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Moon and stars of Aries point to Phantom galaxy

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Tonight for January 8, 2014

Use the moon on the night of January 8, 2014 to find three stars of the constellation Aries the Ram. Then, when the moon moves away, use those three stars to find an elusive galaxy – M74 – also known as the Phantom galaxy.

As seen from the North America this evening, the waxing gibbous moon shines at the border of the constellations Pisces the Fishes and Aries the Ram. You may need to block out the moon (and/or use binoculars) to see the three stars that depict the head of Aries the Ram.

In their order of brightness, these stars are Hamal, Sheratan and Mesartim. The star Eta Piscium in Pisces may be especially hard to see tonight because of the moonlit glare, but this star is fairly easy to pick out on a dark, moonless night.

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Sky chart of the constellation Aries the Ram

Nowadays the sun passes in front of the constellation Aries from about April 19 to May 13. Click here for a larger chart

Practiced stargazers often starhop to M74 (the Phantom galaxy), using the three Aries’ stars and Eta Piscium. You might be able to spot the star Eta Piscium with binoculars tonight. Will you see M74? No way! Of the more than 100 Messier deep-sky objects cataloged by the famous comet hunter, Charles Messier, this galaxy is one of the hardest to see in a telescope.

Yet M74 – the Phantom galaxy – is a fascinating object. It has the lowest surface brightness of all the Messier objects because it is a face-on spiral galaxy some 35 million light-years away.

M74, aka the Phantom Galaxy.  Image via NASA, ESA and Gemini Observatory.

M74, aka the Phantom galaxy. Image via NASA, ESA and Gemini Observatory. Image taken with Hubble Space Telescope via NASA, ESA and Gemini Observatory.

Our eyes can’t see the galaxy like this. Even in amateur telescopes, M74 is barely visible. It is best viewed under low magnification. Telescope users practice averted vision when seeking this galaxy. In other words, like many sorts of ghosts, it disappears when you look at it directly. 

You don’t really need a super high-powered telescope to see the Phantom galaxy, but you do need an inky dark night, transparent sky and dark-adapted eyes. Every March, when it’s technically possible (though difficult) to spot all the Messier objects in one night, M74 is one that is commonly missed. Here’s more about the annual Messier Marathon, with tips on how to spot M74.

Bottom line: The moon on the night of January 8, 2014 can help you find the three noticeable stars of the constellation Aries the Ram. And then – after the moon moves away from this part of the sky – those three stars could (if you had a telescope) help you find the Phantom galaxy, M74.

January 2014 guide to the visible planets

Aries? Here’s your constellation

Hamal: Ancient equinox star