M63, the Sunflower Galaxy is a beautiful and spectacular spiral galaxy in the constellation of Canes Venatici. Along with M51 "The Whirlpool Galaxy", M94 and M106 it's one of four Messier galaxies located in the constellation. Of these, M51 is a much studied interacting grand design spiral that claims the title of finest galaxy in Canes Venatici. However, M63 is only marginally fainter and not far behind its illustrious neighbour. In addition, M63 and M51 are gravitationally bound and along with at least 6 other smaller galaxies they form the M51 Group of galaxies.

M63 is best seen from the Northern Hemisphere during the months of March, April or May.

The galaxy was the very first discovery made by Pierre Mechain, the great friend of Charles Messier, who found it on June 14, 1779. On the same day, Messier included it in his catalogue. Although Canes Venatici is a faint constellation locating M63 is easy since we can use the famous Plough or Big Dipper asterism of Ursa Major as a starting point. First locate Alkaid (η UMa - mag. +1.9) the eastern and end star of the handle of the Plough. Imagine a line from Alkaid moving in a southwesterly direction for about 14 degrees. At the end of this line is the brightest star in Canes Venatici, Cor Caroli (α CVn - mag. +2.9). M63 is positioned about 2/3rds of the way along this line.

M63 The Sunflower Galaxy (GALEX/NASA)

Finder Chart for M63 (also shown M51, M94, M101, M106 and M109)

Finder Chart for M63 (also shown M51, M94, M101, M106 and M109) - pdf format

At magnitude +8.9, the Sunflower Galaxy is a challenging binocular object, appearing at best as an out of focus star. Through a 80mm (3.1 inch) refractor it's recognisable as a galaxy but shows no detail unless viewed with medium or larger amateur scopes. A 150 mm (6 inch) instrument at high power reveals a bright core surrounded by a smooth oval shaped patch of nebulosity. A scope of 200mm (8-inch) aperture will start to show the spiral structure including the short arm segments. More subtle details such as dust lanes are visible in even larger scopes.

M63 has an apparent size of 12.6 x 7.2 arc minutes and is located 37 Million light-years from Earth; equating to an actual diameter of 135,000 light-years. In the early 1800s, Lord Rosse identified spiral structure within the galaxy, making this one of the first galaxies in which such structure was identified. It was listed as one of 14 "spiral nebulae" discovered to 1850.

In 1971, a magnitude +11.8 supernova appeared in one of the arms of M63.

M63 Data Table

NameSunflower Galaxy
Object TypeSpiral galaxy
ClassificationSA (rs)bc
ConstellationCanes Venatici
Distance (kly)37,000
Apparent Mag.8.9
RA (J2000)13h 15m 49s
DEC (J2000)42d 01m 50s
Apparent Size (arc mins)12.6 x 7.2
Radius (light-years)67,500
Number of Stars>400 Billion
Notable FeatureMember of the M51 Group of galaxies

Sky Highlights - March 2017

Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak now visible with binoculars as it heads towards perihelion

Mercury heading towards greatest elongation east

Minor Planet
Vesta now visible with binoculars and small telescopes.

The Planets
This Month's Guide

Algol Minima
Algol eclipse dates and times for March 2017

Northern Hemisphere
West:- Venus (mag. -4.8 to -4.1 - first half of month), Mars (mag. +1.3 to +1.5), Uranus (mag. +5.9), Mercury (mag. -1.5 to -0.4 - second half of month)
Southeast:- Jupiter (mag. -2.3 to -2.5)
Southwest:- Jupiter
Southeast:- Saturn (mag. +0.5)

Southern Hemisphere
West:- Venus (first half of month), Mars, Uranus
North:- Jupiter
East:- Saturn
West:- Jupiter
Northeast:- Saturn
East:- Neptune (mag. +8.0 - second half of month)

Deep Sky
Naked eye / binoculars:-
Melotte 111 - Mel 111 - The Coma Star Cluster (Open Cluster)
Messier 44 - M44 - The Praesepe (Open Cluster)

Messier 67 - M67 - Open Cluster
Messier 51 - M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy)
Messier 97 - M97 - The Owl Nebula (Planetary Nebula)
Messier 101 - M101 - The Pinwheel Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy)
Messier 65 – M65 – Spiral Galaxy
Messier 66 - M66 - Intermediate Spiral Galaxy
Messier 95 - M95 - Barred Spiral Galaxy
Messier 96 - M96 - Intermediate Spiral Galaxy
NGC 4244 - Spiral Galaxy
NGC 4565 - Needle Galaxy - Spiral Galaxy

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