June 16, 2024
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A pair of nearby galaxies in Leo – Astronomy Now

Messier 95 is a very photogenic barred spiral galaxy. Image: Patrick Gilliland.

The beginning of spring heralds the rise of galaxies, when for the next three months or so the prime-time night sky will be filled with a veritable treasure trove of bright, beautiful targets. Leo, the Lion, is at the forefront of this spring attack, offering five galaxies designated Messier and a handful of others that would comfortably carry the mantle.

Messier 95 and 96 are a very special pair of photogenic spiral galaxies that lie less than one degree apart in the center of Leo, about nine degrees east of Leo's dominant +1.4 magnitude star Regulus ( alpha (α) Leonis). A small telescope will show the pair, while imagers can get excellent results, with wide-field shots that have the substantial advantage of including Messier 105, a large, bright elliptical galaxy, in the field.

M95 and M96 are located in the central region of Leo, east of Regulus. Graphics by Greg Smye-Rumsby.

Track them

In mid-March from London, Leo reaches the southern meridian around 22:00 GMT, and the M95/96 pairing culminates around 23:00 with a favorable attitude of 50 degrees. The pair can be watched comfortably for approximately three hours on either side of the culmination; Base them with a small telescope at about 4.5 degrees northeast of magnitude +3.9 rho (ρ) Leonis. M96 is the easternmost of the pair (M105 lies one degree northwest of it), with M95 located 42 arcseconds west-southwest of its partner.

Messier 96 is a magnificent spiral galaxy presented head-on from our perspective. Image: Bob Fera.

Similar numbers

They are remarkably similar in size and brightness, with Messier 96 (NGC 3368) being slightly brighter than Messier 95 (NGC 3351), shining half a magnitude brighter at magnitude +9.2. The M95 is slightly larger, with an apparent diameter of 7.4' x 5.1' compared to the M96's 7.1' x 5.1'.

M96 is a spiral galaxy (morphological class SAB(rs)ab) that, like the vast majority of spiral galaxies, has a structure that is difficult to reach through a small telescope. Appears as a circular spot of diffuse light through an 80 mm (~three inch) telescope at 40x power, while a 150 mm (six-inch) one reveals its core to be much brighter than the surrounding halo.

M95 sports a central bar (SB(r)b class) and is a gorgeous looking galaxy in amateur deep images. It appears more diffuse than its companion through a small telescope, while an 80mm aperture can show a brightness three arcminutes wide, slightly larger than that offered by the M96. A 250-300 mm (ten to twelve inch) telescope can reveal traces of the M95 rod in good condition.

The wonderful pair of Messier M95 and M96 coils. Image: Ron Brecher.

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