M96 is an intermediate spiral galaxy 35 million light-years distant in the constellation of Leo. At magnitude +9.6, it's the brightest member of the Leo I or M96 group of galaxies that also contains M95, M105 and at least another 21 fainter galaxies. The grouping is one of many that lie within the Virgo Supercluster. The three galaxies are amongst the fainter objects in Messiers catalogue but all are visible with large 15x70 or 20x80 binoculars from a dark site, appearing as faint smudges of light.

M96 is an unusual galaxy in the sense that it has asymmetric arms and a displaced core that were probably caused by gravitational pulling from other nearby galaxies. It was discovered, along with M95, by Pierre Méchain on March 20, 1781. Charles Messier including both items in his catalogue four days later. M105 was not included in the original Messier catalogue but added much later by Helen Sawyer Hogg in 1947.

The galaxies are located in the southern middle section of the relatively large and bright constellation of Leo the Lion, which lies east of Cancer and to the west of Virgo. Leo contains one first magnitude star, Regulus (α Leo - mag. +1.4), which happens to be the brightest star in the surrounding region of sky. About 24 degrees east and two degrees north of Regulus is the third brightest star in Leo, Denebola (β Leo - mag. +2.1). Imagine a line connecting Regulus with Denebola with M95, M96 and M105 located just less than half way along this line. The northernmost member of the trio is M105 with M96 located 50 arc minutes south of M105 and M95 positioned 40 arc minutes west of M96.

They are best seen during the months of March, April and May.

M96 Spiral galaxy (ESO)

Finder Chart for M96 (also shown M65, M66, M95 and M105)

Finder Chart for M96 (also shown M65, M66, M95 and M105) - pdf format

It's difficult to notice much detail in M96 through a small 80mm (3.1-inch) telescope but it's possible, on nights of good seeing, to make out the oval shaped core. Larger apertures of 200mm (8-inch) or greater bring out more, including the bright core surrounded by wispy nebulosity that hints at the true spiral nature of the galaxy. In total, M96 spans 7.8 x 5.2 arcminutes of apparent sky.

In the same field of view as M96 is M95 which displays an oval patch of diffuse light with a bright core. The third galaxy M105 is the least impressive of the three, appearing only as a small faint ball of fuzz. Since each galaxy is of a different type - barred spiral galaxy M95, intermediate spiral galaxy M96 and elliptical galaxy M105 - it's interesting to compare how they appear through the eyepiece.

M96 is 80,000 light-years in diameter while M95 and M105 measure 46,000 and 55,000 light-years in diameter respectively. On May 9, 1998 a type Ia supernova (SN 1998bu) was discovered in M96, peaking at magnitude +11.8.

M96 Data Table

Object TypeIntermediate Spiral galaxy
Distance (kly)35,000
Apparent Mag.9.6
RA (J2000)10h 46m 46s
DEC (J2000)11d 49m 25s
Apparent Size (arc mins)7.8 x 5.2
Radius (light-years)40,000
Number of Stars100 Billion
Notable FeatureM96 is a member of the Leo I or M96 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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