Friday (April 14) will provide skywatchers with an opportunity to discover an amazing and amazing cosmic object: the Whirlpool Galaxy.
The Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as Messier 51 (M51), will be excellently positioned to observe in the evening sky over the next few weeks. But the galaxy, which is more or less shaped like a spiral staircase, will reach its highest point in the sky around midnight local time on Friday, according to in the sky. (Opens in a new tab)
From New York City, M51 will be visible for most of the night, and will become visible as daylight fades around 8:41 p.m. EDT (0041 GMT) at about 45 degrees above the horizon to the northeast. At 12:57 a.m. EDT on April 15 (0457 GMT), M51 will reach its highest altitude for observers in New York, 83 degrees above the northern horizon, before disappearing at about 5:09 a.m. EDT ( 0909 GMT) when it is about 45 degrees above the horizon to the northwest as it is washed by the light of the rising sun.
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In the Sky gives M51’s right ascent at 13x29m50s and declination to 47°11’N. The galaxy, which has the alternative designation NGC 5194, was first discovered in October 1773 by Charles Messier.
At a distance of 31 million light-years from Earth in the constellation of Canes Venatici, M51 will be faint at only magnitude 8.4, which means it almost certainly won’t be visible to the naked eye. The Whirlpool galaxy should be visible through a pair of sky-gazing binoculars or a small telescope in good viewing conditions with dark skies and clear weather.
To locate the Whirlpool Galaxy tonight, it may be easiest to first locate Ursa Major, home of the Big Dipper. The galaxy will be northeast of the last star in Dipper’s “handle”, Alcide.
It takes an instrument with some real observing power to see the 76,900 light-year-wide galaxy M51 in its full glory. For example, when astronomers looked at M51 with the Hubble Space Telescope, they were able to see the galaxy’s dazzling arms of stars and gas, the most striking feature of spiral galaxies like this one.
These spiral arms are not just aesthetic features, but as these waves of increasing intensity pass over the stars and gas, the gas is compressed and this leads to star formation.
Astronomers think that M51’s spiral arms may be particularly evident due to a close encounter with a nearby small galaxy, NGC 5195. This small yellow galaxy has been navigating through this cosmic spiral for hundreds of millions of years and appears to be pulling one from M51’s arms. This galactic tug-of-war also leads to star formation.
If you want to take a look at the M51, our guides to The best telescopes And best binoculars Great place to start. If you’re looking to take pictures of the night sky in general, check out our guide on How to visualize the moonas well The best cameras for astrophotography And The best lenses for astrophotography.
Editor’s note: If you took a photo of the M51 and would like to share it with Space.com readers, send your photo(s), comments, name, and location to [email protected].
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