If you feel like going on the most satisfying Easter egg hunt of your life, spring is the time for you. This is the best season to hunt for and view a large variety of galaxies – the Easter eggs of the cosmos. Due to our orientation in space, in the summer and winter, Earth is in the best seats to see the Milky Way. That’s great if you want to see the Milky Way and not so good if you want to see the most distant galaxies visible to amateur astronomers. Instead, you need to wait until the spring and fall seasons to look out into the galactic neighborhood to, well, spy on the neighbors. Of these seasons, spring is the season where distant galaxies dominate the sky (in contrast to fall where closer galaxies tend to be visible). Even then, it seems like nature is working against you, making the hunt that much more thrilling. As Earth approaches the summer months (in the northern hemisphere that is), the days are getting longer – logically this means the nights are getting shorter. In several cases, the window of opportunity to catch some of these galaxies is very small.
Even though the spring sky is packed full of galaxies ‘easily’ visible to amateur observers, finding them can be a royal pain in the ass. Galaxies are extremely faint; by in large some of the faintest objects visible to amateur astronomers. Because of this, you can easily miss them if your eyes aren’t properly tuned to the dark or if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Even if you do know what you’re looking for, experience astronomers can have a tough time finding far-flung galaxies.
"So, what are some tricks to finding these galaxies?" you may ask?
- You need to be under a very dark sky, far away from the light pollution generated by major cities.
- Use averted vision when looking for galaxies and other faint objects. This basically means don’t look directly at the object, there is actually a blind spot in the center of your eye and if you look at the object, it could simply vanish. If you look to the side, you are able to use the more sensitive portions of your eye and are able to find it.
- If you are having a hard time finding the object, you can scan the sky very slowly with the telescope. Our eyes are able to see moving objects better than still ones, so this trick makes the sky appear to move and may allow the object to ‘pop out’ at you. Be cautious though, you don’t want to move away from the object and, if your telescope moves too quickly, you easily pass over several degrees of sky without actually ‘seeing’ anything.
The galaxies you’re looking for will be concentrated within constellations of Leo, Virgo, Ursa Major, Coma Berenices, and Canes Venatici. If you are a beginner, you should probably start with M65 and M66, two galaxies found in the constellation Leo. They are brighter and easier to spot (a common mistake beginners will make will be to search for galaxies found in Ursa Major because the Big Dipper is easy to spot. These galaxies tend to be very hard to find). Virgo holds a very large number of galaxies in conjunction with Coma Berenices. In fact, there are so many galaxies concentrated in this relatively small patch of sky that experience astronomers start having trouble identifying which galaxies are which. My final word of advice will be to get a good star atlas or a good planetarium program to help you in your journey. In addition, make a plan. Before you arrive on site, have a general idea of what objects you want to find and plan when you want to view them. This allows you to take advantage of their positions in the sky as the Earth rotates. There are so many objects visible in the night sky that you can miss out by not planning ahead. In the end, have lots of fun. Personally, I can’t wait to get out there and start my own galactic Easter egg hunt.