Monday, April 4, 2011

Observing the Jet in M87

Working part time at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter (MLSC) has been a tremendous experience for me over the past several months.  Not only do I have regular opportunities to introduce folks to astronomy and the night sky, but I have access to a world class instrument; the Schulman 32 inch  RCOS telescope. Last night I administered our SkyNights program, and after the guests departed I spent some time with my very good friend, mentor, and SkyCenter volunteer Jerry Farrar observing galaxies in the constellations of Sextans and Virgo.  The night was very dark with no moon, and even the light dome from nearby Tucson was diminished on this Sunday Night.  For those of you not familiar with the mountain or the observatory, the MLSC sits at the summit of Mount Lemmon, just north of Tucson at an elevation of 9500 feet.

Temperatures last night were in the mid 30's around 11:00 PM MST when on a whim I decided to point the telescope at M87 to see if we could observe the jet that emanates from the super massive black hole at the center of this galaxy.  Lobes from this jet extend out to 250,000 light years from the nucleus, and can be seen in the Hubble space telescope image of the galaxy at left.  Below is an image of this galaxy taken at the SkyCenter which was featured in the March issue of Astronomy magazine.  Click on the image and you will see the small jet shooting out from the core. Utilizing a 21mm Televue Ethos eyepiece and a 2x Barlow (542 power, .2 degree field of view), both Jerry and I observed the galaxy as well as the jet!  It took a few minutes to spot, but we were able to independently locate the jet as well as see a star like bright spot on the jet itself.   To the right of the image is the sketch I completed at approximately 0600 UT on April 4th.

Until 1990, there had been only one recorded visual observation of this observation made by Otto Struve using the 100 inch Hooker Telescope at Mount Wilson.  It is the kind of observation that very few individuals are lucky enough to make.  This was a difficult observation, but one that makes my personal list of all time favorites, right up there with the whirlpool galaxy through the 40 inch telescope belonging to the late Dave Fredrickson.  


  1. I managed to see the M87 jet through a 48" in Texas last year. It looked just like a little pencil sticking out from the centre. Like you, it is also one of my all-time favourite observations and the fulfilment of a long-standing observing ambition.

  2. Thanks Faith- while it was not much to look at at, it certainly leaves one in awe when one knows what it is that is being observed. Now I need to think about the next elusive target that the 32 inch can tease out...