The face-on spiral galaxy M61 is one of the largest members of the Virgo Cluster, an assembly of more than a thousand galaxies at the centre of the even more expansive Virgo Supercluster. Discovered in 1779 by Barnaba Oriani, just six days before Charles Messier realised it wasn’t a comet, M61 is a familiar target for professional and amateur astronomers alike, home to a supermassive black hole at the heart of a dense stellar nucleus. Located 50 million light years from the Milky Way in the constellation Virgo, the galaxy’s spiral arms are populated by billions of stars, the result of rapid star formation. This image was captured by the European Southern Observatory’s Cosmic Gems Programme.
In this image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), light from blazing blue stars energises the gas left over from the stars’ recent formation. The result is a strikingly colourful emission nebula, called LHA 120-N55, in which the stars are adorned with a mantle of glowing gas. LHA 120-N55 lies within the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.
Plumb the hidden depths of spring’s deep-sky by seeking out 3C 273, the optically-brightest quasi-stellar object (QSO) in the constellation of Virgo. Quasars are the intensely luminous centres of very distant and active galaxies, powered by a supermassive black hole. And don’t worry that you need a huge ‘scope to see it – a 15-cm (6-inch) instrument and a clear, moonless night are all you need.