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Binocular highlight: Messiers near and far.


ASTRONOMY IS A SCIENCE of extremes. Everyday concepts such as size, mass, and distance become unfathomably large when applied to the universe beyond our backdoor.

Tucked away in the smattering of stars that make up Coma Berenices resides a pair of Messier objects that illustrate extreme depth of field. The foreground object is M53, a Milky Way globular cluster some 58,000 light-years away. Situated one binocular field to its northwest, yet lurking in the background more than 300 times farther, is galaxy M64.

Among Messier globulars, M53 is quite remote-only M75 and M54 are more distant. In spite of this, M53 shines gamely at magnitude 7.3 and is a pretty easy binocular find under dark skies. In my 10 x 50s, the globular is an obviously nonstellar, round glow less than 1[degrees] northeast of Alpha ((X) Comae Berenices. Directly north of M53 is a ragged chain of a half dozen 6th-magnitude stars. Together, the cluster and its surroundings make for a surprisingly attractive field.

Also known as the Black-Eye Galaxy because of its telescopic appearance, M64 resides in a sparse region near the center of Coma Berenices. This helps the galaxy stand out well even though (at magnitude 8.5) it's more than a magnitude fainter than M53. In 10 x 50s, the galaxy actually looks like a dimmer version of its globular-cluster neighbor. I see a hint of east-west elongation in M64 when I view it in my 15 x 70s.

If the two Messiers elude you, try for a real foreground object: Melotte 111. At a distance of only 300 light-years, it's one of the nearest open clusters. Mel 111 fills a binocular field of view, but take a moment to zero in on the double star 17 Comae Berenices. Even 7x binoculars have an easy time separating the 5.3- and 6.6-magnitude components.


Using the Star Chart

Late June       Dusk
Early June               11 p.m *
Late May                 Midnight *
Early May                1 a.m.*
Late April               2 a.m.*
* Daylight-saving time


Go outside within an hour or so of a time listed above. Hold the map out in front of you and turn it around so the yellow label for the direction you're facing (such as west or northeast) is at the bottom, right-side up. The curved edge is the horizon, and the stars above it on the map now match the stars in front of you in the sky. The center of the map is the zenith, the point overhead.

Example: Turn the map around so "Facing NW" is right-side up. About two-thirds of the way from there to the map's center is the Big Dipper, hanging by its handle. Go outside and look northwest about twothirds of the way from horizontal to straight up. There it is!

Note: The map is plotted for 40 * north latitude (for example, Denver, New York, Madrid). If you're far south of there, stars in the southern part of the sky will be higher and stars in the north lower. Far north of 40" the reverse is true. Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter are plotted at their positions for mid-June.

You can get a sky chart customized for your location at any time at skychart.


A common mistake of beginning skywatchers is to assume "Little Dipper" refers to the 1%2[degrees]-wide Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. The real Little Dipper is a lot more spread out and far less conspicuous than the cluster.
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Author:Seronik, Gary
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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