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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Featured Deep-Sky Object - M104 Sombrero Galaxy

The spring evening sky presents a plethora of galaxies to observe through remote robotic and backyard telescopes. One galaxy in particular that has interesting and unique characteristics is known as The Sombrero Galaxy, also called M104 or NGC 4594.

The Sombrero Galaxy is about 28 million light-years (50,000 light-years in diameter) from Earth in the constellation Virgo. The galaxy is so named because the halo-like features surrounding its disc are unusually large, making it look like a sombrero. It's not exactly known who discovered the galaxy. The discoverer was either Pierre Mechain or Charles Messier. William Herschel independently discovered the object in 1784, even though it had already been discovered by others.

M104  - "Sombrero Galaxy" in Virgo Imaged by Sam P. and Tom M.
M104  - "Sombrero Galaxy" in Virgo Imaged by Sam P. and Tom M.

The Sombrero Galaxy is a favorite target for well-equipped amateur astronomers. If you have a good dark-sky site, the object can be spotted through binoculars (those with large telescopes can spot the dust lane). This spring and early summer object can be found halfway between the constellations Virgo and Corvus.

Location of M104 in the Constellation Virgo
Location of M104 in the Constellation Virgo

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope have been used to study the Sombrero in visible and infrared light. The star-birth regions stand out in infrared wavelengths and are mostly located along the outer rim of the dust ring surrounding the galaxy’s core. The Sombrero Galaxy looks as it does partly because we are viewing it “edge-on” from our point of view here on Earth.

"Close observations of the central bulge display many points of light that are actually around 2000 globular clusters that hover around the core of the galaxy, and the number could be related to the size of the central bulge. M104's spectacular dust rings host many younger and brighter stars, and show intricate details astronomers don't yet fully understand," stated the NASA website Astronomy Picture Of The Day in a July 2013 entry.

Examination of the galaxy in recent years revealed that it had a sort of "split personality," NASA said on another website, showing that is a large elliptical galaxy that has a disk galaxy embedded inside of it. The reason this happened is still poorly understood.

The image to the upper-left was acquired by 6th-grade students at the Plymouth Community Intermediate School located in Massachusetts as part of a class astronomy education project called "The Galaxy Project - What Lies Beyond the Stars?" The image was taken with a 17" telescope remotely in New Mexico with a 5-minute exposure.

Sources: Space.com, Space-Facts.com

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