Practiced stargazers sometimes use three stars of the constellation Aries the Ram to find an elusive galaxy – M74 – also known as the Phantom galaxy. And tonight’s moon can help you find these three stars, but you’ll have to save M74 for a dark, moonless night.
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.
Sky chart of the constellation Aries the Ram
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. The image at right was taken through the Hubble Space Telescope. Our eyes can’t see the galaxy like this. In amateur telescopes, M74 is barely visible. It is best viewed under low magnification. Telescope practioners use averted vision when seeking this galaxy. In other words, like many sorts of ghosts, it disappears when you look at it directly. (Image: NASA, ESA and Gemini Observatory)
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.