Observing Project 14D High Energy Galactic Cores

When supermassive central objects at the cores of galaxies accelerate gases to high speeds, the gases become excited and emit tremendous quantities of energy. When this occurs, even in Sc type spirals or galaxies with even smaller cores, that core can glow with more light than the entire rest of the galaxy. These types of very active galaxies are called Seyfert type galaxies. The Seyferts represent a little cousin of a type of galaxy that is the most powerful source of energy in the universe.

The most energetic such galaxy on the Messier list is M77 in Cetus. To find M77, start at the magnitude +2.5 magnitude Menkar (Alpha Ceti) and go just under 5 degrees to the southwest to find magnitude +3.4 Kaffaljidhma (Gamma Ceti). From here, go just over 3 degrees to the south to find magnitude +4.1 Delta Ceti. M77 is just about 50 minutes of arc to the east of Delta Ceti.

Once centered in your main scope, it becomes obvious why M77 is special. The core of the Shapely type Sb galaxy is disproportionately bright compared to the rest of the galaxy. This is due to the excitation of gases moving at high speed around the supermassive central object at the galaxy's core. M77 also has three bright spiral arms that can be viewed with larger telescopes or medium sized scopes under very dark skies. The galaxy is inclined to our line of sight by about 51 degrees. The arms are knotted with large clusters of young stars. Observers with larger telescopes will notice the irregularity in the brightness of the arms. It would seem that the high energy levels in the core are triggering starburst events in the arms of M77. M77 is also very large in linear size. The easily visible part of M77 extends over 120,000 light years, making it one of the largest Messier spirals.

Spectroscope users can tell that the galaxy is the site of unusual activity because the emission lines in the galaxy's spectra are unusually wide, particularly at the wavelengths of hydrogen-beta, doubly ionized nitrogen and singly and doubly ionized oxygen. If you have a spectroscope compare the galaxy's emission lines to those of M31. Andromeda's emission lines are much narrower than are those of M77. The more energy that is produced by the rapidly moving matter, the more the light of the galaxy at those particular wavelengths is enhanced creating the wider emission lines in the spectroscope.

Seyfert galaxies are fascinating because they represent a lower energy cousin of one of the most enigmatic phenomena in all the cosmos. Super-active galactic nuclei create quasi-stellar appearing points at the center of distant galaxies that are many thousands of times brighter than the entire host galaxy. These quasistellar nuclei or quasars are examples of Seyfert galaxies gone completely wild. Unfortunately the nearest quasar is two billion light years distant and far beyond the reach of amateur telescopes. M77 represents on a small and local scale what is going on in the incredible depths of the universe.

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