M87 is a supergiant elliptical galaxy that's a prominent member of the Virgo cluster of galaxies. It's one of the largest and most luminous galaxies known and a strong source of radiation, particularly radio and X-ray emissions. At the centre of M87 is a supermassive black hole with a jet of extremely energetic plasma extending outwards for at least 5000 light-years. The galaxy is therefore an interesting object for both professional and amateur astronomers alike.

With an apparent magnitude of +8.6, M87 is the second brightest of the Virgo cluster galaxies; only M49 at mag. +8.4 is brighter. On dark moonless nights it's visible with 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars, appearing as a faint hazy patch of light. The galaxy was one of eight discovered by Charles Messier on March 18, 1781. On this day he also re-discovered fine globular cluster M92.

M87 lies at the heart of the Virgo cluster. It can be found by imagining a line connecting Denebola (β Leo - mag. +2.1) with Vindemiatrix (ε Vir - mag. +2.8). Just over half way along this line is M87. Faint elliptical galaxy M89 is positioned just over a degree east of M87 with galaxy pair M84/M86 located 1.5 degrees northwest of M87.

The Virgo galaxies are best seen during the months of March, April and May.

M87 Elliptical galaxy by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

Finder Chart for M87 (also shown M49, M53, M58->M60, M64->M66, M84->M86, M88->M91 and M98->M100)

Finder Chart for M87 (also shown M49, M53, M58->M60, M64->M66, M84->M86, M88->M91 and M98->M100) - pdf format

Through a 80mm (3.1-inch) scope M87 appears as a fuzzy elliptical ball of light that's brighter towards the centre. Even with larger scopes the galaxy remains essentially featureless although much easier to detect. It has no distinctive dust lanes and diminishes in luminosity with distance from the center. The jet is far too faint to be observed with most backyard scopes, although it has been reportedly observed with extremely large amateur scopes under excellent conditions. It is much easier to image or photograph. Within the same low-power field as M87 are two fainter elliptical galaxies, NGC 4476 and NGC 4378.

M87 spans 8.3 x 6.6 arc minutes of apparent sky. It's located 53.5 million light-years distant, which corresponds to a spatial diameter of 130,000 light-years and is estimated to contain a trillion stars. The only supernova recorded for in M87 occurred in February 1919, but was not detected until 1922 when photographic plates were examined. The maximum brightness was estimated at +11.5.

Orbiting M87 are an extremely large number of globular clusters of which at least 12,000 have been identified. For comparison our Milky Way galaxy contains only 200.

The galaxy is also referred to as Virgo A.

M87 Data Table

Object TypeElliptical galaxy
Distance (kly)53500
Apparent Mag.8.7
RA (J2000)12h 30m 49.3s
DEC (J2000)12d 23m 26s
Apparent Size (arc mins)8.3 x 6.6
Radius (light-years)65,000
Number of Stars1 Trillion
Notable FeatureContains a spectacular jet of ejected matter

Sky Highlights - May 2017

Mercury reaches greatest elongation west on May 17, 2017

Meteor Shower
Eta Aquariids meteor shower peaks on May 5th and 6th, 2017

The Planets
This Month's Guide

Algol Minima
Algol eclipse dates and times for May 2017

Northern Hemisphere
West:- Mars (mag. +1.6)
South:- Jupiter (mag. -2.4)
Southwest:- Jupiter
Southeast:- Saturn (mag. +0.2)
South:- Saturn
East:- Venus (mag. -4.7)

Southern Hemisphere
West:- Mars
North:- Jupiter
Northwest:- Jupiter
North:- Saturn
Northwest:- Saturn
East:- Venus, Mercury (mag. +2.5 to -0.3), Neptune (mag. +7.9)

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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