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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Earthsky Tonight, January 22, 2010: Moon and stars of Aries point to a hard-to-see galaxy

Courtesy of EarthSky
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The Phantom galaxy

As seen from North America this evening, the fat waxing crescent moon shines in front of the constellation Pisces the Fishes, not far at the Aries/Pisces border. The three stars to the moon’s upper left depict the head of Aries the Ram. In their order of brightness, these stars are Hamal, Sheratan and Mesarthim. The star Eta Piscium in Pisces may be hard to see tonight because of the moonlit glare, but this star is fairly easy to pick out on a dark, moonless night.

Practiced stargazers often starhop to M74 (the ‘Phantom’ galaxy), using the three Aries’ stars and Eta Piscium. You should be able to spot the star Eta Piscium with binoculars tonight. But will you see M74 – a face-on spiral galaxy lodging some 35 million light-years away? No way! Of the more than 100 Messier deep-sky objects cataloged by the famous comet hunter, Charles Messier, this is one of the hardest to see in a telescope.

You don’t really need a super high-powered telescope to see the Phantom galaxy, but you do need a perfectly dark and transparent sky. Every March, when it’s technically possible (though difficult) to spot all the Messier objects in one night, M74 is one that is commonly missed.

Written by Bruce McClure