M59 is an elliptical galaxy in Virgo and a member of the Virgo cluster that was discovered by Johann Gottfried Koehler on April 11, 1779 while observing a comet in that region of sky. On the same day, he also discovered neigbouring galaxy M60, a slightly larger and brighter version of M59. Also comet chasing at that time was Charles Messier who independently found both galaxies four days after Koehler. During his search, Messier also discovered M58 another nearby Virgo cluster galaxy that was missed by Koehler. Of the three, Messier described M60 as the brightest galaxy with M59 and M58 being fainter and of similar magnitude.

At apparent magnitude +9.8, M59 is a challenging small telescope object. It can be spotted with small 80mm (3.1-inch) scopes or even large binoculars, but dark skies are a must. Even then it only appears as a hazy patch, that's better seen with larger amateur instruments. The galaxy is located 60 Million light years distant. It displays an apparent size of 5.4 x 3.7 arc minutes, which corresponds to a spatial diameter of 95,000 light-years. Despite been one of the larger elliptical galaxies in the Virgo cluster, M59 is considerably less massive and less luminous than the other great cluster ellipticals, M49, M60 and M87.

A good proportion of the Messier Virgo Cluster galaxies can be found along or near an imaginary line connecting Denebola (β Leo - mag. +2.1) to Vindemiatrix (ε Vir - mag. +2.8). M59 is no exception and it's positioned about 5 degrees from Vindemiatrix. Located 0.4 degrees east of M59 is M60 with M58 one degree west of M59.

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

M59 Elliptical galaxy (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Finder Chart for M59 (also shown M49, M53, M58, M60, M64->M66, M84->M91 and M98->M100)

Finder Chart for M59 (also shown M49, M53, M58, M60, M64->M66, M84->M91 and M98->M100) - pdf format

When viewed through medium sized 150mm (6-inch) or 200mm (8-inch) telescopes, M59 appears as an elongated diffuse patch of light. The central core appears condensed and bright with a large faint nebulous halo surrounding it. Through the eyepiece, M59 looks slightly smaller and fainter than M60, but otherwise rather similar in appearance with both galaxies visible in the same low power eyepiece field of view.

In total, M59 contains somewhere between 1500 and 2400 globular clusters. This is considerably less than M49, M60 and M87 but still more than ten times the number in our own Milky Way Galaxy. To date, only one supernova has been recorded in M59 (1939B). It peaked in 1939 at magnitude of +11.9.

M59 Data Table

Object TypeElliptical galaxy
Distance (kly)60000
Apparent Mag.9.8
RA (J2000)12h 42m 02s
DEC (J2000)11d 38m 48s
Apparent Size (arc mins)5.4 x 3.7
Radius (light-years)47,500
Number of Stars200 Billion
Notable FeatureMember of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies

Sky Highlights - April 2017

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