M88, mag. +9.6, is a fine spiral galaxy located in Coma Berenices that's a member of the Virgo cluster of galaxies. It has a reasonably high surface brightness - partly due to its favourable inclination of 30 degrees - and therefore a nice small telescope object. It appears somewhat like a much smaller and fainter version of M31, the spectacular Andromeda Galaxy.

M88 is one of the brightest Seyfert galaxies in the sky. These types of galaxies exhibit extremely active quasar like nuclei and are strong emitters of electromagnetic radiation with highly ionised spectral emission lines present. They are named after 20th century American astronomer Carl Seyfert who first identified them. Galaxies M51, M66, M77, M81, M87 and M106 also belong to this class of object.

M88 was one of the eight Virgo cluster galaxies discovered by Messier on his most productive night, March 18, 1781. Messier's description of M88 was of a "nebula without star between two small stars and one star of the sixth magnitude, which appear at the same time as the nebula in the field of the telescope". He also remarked that it was similar in appearance to M58. William Parsons the 3rd Earl of Rosse was the first to recognise the spiral shape and listed M88 as one of 14 "spiral nebulae" discovered to 1850.

As with some of the Virgo galaxies, locating M88 can be challenging since there are no bright stars located in the vicinity. The galaxy is positioned about a degree north of the Coma Berenices-Virgo constellation boundary with the general area of sky located midway between stars Denebola (β Leo - mag. +2.1) and Vindemiatrix (ε Vir - mag. +2.8). Tenth magnitude barred spiral galaxy M91 is located just east of M88.

The best time of year to look for the Virgo galaxies is during the months of March, April and May.

M88 Spiral Galaxy (Mt. Lemmon Obs, Arizona)

Finder Chart for M88 (also shown M49, M53, M58->M60, M64->M66, M84->M87, M89->M91 and M98->M100)

Finder Chart for M88 (also shown M49, M53, M58->M60, M64->M66, M84->M87, M89->M91 and M98->M100) - pdf format

M88 is bright enough to be seen with 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars on dark nights and is one of the better Virgo cluster galaxies for small telescopes. A small 80mm (3.1-inch) scope reveals an elongated glow of light with a bright centre surrounded by a large outer envelope of nebulosity. It takes high magnifications well so don't be afraid to push up the power especially when the seeing conditions are good.

In total, the galaxy spans 6.9 x 3.7 arc minutes of apparent sky but of course through the eyepiece it appears smaller. With a medium size 200mm (8-inch) scope, M88 displays subtle changes in brightness especially along the edges. The core is well defined, condensed and bright.

M88 is located 53 million light-years distant, which corresponds to an actual diameter of 105,000 light-years. It's estimated to contain about 400 billion stars. To date, one supernova (SN 1999cl) has been observed in M88, which peaked at magnitude +13.6 and within the range of larger amateur scopes.

M88 Data Table

Messier88
NGC4501
Object TypeSpiral galaxy
ClassificationSA(rs)b
ConstellationComa Berenices
Distance (kly)53000
Apparent Mag.9.6
RA (J2000)12h 31m 59s
DEC (J2000)14d 25m 15s
Apparent Size (arc mins)6.9 x 3.7
Radius (light-years)52,500
Number of Stars400 Billion
Notable FeatureMember of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies

Sky Highlights - March 2017

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

Mercury
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
Evening
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)
Midnight
Southeast:- Jupiter (mag. -2.3 to -2.5)
Morning
Southwest:- Jupiter
Southeast:- Saturn (mag. +0.5)

Southern Hemisphere
Evening
West:- Venus (first half of month), Mars, Uranus
Midnight
North:- Jupiter
East:- Saturn
Morning
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)

Telescopes:-
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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