Markarian's Chain, a remarkable arc of bright galaxies, is your ticket to the Virgo Cluster. Hop aboard!

Stepping stones
Markarian's Chain is an elegant arc of mostly bright galaxies in northern Virgo.  North is up in all images except the sketch.
Joe Renzetti

More than 2,000 galaxies festoon the Virgo Cluster. Most are faint dwarf ellipticals, but a 6-inch telescope in dark skies will show at least 150 galaxies across a 10°-wide swath from central Virgo to Coma Berenices. The question is, where to start.

The Virgo Cluster, located about 60 million light-years away, contains several subgroups or clumps. Among them are: Virgo A, centered on M87; Virgo B, on M49; Virgo C, on M60; and a final subgroup centered on M86. One of the best ways to tackle Virgo is to take the scenic route along a favorite galactic avenue called Markarian's Chain, named for Armenian astrophysicist Benjamin Markarian, who discovered that this string of bright galaxies shares a common motion through space. Markarian is also the namesake of the Markarian catalog of bright, compact galaxies. many of which show up in the fields of view of more familiar NGC and Messier galaxies.

Galaxy finder
Markarian's Chain and the "Nine in a View" are easy to find 3° southeast of the 5th-magnitude star 6 Com, which is located 6.5° due east of 2nd-magnitude Denebola in Leo's tail. The inset shows a detailed view with stars to magnitude 9. I've also marked M87, a bright elliptical galaxy 1° southeast of the chain.

Most sources list eight physically-related members in the arc, but a 1983 paper by E. Lizroth in the Astronomische Nachrichten removes M84 because its motion doesn't jive with that of the rest of the group. Visually however, it looks like it belongs, so we can hardly ignore it. The graceful symmetry of the chain is certainly eye-catching and highlighted by dual pairs of interacting galaxies — NGC 4438 and NGC 4435, also known as "The Eyes," and NGC 4461 and NGC 4458. A half-dozen additional galaxies enrich the view, making this 1.5° porthole of sky one of the richest in bright galaxies.

Faint fuzzies in a field
I made this sketch of the chain and the "Nine in View" asterism earlier this month. South is up. Many of the galaxies possess bright, near-stellar nuclei that contrast with their softly-luminous disks — a beautiful thing to see. Physically-connected members are underlined. South is up.
Bob King

I first came to know the asterism by following its galaxy-sized steppingstones to a group I nicknamed "Nine in a View." At my lowest magnification of 64×, yielding a field of view 55′ (arcminutes) wide, I can hold nine galaxies in a single glance. I still regard it as one of the finest fields in the sky and make sure I stop by for a look at least once a season. If your telescope has a 1.5° field of view you should be able to squeeze in all 14 galaxies in the area.

Spring cornucopia
Keep track of all our featured galaxies with this labeled image. Most of the group can be seen in an 8-inch refelctor.
Joe Renzetti

M84 and M86 are side-by-side 10th-magnitude fuzzy patches each with a prominent bright nucleus. M84, a giant elliptical, is more elongated than its neighbor, a lenticular galaxy. Save their intense nuclei and contrasting shapes both appear virtually featureless. In your mind's eye try to picture the 1.5-billion-solar-mass black hole that's holed up M86's core. M84 is unique in being the Messier object with the highest blue shift. As it falls toward the center of the Virgo Cluster from the other side, the galaxy zooms toward us at 244 km per second.

Got our eyes on you
The interacting pairs make dueling pairs of "eyes" in the center of Markarian's Chain. NGC 4438 reveals a distorted disk in 10-inch and larger telescopes.
Hunter Wilson

About 22′ east of M86 expect a hot stare from the "Eyes," a pair of 10th-magnitude interacting galaxies otherwise known as NGC 4438 and NGC 4435. While NGC 4435 looks like a small, symmetrical oval with a bright nucleus, NGC 4438 clearly reveals a distorted disk, the result of a gravitational tug-of-war with its neighbor. The nucleus of NGC 4438 is quite faint and set in a roughly circular, brighter inner disk resembling a planetary nebula. The wispy outer disk extends northwest and southeast of the nuclear region. Using 242× and averted vision I can tease out the eastern tidal tail/warped disk as a faint, fuzzy extension "bending" toward the northeast. A fascinating object!

Bubbly black hole
A monstrous black hole blows huge bubbles of hot gas into space from the hub of NGC 4438.
NASA / ESA / Jeffrey Kenney / Elizabeth Yale (Yale University)

The interacting duo NGC 4461 and NGC 4458 make a second closer set of eyes 20′ further northeast. NGC 4461, an 11th-magnitude lenticular galaxy, is pleasingly elongated with a bright, near-stellar nucleus. Nearby NGC 4458 is an elliptical with a round shape and bright core and a full magnitude fainter. While neither looks distorted, the latter's faintness is related to a tidal interaction with 4461 sometime in the past.

With its brilliant nucleus rivaling those in the giants M84 and M86, the 11th-magnitude elliptical NGC 4473 is one of my favorites. Its hub glows with a wonderful intensity perhaps inspired by the galaxy's supermassive black hole. Yes, it seems black holes are everywhere. With a mass 100 million times solar and estimated at 4.46 a.u. across, it would reach all the way to the asteroid belt if put in place of the Sun.

The 11.4-magnitude NGC 4477 marks the end of the line 17′ farther northeast. NGC 4477 is a barred lenticular with a near-stellar nucleus. I can distinguish the bar as a narrow, north-south elongated streak of enhanced brightness around the nucleus at 242×. Smaller, fainter, and unrelated, NGC 4479, also a barred lenticular, begs a look 5′ southeast of NGC 4477. The12.5-magnitude puff reveals a faint stellar nucleus at medium and high magnifications.

Gas be gone!
Edge-on spiral NGC 4402 is falling into the Virgo Cluster, slamming into hot gases that are removing its own gas and dust in a process called ram pressure stripping.
ESA / Hubble Space Telescope

Several additional unrelated galaxies, centered in the Nine-in-a-View region back to the west, include NGC 4402, a 12th-magnitude edge-on spiral that looks like a faint puff of cigar smoke. Even after a careful study up to 357× I couldn't convince myself of seeing the equatorial dust lane. But I did make out subtle hints of texture along its length. NGC 4387 is a small but relatively bright elliptical, while NGC 4388, an 11th-magnitude barred spiral, added some zest with its extended, bright inner disk. Very pretty!

Screen grab from an April 10th press conference unveiling the first-ever image of a black hole in the nucleus of M87. The brighter part of the ring is either due to the black hole's rotation or from the rotation of gas around it. Einstein's special theory of relatively predicted the existence of black holes. Click here for more photos and details.

While you're in the area be sure to take the optional excursion to the titanic elliptical galaxy M87 (magnitude 8.6) 1° southeast of the chain's midway point. During an April 10, 2019 press conference, astronomers shared the first image of its 6.5-billion-solar-mass black hole. Incredible that it looks almost exactly as models predicted. Wow!


Image of Rod


April 11, 2019 at 9:31 am

Bob, another very good report with so many targets 🙂 I am still busy with 2 Pallas asteroid and your report there and Iris. If I try and look at all the targets you come up with using my 90-mm refractor and 10-inch Newtonian, no sleep for me so I am very selective now 🙂

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Bob King

April 11, 2019 at 8:48 pm

Thank you, Rod. Take your time — you have all spring and early summer 🙂

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Image of Joe Stieber

Joe Stieber

May 25, 2019 at 1:12 pm

Finally, after two months of trying to get out for a look on a clear, moonless night, I finally did it last night (May 24, 2019) with my 12.5-inch, f/5 Newtonian from the southern New Jersey Pines. Using a 24 mm 82° eyepiece with a 74 arc minute TFOV, I saw the "Nine in a View" using the respective drawing as a guide. Nice!

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Bob King

May 26, 2019 at 12:06 pm

They're a mind-expanding sight seen together. So glad you got them in your scope.

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