Tuesday, March 31, 2015

M65, M66 and NGC 3628: Leo Triplet

Stargazing from a Bortle 1 Sky

I must confess that having lived under a heavily light polluted sky in Bogota, Leo triplet became an elusive target. It was only last month when I had the opportunity to travel to a Chinese village called FengKe located 160kms further north from Lijiang that I got my first peak at it. This place was not only far from the city but it was also surrounded by mountains blocking any source of artificial light.

Using the Astromaster 130, I tried several times to see Leo Triplet from Bogota but the sky there was so bright that even with Leo at the Zenith, I saw stars only. From my actual sky here in Lijiang I tried once again with the Skymaster Binoculars and I believe I saw M66, but unfortunately my eye adaptation was poor since I was in middle of my apartment complex and there was “no way” to avoid the troublesome lights around.  To the right, there is a picture that shows some of the lights I am exposed to when I stargaze from my apartment complex.

The perfect time to see Leo triplet finally came on 23th February from FengKe. I woke up very early in the morning with the only intention to hunt this triplet of Galaxies. The weather the day before had been partially cloudy but miraculously there were no clouds that night. The sky was so dark that I could see M44 for the first time with just my eyes and I also saw Berenice’s Hair (Melotte 111) not only as a fuzzy patch of light, but I resolved easily at least the eight brightest stars in it (4th and 5th of apparent magnitude).  Jupiter which was about 20 degrees of setting and my dim red light seemed like a problem for visual dark adaptation under such a dark sky. I checked in Stellarium mobile to know where to start my search.  It couldn’t be easier: I went to Chertan (Ɵ Leo) and then moved the binoculars to my left side (southward) and Voilà: both M65 and M66 where very obvious patches of light located above a bright group of stars (HIP55016/n Leo, HIP 55033, HIP55029, HIP 55167 and HIP 55209) formed on a lying N shape. Both M65 and M66 reminded me the view of M81 and M82 from my Bortle 5 sky in Lijiang. M66 seemed like a dim oval (M66) while M65 was like a flattened oval as if it was seen from the side with the brightest area in its center. NGC 3628 was just like a “presence” situated between two stars of magnitudes 10 and 9.90 both above HIP55262 which was forming a triangle with both M66 and M65. I had difficulty in sketching NGC3628 as I could only detect it with my peripheral vision and every time I used the red flashlight to draw, I lost the ability to see it.

I spent about one hour performing the sketch. First the brightest stars in it as I use them as a guide. Then the “nebulous” objects, in this case the Galaxies and finally I tried to spot as many stars as I could. This time I was forced to finish the sketch because my red light lost power and I did not want to use my normal small flash light, otherwise I would spoil the perfect darkness. If the sky were not that dark I would not care to use other light, but because I was able to see those dim objects I preferred just keep looking through the Binoculars and finish sketching.  Afterward I continued to contemplate the Leo Triplet.  I went to Bode’s Nebulae just to compare how it would look from a very dark sky. I did not see any more details than what I saw in my previous observation (Bode's nebulae: M81 and M82), but definitely both galaxies seemed significantly brighter.

I think this time, I have reached the limit of my “observable universe” from my Skymasters: 35 million light-years away. Oh wait, I have also had seen M49 which is located ~60Mly (million light-years) away. Not bad for a pair of binoculars, is it?

Thanks all for sharing with me this amazing experience.


Edited by Jennifer Steinberg (editor in Chief)


  1. Very nice work, LG.

    Thanks much.... Lowjiber (John)

  2. Thanks John, I also admire your work under such a heavy light polluted skies!