Markarian’s Chain & M87

The universe is vast. It’s hard to comprehend just how big it is. For me, this image helps make that visceral. Without any effort, more than a dozen galaxies are visible and, with careful inspection dozens, perhaps close to a hundred are visible in the frame.

These galaxies are part of the Virgo Cluster, a large group of galaxies. You may have recently heard the name of the larger, fuzzy galaxy at the top of the image, M87. It was in the news in April 2019 because the supermassive black hole at its center was imaged for the first time. To put this image in perspective, that black hole image would occupy roughly 1/100,000 of a pixel in my image.

The arc of galaxies across the bottom is called Markarian’s Chain. It is named after an astronomer who was the first to realize they were gravitationally bound together. However, although M87 and Markarian’s Chain are the stars of this image (pun slightly intended), they have a large supporting cast. The image below shows just how many galaxies are really there.

Each of those circles represents a galaxy. On the full size image most of those circles actually contain a small, fuzzy blog. It’s a big universe!

This image included a lot of firsts for me. It was the first image taken with a mono camera and filters. It was the first to use an electronic focuser and rotator. It was the first time I combined data taken over two nights. However, it was not without its challenges. Though it is over two nights, it’s only 2.6 hours of data. Technical glitches limited the first night to an hour of data and the second night to 1.6 hours. On the third night, thanks to the help of a kind soul on the cloudy nights Internet forum I was able to make some major progress on one of my technical issues and collect more than two additional hours of data Even so, at only 4.8 hours there is a lot going on in the frame. These galaxies are on the order of 50-55 million light years away and many of the galaxies are elliptical. Ellipticals never have the kind of detail that spiral galaxies do and the distance hides what there is, but on the spirals in the frame a hint of structure is visible.

Spring is called “galaxy season” because the night sky is looking out of our galaxy making it the best time of year to observe the things outside the Milky Way compared to the rest of the year when our night sky is looking into our galaxy. However, for a small telescope like I am using, it is a challenging time of year because these are small in the frame. Fortunately, there are areas of the sky like this where the structure of the universe can be observed allowing us to see exactly how small a part of the universe we sit in.

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