M 87 & NGC 4478 Galaxies in Virgo
Ruler of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster
The unbelievable huge Elliptical Galaxy, M87, rules over the approximately
2,000 galaxies of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster. The size of this galaxy (115,000
light years across) and its mass (800 billion solar masses) makes it one of the
top contenders for the most massive galaxies that can easily be seen by
amateur astronomers. In addition, M87 supports 12,000 globular clusters (our
galaxy has less than 200.) If these stats on M87 were not impressive enough,
current estimates place the galactic black hole at M87's center at 120 light
years across containing a mass of 3 billion suns -- the largest black hole yet
recorded. Because of the massive black hole, M87 is one of the brightest
radio sources in the night sky.
I return over-and-over again to this galaxy, even though I have never been
able to see any structure within its giant sphere. There is a plasma jet that
blasts out from near the event horizon of the black hole for 4,900 light years,
which can be observed (with difficulty) in large amateur telescopes under
pristine skies. I have never seen the jet, even though I have tried several
times with my 18" Dobsonian telescope under dark skies. Under suburban
skies my 6.1" refractor the jet is just not possible to detect. Still I find myself
looking for the jet each time M87's 55-million-year-old glow enters my eyes.
Note: Also in the drawing is NGC 4478 which is a companion galaxy to M87.
This much smaller galaxy is tidally deformed (being pulled apart) by the giant
elliptical. It will eventually be absorbed into M87 as has countless galaxies
before it. At low magnification, NGC 4478 appears star-like in my 6.1"
telescope. However, at a magnification of 137x (used for this drawing) it
expands into a fuzzy disk.