosity, M87 is known for the incredible jet of subatomic energy streaming out from the galaxy. The jet originates from a disc of superheated gas around a massive black hole at M87’s centre.

I’ve found the book Astronomy: The De­finitive Guide very helpful as I make tentative steps into this incredible realm of star cities. The book's “galaxy-hop­ping” chart for the Virgo and Coma clusters is clear and simple, but provides enough detail to make it easier to figure out which fuzzy is which in your eyepiece.

For those who just want a quick look at something beautiful, the most modest binoculars will reveal a rich spattering of stars that make up the dim, tiny constellation Coma Berenic­es. It can be found between Denebola and the bright star Arcturus (see chart).

Leo lies on the ecliptic, the path followed by the sun, moon and planets. The outer planets such Saturn and Jupiter are regular visitors to the Lion's den.

Saturn, with its magnificent ring system, is familiar even to those who haven’t actually looked at it through a telescope.

But you really haven’t seen Saturn until you’ve done just that.

There’s a surreal quality to the sight of this strange object floating in your field of view that can’t be duplicated in photos.

As for those famous rings, they can either be really prominent or almost invisible, depending on how the planet is tilted from our perspective on Earth. If you’re observing with a telescope, try to find the tiny speck of Saturn’s brightest moon, Titan, and the many dimmer moons closer to the planet.