M86 is a giant lenticular or elliptical galaxy located in Virgo that's one of the brighter galaxies in the Virgo cluster (mag. +9.3). It lies at the heart of the grouping and forms a conspicuous pair with close neighbour and almost twin, M84. Through a medium sized scope, M86 appears as a bright, elongated patch of light. Also visible in the same low/medium power eyepiece field of view is M84.

It's currently not 100% certain what type of galaxy M86 is, it could be either a type S0 lenticular galaxy or an elliptical galaxy of type E3. The galaxy is unusual in that it's blue shifted and hence moving towards the Milky Way. Due to the expansion of the Universe most galaxies are receding and show redshifts. However, M86 is falling towards the centre of the Virgo cluster, causing it to move towards us at a speed of 244 km/s. This resulting blueshift is the highest of all Messier objects.

M86 was discovered by Charles Messier on March 18, 1781. This was an extremely productive night for Messier since he also discovered another seven Virgo cluster members and rediscovered globular cluster M92 in Hercules. The galaxy has an apparent diameter of 8.9 x 5.8 arc minutes and at a distance of 52 million light-years this corresponds to a spatial diameter of 135,000 light-years. It's estimated to contain at least 400 billion stars.

M86 is positioned close to the Virgo-Coma Berenices constellation border and can be found by imagining a line connecting Denebola (β Leo - mag. +2.1) with Vindemiatrix (ε Vir - mag. +2.8). Towards the centre of this line is M86 and positioned 17 arc minutes west of M86 is M84.

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

M86 Elliptical galaxy by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA))

Finder Chart for M86 (also shown M49, M53, M58->M60, M64->M66, M84->M85, M87->M91 and M98->M100)

Finder Chart for M86 (also shown M49, M53, M58->M60, M64->M66, M84->M85, M87->M91 and M98->M100) - pdf format

M86 is a challenging binocular object. It can be spotted with 7x50 or 10x50 models but requires dark skies and good transparency. Together with M84, both galaxies appear as faint smudges of light in the same field of view. A 80mm (3.1-inch) scope reveals them as small oval shapes with brighter centres. M86 is slightly bigger than M84. Due to their low surface brightness, larger telescopes show the surrounding halos better. With 200mm (8-inch) scopes under dark skies it's possible to spot several more faint galaxies in the same field of view. These include NGC 4435, NGC 4388, NGC 4402 and NGC 4438. The giant elliptical galaxy M87 is located about 1.5 degrees southeast of the M84/M86 pair.

M86 has an extensive system of globular clusters, totaling around 3,800.

M86 Data Table

Object TypeLenticular galaxy or (Elliptical galaxy)
ClassificationS0 (or E3)
Distance (kly)52000
Apparent Mag.9.3
RA (J2000)12h 26m 12s
DEC (J2000)12d 56m 47s
Apparent Size (arc mins)8.9 x 5.8
Radius (light-years)67,500
Number of Stars>400 Billion
Notable FeatureDisplays the highest blue shift of all Messier objects

Sky Highlights - April 2017

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