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Cosmic Challenge: Markarian's Chain

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Cosmic Challenge:
Markarian's Chain



May 2021




Phil Harrington



This month's suggested
aperture range

Giant Binoculars
≥ 70mm)


3- to 5-inch









Markarian's Chain

Galaxy group

12h 28m



see text




Aim your telescope anywhere in the large, seemingly empty gap between the stars Denebola [Beta (β) Leonis] and Vindemiatrix [Epsilon (ε) Virginis] and, given sharp eyes and a dark sky, you are bound to see one or more faint splotches of light somewhere in the eyepiece's field of view.  You've entered the Coma-Virgo Realm of Galaxies, a collection of upwards of 2,000 separate galactic systems.  Talk about a population explosion!



Above: Evening star map. Credit: Map adapted from Star Watch by Phil Harrington.

Above: Finder chart for this month's Cosmic Challenge

Credit: Chart adapted from Cosmic Challenge: The Ultimate Observing List for Amateurs by Phil Harrington.
Click on the chart to open a printable PDF version.




While there are many possibilities from which to choose, let's concentrate on a centralized line of galaxies known as Markarian's Chain. The name comes from the Russian astrophysicist Benjamin Markarian (1913-1985), who published an article entitled "Physical Chain of Galaxies in Virgo and its Dynamic Instability" in the December 1961 issue of The Astronomical Journal. In the article, he discussed how this 1½° arc of galaxies could not have just formed serendipitously. Instead, he "arrived at the conclusion that the chain of galaxies in the Virgo cluster is not a chance grouping but a real physical system."

Markarian's original chain had eight galactic links, but by veering off course a little to include some immediate neighbors, the list quickly grows to more than a dozen. How many of those listed in the table below can you spot?








12 25.1

+12° 53.3'



NGC 4387

12 25.7

+12° 48.6'



NGC 4388

12 25.8

+12° 39.7'




12 26.2

+12° 56.8'



NGC 4402

12 26.1

+12° 26.1'



NGC 4435

12 27.7

+13° 04.7'



NGC 4438

12 27.8

+13° 00.5'



NGC 4458

12 28.9

+13° 14.5'



NGC 4461

12 29.1

+13° 11.0'



NGC 4473

12 29.8

+13° 25.8'



NGC 4477

12 30.0

+13° 38.2'



NGC 4479

12 30.3

+13° 34.7'




Two galaxies, M84 and M86, dominate the western end of the chain and make a good jumping-off point. M84, an E1 elliptical galaxy, shows a slightly oval disk that's elongated northwest/southeast and punctuated by a brighter central core. Its neighbor, M86, also looks to be an elliptical galaxy, as well, although its larger, slightly dimmer disk seems more elongated. It was that appearance that led astronomers to classify it initially as an E3 elliptical. Modern studies, however, now identify it as an S0 or lenticular galaxy, the "missing link" between ellipticals and spirals in the Hubble galaxy morphological classification system.


Do you ever get the feeling that you're being watched? You might when you're viewing M84 and M86, if your skies are dark enough. A pair of faint galaxies to their south joins the two Messier objects to create sort of an intergalactic face. The tiny elliptical galaxy, NGC 4387, marks the nose, while the edge-on spiral NGC 4388 forms the thin mouth. Neither galaxy shines brighter than 11th magnitude, however, so spotting the face can be tough. Finally, the 12th-magnitude edge-on spiral NGC 4402, looks like a raised eyebrow to the north of M86, as if our face is wondering "hey, what are you looking at?"



Above: Markarian's Chain as portrayed through the author's 4-inch (10cm) telescope.



Although M84 and M86 are the eyes of our intergalactic face, the next two links in Markarian's Chain, NGCs 4435 and 4438, actually bear the nickname The Eyes. This soubriquet goes back more than half a century, to an article called "Adventuring in the Virgo Cloud" that appeared in the February 1955 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine. The article was accompanied by a chart created by its author, Leland Copeland, that affixed whimsical labels to some of the galactic groupings. To Copeland, NGC 4435 and 4438 looked a pair of eyes staring back at him. 


NGCs 4435 and 4438 are also collectively known as Arp 120 for their listing in American astronomer Halton Arp's Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies. The catalog's 338 entries comprise a fascinating collection of interacting and merging galaxies. In the case of entry 120, Arp believed that both galaxies were close enough to distort one another because their complex gravitational interplay. Streamers of hot material extending away from NGC 4438 add evidence to a much more recent study using the Chandra X-ray Observatory that concluded both galaxies had collided with each other about 100 million years ago. 


NGC 4435, the northern "eye," impresses me as slightly brighter than NGC 4438, even though it is listed as half a magnitude dimmer. That disparity is likely because of its smaller size, which concentrates its light more effectively. Both appear oval, with their long axes oriented due north/south.


Hopping another link along the chain to the east-northeast brings NGC 4458 and NGC 4461 into view. The former looks nearly circular, while the latter displays a distinctly elongated disk that will probably require averted vision to be appreciated fully. 


The chain crosses into Coma Berenices before arriving at NGC 4473. Even if you have had some difficulty spotting some of the other galaxies here through your telescope or large binoculars, NGC 4473 should come clean fairly easily. Its elliptical disk, oriented approximately east/west, surrounds a stellar core that should be evident at about 80x. 


Finally, we arrive at NGC 4477, the last link in Markarian's Chain. Like NGC 4473, this should be a fairly easy catch through 3- to 5-inch telescopes. Look for a small, foggy patch engulfing a brighter central core. Lying right next door, NGC 4479 offers an even more difficult test than its neighbor. Though not part of Markarian's original list, this 12th-magnitude galaxy offers up a worthy challenge for small-scope observers. Crank up the magnification to 100x or more, if conditions permit, to maximize image contrast.


Good luck with this month's challenge! And be sure to post your results in this column's discussion forum.


Remember that half of the fun is the thrill of the chase.  Game on!

About the Author:

Phil Harrington writes the monthly Binocular Universe column in Astronomy magazine and is the author of 9 books on astronomy, including Cosmic Challenge: The Ultimate Observing List for Amateurs.  Visit www.philharrington.net to learn more.

Phil Harrington's Cosmic Challenge is copyright 2021 by Philip S. Harrington.  All rights reserved.  No reproduction, in whole or in part, beyond single copies for use by an individual, is permitted without written permission of the copyright holder.


  • okiestarman56, John O'Hara, Dupree and 4 others like this


Dave Mitsky
May 01 2021 12:51 PM

I had a great view of Markarian's Chain years ago at Cherry Springs State Park through a large Dob at relatively low magnification.  There were galaxies aplenty. wink.gif

    • PhilH, George N and jim kuhns like this

I will never forget, almost 20 years ago, scanning the galaxy region between Leo and Virgo with a Discover 12.5" Dob (having seen a reference to area in Dickerson's Sky Watch) and was amazed as one galaxy after another wandered through the wide angle eyepiece (a 40mm I believe.)
Now I have my hands on a new-to-me C8 with Hyperstar, and a ZW0 ASI2600MC Pro CMOS cooled camera.  This is going to be my first target with that setup!  I verified the image region and image scale with Stellarium.
What a great time to be an astronomer!  

    • PhilH, George N and jim kuhns like this

Had a great view of this from Flagstaff, AZ a few nights ago. More galaxies popped out in that region than I've been able to see before!

    • PhilH, George N and jim kuhns like this
May 08 2021 11:08 AM


is this a visual thing or are you asking for sketches and pictures ?




is this a visual thing or are you asking for sketches and pictures ?



Whatever you feel like posting, if anything, is great.

May 10 2021 04:39 PM

Saturday night I bagged the three brightest, along with 17 other new-for-me galaxies in Leo and Virgo, using Turn Left at Orion as my guide.   Looking forward to completing Markarian's Chain tonight!

    • PhilH and Michael Tomich like this
May 10 2021 09:03 PM

Here is my shot at the chain this year. I took this with my 80mm Astro-tech refractor and a Nikon DSLR. Be sure to click on the picture to see the larger version.


Markarians Chain
Album: NW Astrophotography
1 images


This is by far one of my favorite regions.


Clear skies everyone!

    • PhilH and jim kuhns like this
Dave Mitsky
May 10 2021 09:10 PM

That's a fine image of the chain, astrodrew22.

    • astrodrew22 likes this

Very nice image, astrodrew22.  Thanks for sharing!

    • astrodrew22 and Voyager 3 like this
BQ Octantis
May 11 2021 04:44 AM

I first came across these in 2018 in Stellarium, listed simply as "The Eyes"; I then I saw them through my C5/750. By 2019 I was on a mission to capture galaxy clusters, and the Virgo cluster was high on my list. I went after it with my Nifty Fifty:


(Click for full size.)


Capture details


Only after learning a lot of Photoshop Kung Fu for processing galaxies did I stumble across the chain defined (probably after I upgraded Stellarium):




So during the Great Lockdown in 2020, I went after the chain with my 200mm:


(Click for full size.)


Capture details / Full size in the 'bin


I've learned a ton about star processing since then; at some point I should go back and do another pass at processing…



    • Dave Mitsky, PhilH, jim kuhns and 2 others like this

Using the Slooh Canary Islands Rasa, I processed about 12 subs with excellent framing through a PixInsight flow. It didn't take many frames to start getting some good detail to show up:




Gear detail is in the link there, but on the f2.2 RASA they use a Celestron Nightscape 8300 Single-Shot-Color camera with a Kodak KAF-8300C chip. That was a pretty clear night, so was happy to have caught a well framed time on the scopes as they point every which way.

    • PhilH and Dupree like this
Dave Mitsky
May 14 2021 12:06 AM

I poked around in area of Markarian's Chain last night from a fairly dark site using my 10" f/4.7 Sky-Watcher Collapsible Dob and a 13mm Tele Vue Ethos (93x).

    • PhilH, jim kuhns and Voyager 3 like this

I poked around in area of Markarian's Chain last night from a fairly dark site using my 10" f/4.7 Sky-Watcher Collapsible Dob and a 13mm Tele Vue Ethos (93x).

How many was visible Dave ? 

Hi all,

I photographed this target this Month with 120 mm sw pro Ed at f 7.5

at bortle3-4 sky.this is my result.

BC2F6A16 77DC 4B4A 8318 0E35D83142C3
BC2F6A16 77DC 4B4A 8318 0E35D83142C3
Album: Markarian’s Chain
1 images


    • PhilH and Dupree like this

Thanks for such a wonderful article. I have had my eyes on these beautiful objects in the chain. It was amazing what 120 BT’s can pick up. While I did not get everything in the chain, I saw at least eight galaxies. I just love this object. For now, Markarian’s Chain is one of the first targets I observe. I will go back and then get a report of what I did see.

    • PhilH likes this

It's amazing how a small curved line of galaxies can be so powerful, beautiful, & eloquent. Thank you for the great challenge this month.

Markarians Chain Cropped
    • PhilH and sanbai like this
May 24 2021 01:42 PM

I spent a whole night a few years ago with an 11” SCT hopping through this patch of sky.  This year I made a couple of efforts to photograph it.  This was my best effort before the rains came.  I’ll be sure to go back to it next year as well.




    • Old Speckled Hen and Guillermo_I like this

Here's an image I grabbed last year, unfortunately before I had a system capable of dithering (hence the walking noise)



Phil is the world's Super Amateur!



    • Ginge and Old Speckled Hen like this
Old Speckled Hen
May 31 2021 08:15 AM

"From Dundee , IC 3355 is not observable, since you live so far north that the summer sky is too bright for it to be visible at any time..."


So far north!

At my first dark(-ish) sky opportunity, I've jumped into the Realm. M84, M86 and Markarian's chain – though not nearly as obvious as in the beautiful pictures above – were still a beautiful sight in my C6. Thanks Phil!

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