Home / Small Wonders: Coma Berenices
by Tom Trusock 05/03/05 | Email Author
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Monthly Guide to the Night Sky
Size Mag RA
Mel 111 Open Cluster
275.0' 1.8 12h 25m
17.0s +25° 58' 15"
13.0' 7.7 13h 13m
11.9s +18° 08' 26"
10.0'x5.4' 8.5 12h 57m 00.5s +21° 39' 13"
7.1'x5.5' 9.1 12h 25m 40.9s +18° 09'
6.8'x3.7' 9.4 12h 32m 15.9s +14° 23'
5.2'x4.2' 10.1 12h 35m 43.3s +14° 27' 59"
9.8'x2.8' 10.1 12h 14m 04.8s +14° 52' 11"
5.3'x4.6' 9.7 12h 19m 06.3s +14° 23'
7.5'x6.1' 9.3 12h 23m 11.9s +15° 47'
NGC 4147 Globular
4.4' 10.4 12h 10m
23.3s +18° 30' 47"
5.4'x4.1' 10.1 12h 28m 46.2s +17° 03' 16"
4.8'x3.5' 9.7 12h 31m 41.0s +25° 44'
10.7'x4.4' 9.6 12h 36m 14.7s +27° 55' 50"
15.8'x2.1' 9.5 12h 36m 37.4s +25° 57' 31"
10.7'x7.6' 9.3 12h 50m 43.2s +25° 28' 15"
12.6 12h 12m 35.2s +29° 10' 16"
(Koh-ma Be-ren-i-sez) A tiny constellation - tiny in
size, and somewhat unimpressive in stellar brightness (its brightest
star is Beta at a paltry magnitude 4.2), but certainly not lacking in
targets for the small telescope owner. It's the anchor of one of
the ends of the famous
Coma-Virgo super cluster, and thus contains a preponderance of
galaxies. But that's not all - there's also a really nice naked
eye or binocular cluster, as well as two moderately bright
globulars. This month's list should keep you busy for a while.
As the Night Sky User's Guide
relates, Coma's story has that subtle
ring of truth to it. According to the legend, King Ptolemy had long
been away, at war with the Assyrians. In a sacrifice to ensure
his safe return his wife, Queen Berenices cut off her long tresses and
laid them out on the temple altar.
In the morning, predictably, the hair was gone. As the priests
grew more and more nervous about what (or who) might be scarified in
it's place, the royal astronomer Conon of Samos pulled their collective
bacon out of the fire by claiming the gods had accepted the gift
and displayed in the night sky for all to see.
The most luxurious portion of the tresses of Berenices hair can
probably best be seen in a small telescope or set of binoculars.
speaking of course, of the open Cluster Mel 111.
On a good night in the suburbs you should be able to see a fine shimmer
of light just off the tail of Leo - this is Mel 111 otherwise known as
the Coma Star
Cluster. On transparent nights, it's a gorgeous naked eye sight
from a suitably dark location, but even under moderate lunar
illumination or light pollution, I find
Mel 111 to be nearly invisible to the naked eye, but a fine sight in
small to moderate sized binoculars or a
small telescope. Just be sure that the scope is capable of low
powers and very wide fields of
view, as Mel 111 is fairly large in size. Measuring about 5
degrees in diameter, it's about 9 times
the size of the full moon. It's brighter stars consist of a
scattering of 4th and 5th magnitude luminaries.
If you are in the area with a small telescope, take some
time and stop off at NGC 4559, NGC 4494 and NGC 4565.
While you should content yourself with simply spotting these 4559 and
4494 in a small telescope, 4559 will reward your gaze with nearly any
amount of aperture you can throw at it. Use moderate powers that
yield somewhere around a 2mm exit pupil for your best shot at
If you aren't familiar with the concept of exit pupil, it's figured by
taking the aperture and dividing
by the magnification, and is used as a standard of image
brightness. For example, in a 4" (102mm telescope) a
magnification of 50x will yield a 2mm exit pupil. For most
extragalactic DSO's I find the best views to be at exit pupils of
As you increase the aperture with 4559, keep an eye
out for mottling and a dark patch just off the core.
NGC 4565 -
Dean Rowe - 14" Meade LX200GPS
One of the
showpieces in this area, and certainly a masterpiece Messier missed, is
In smaller scopes look for a thin needle like slash of
light. In 4-8 inch scopes try using 1-2mm exit pupil and looking
for the dark lane. Visually, I find this to be slightly offset
bright core, and fairly easy in an 8" from a dark
site. To my eyes, it is more like Eric Graff's sketch
than Dean Rowe's wonderful image above. The DSS
image to the left is very similar to what I see in a moderate
If you happen to any star parties this summer,
do yourself a favor - walk up to the largest telescope you can find
(the bigger the better) and ask them to point it at 4565.
Impressive at moderate apertures, it's stunning in larger scopes.
I find it to bear a marked resemblance to NGC891 - a favorite fall
target. I'll bet with good skies, large binos and a little bit of
work, you can pick it out without a telescope.
We'll be back to this area for the
challenge object, but for now, let's move down to the Alpha Comae region.
M53 - Jason Blaschka -
Star HOC 8" F4, GP mount
There are two real
targets of interest in this area, M53 and M64. M53 is located
just north east of Alpha Comae (Diadem). It's a puffball in a
small scope, a treat in a moderate sized telescope, and stunning in a
large one. As you increase aperture and power look for increased
resolution across the face of the globular as well as more stars
throughout the outlying region. As per resolution, small
apertures will show the least, moderate apertures will resolve the
outer limits of the
cluster, yielding some granularity to the core, and large scopes
will resolve the cluster across the face. The most memorable
I've had of this globby were with my 18" obsession at about
Going to the other extreme, it's equally fun to
see if I can pick this messier up in a set of binoculars. What's
the smallest aperture you've ever seen it in? For me, it's a 70mm
Pronto - my notes say that I didn't pick up a hint of resolution at any
While you're here
you might as well spend a few minutes looking for NGC5053 - (I call
this one "The
Stefan Van de Rostijne e-mailed me to describe his view of 5053 - "It is a while ago,some 3 years, in the Southern French Alps, under a mag 6.5 - 7 sky and very transparent air (altitude 1200 m elevation). I saw it with my 12.5" dob at some 100-120x or around that. It was the one and only time I saw it, a very loose cluster of very faint stars, I wonder if any one of them is brighter than mag 13. I find it difficult to interpret it as a globular. It is not thŕt far from M53,and easily located, but here in Belgium, I've never seen it at all..."
Let me know if you find it, and with what size telescope.
M64 - Todd
Rogelstad - Meade
The other real
gem in the area is M64 - the Black Eye Galaxy. Located a degree
WNW from 5th magnitude 35 Comae, this one is spectacular in nearly
any size telescope. On good nights, I've managed to catch the
Black Eye darkening in an 80mm telescope (I missed it with a 70mm) but
in my experience, larger telescopes tend to show it
better. Not everyone agrees. Mallas (author of The
), claims M64's Black Eye is easy in a 2.4", and 4"
subdued in an 8", and that a 12.5" showed it only at moderate
This galaxy is a real show stopper in my 18", and worth hours of
investigation all on it's own. Point whatever scopes you have at
this celestial shiner, and take a look for yourself. How
does aperture affect the visibility? How about different
Before we get started on the rest of this month's targets, I'm going
to be a bit unapologetic here and say that you will probably want to
print off some individualized finder charts for the area using one of
the freely download able sky charting programs available on the
internet. The Virgo cluster has some 2000 members,
and the cluster as a whole resides around 55 million light years away
and is receding from us at 1100 kps, although differing members will
have different distances and velocities. As we look into the
Coma-Virgo super cluster, we're
looking into our future. The local cluster - the cluster of
to which the Milky Way belongs - is headed towards their center of
mass. In intergalactic terms, these
galaxies are fairly close, and there are LOTS of them. As any
experienced star hopper will tell you, it's all too easy to get lost in
this region of space. Prepare yourself. I recommend the
following free resources:
Cartes du Ciel - Patrick
HNSky - Han Kleijn
Or, at a minimum, take a look at the following free (pre-generated)
Mag-7 Star Atlas Project - Andrew Johnson
Now let's pop down towards the Virgo border - before we stick a toe into
the depths of the Coma-Virgo super cluster proper, let's take a moment
and check out NGC 4147...
one, I'll start right off by saying it's escaped me in my 4"
telescope. In fact, the only one that I've managed to hit
it in is my 18". That's not saying it isn't visible in a smaller
aperture - just that I couldn't hit it at 4", and didn't have a chance
to try anything else besides 18". I suspect it would be doable in
a 6 or 8", and easy for a 10". Please let me know the smallest
aperture you manage to grab it in. In the 18", I found it
a nice, if somewhat unremarkable globular. It reminded me of some
of the summer Messier globulars when seen through moderate sized
makes it remarkable, is the fact that it stands like a sentinel
guarding the depths of interstellar space. From here on out,
everything else is extragalactic.
Buckle your seat belts folks, it's gonna be an interesting ride.
From here, let's pop over to M85.
M85 is a very nice (if a bit homogenous) target for the small telescope
owner. O'Meara (The Messier
) notes a slight blue tint
and a hint of spiral structure. I've never seen this in a small
scope, but on the other hand, I don't have his eyes, nor do I observe
from a volcano in the middle of the South Pacific! Take a gander
with the largest telescope you can lay your hands on and see what you
In the same photographic field, you'll note a pretty little barred
spiral. This is NGC 4394. It should be a pretty easy pick
for the small scope owner - it's quite bright and concentrated -
however, one thing I've noticed is that targets like this tend to
become "lost" when folks are looking at the "real" target. After
you spend some time with M85, look for a thin oval of light just to the
east. The photo should help you pick it out.
NGC 4450 is a
nice target for an 8" telescope, and shows an obvious brightening
towards the center. Larger telescopes show some mottling across
Spend some time here and experiment with different
magnifications. Is there any detail to eek out? What powers
yield your best views? What exit pupils do these correspond to?
M100 - Todd
Next up is
M100. This grand design spiral resides 55-60 million years out (like
rest of the coma cluster), and is a face on spiral with a diameter
similar to that of our own galaxy. Don't let the images or the
published magnitudes fool you - I've found that M100 really offers
little to the
amateur visual observer (at least with a moderate sized telescope) and
can even be difficult to spot.
As always with a face on galaxy, the light is dispersed over a fairly
wide area, where as with an edge on, it's concentrated over a
smaller area. In short, we say it has a low surface brightness.
Don't let this small fact stop you from picking it off this
M99 - Jason
Blaschka - Star
HOC 8" F4, GP mount
Less than two
degrees to the SW, you'll find M99. Visually, I find M99 to be a
more rewarding galaxy than M100. With a 4", I see a round oval
glow with hints of spiral arms, or at least a distinct mottling.
From a moderately dark site, I've spotted faint spiral arms with my 8"
telescope. In my 18", they are stunningly obvious. This
is a wonderful target for a large telescope.
One thing to ponder while looking at face on's like M99 and M100
in small telescopes - do these seem more or less like comets -
as compared to some of the other denizens of the galactic deep?
Slightly over a degree to the WNW we find M98.
This is an edge on
spiral that's approaching us at 125kps (in contrast to the super
1100kps recession rate) and as a consequence is one of the few
galaxies in the night sky that actually shows an approaching blue shift
instead of the traditional red shift. Like many in the the
Coma-Virgo super cluster it's about 55-60 million light years out.
Since M98 is an edge on, it offers a bit more to the small scope owner
than some of the previous targets. IT's certainly brighter
than the other recent targets on the list.
Experienced observer O'Meara (The
) notes that at 23x in his 4" refractor it
resembles a Klingon battle cruiser. If you can't make that out in
your small scope, don't fret - but do try larger aperture and darker
If you have a widefield scope pop in your widest eyepiece, and you
should be able to pick up all three of these galaxies in the same field
of view - M98, M99, and M100. I've done this in a 70mm refractor,
and was rewarded with a rather stellar view.
Now pan east for our last two (non-challenge) targets for the evening -
M88 and M91
Mallas (The Messier Album
finds M88 to be "grand in the 4" Mallas refractor" with a
smooth surface texture and uneven brightness. In my 4" scope, I
must confess I found myself neither over, nor underwhelmed.
Like many of
the targets in Coma, I feel this one offers more to someone with
a "bit" more
aperture behind them than the typical small scope owner.
Many observers have commented on it's similarity to M31 - the great
galaxy in Andromeda - unfortunately, this resemblance simply seems to
me. Take a few minutes next time you are out and see what you
non-challenge object this month is something of a mystery object.
years, M91 (NGC 4548) was considered to be a missing Messier. It
had been suggested that it was a duplicate observation of M58, a
misnotation of the position, or even an actual comet!
and His Catalogue (
chapter in Mallas and Kreimer's The
) Owen Gingerich from
the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics concludes that M91 is
indeed a duplicate observation of M58, however (according to O'Meara)
probably the most widely accepted explanation was advanced in the 1969
issue of Sky and Telescope by W.C. Williams - that being that Messier
probably made a mistake in both reduction and plotting. Williams
corrected for these and found that NGC 4548 at the indicated
In my 4" refractor, I found M91 to be fairly large at 70x, but faint
and fairly difficult to spot under less than good conditions.
What do you see?
Challenge Object - HCG61
This Hickson galaxy
cluster (The Box), consists of 3 three interacting galaxies, and
one foreground object (NGC 4173) not physically associated.
From the top, proceeding clockwise, we have NGC 4173, NGC 4169, NGC
4174 and NGC 4175. Sky tools lists the magnitude of the cluster
(or at least of it's brightest member) at 11.1. I'd suspect
members of the group would be obtainable in a 6-8" scope under dark
skies, but I haven't yet had a chance to check.
In the 18", it bore a rather strong resemblance to the DSS image to the
right. While a four members were all plainly visible in the 18", I'd
rate 4169 as
the easiest, and 4173 as the hardest - while largest, it also has
lowest surface brightness - not altogether surprising given the image.
Given the difficulty of 4173, an amateur viewing the Box in a smaller
scope might be
tempted to call it the Triangle!
love to hear of your experiences under the night sky - please feel free
e-mail me or send any observing reports to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please indicate if I can cite
your observations in future columns.
Photographic Images Courtesy DSS:
Charts Courtesy Chris Marriott, SkyMap Pro 10 Printed with Permission
Special Thanks to Collin Smith
for his editorial assistance