M104 No, it’s not a new sitcom on Fox. It’s the Sombrero Galaxy known technically as M104. It is a bright, circular galaxy in the constellation Virgo, with a very bright center that features a distinct bulge. With a magnitude of 9.0, it can be easily seen with amateur telescopes.  The bulge in the center is a supermassive black hole.

The galaxy was discovered by Pierre Mechain in May, 1783. A prominent feature of this galaxy is a dust lane that crosses in front of the galaxy’s bulge. Based on infrared spectroscopy, this ring is believed to be the primary site of star formation in M104. M104 3.6 4.5 8.0 microns spitzer.pngAn infrared image taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope is below right.

Sombrero means “hat” in Spanish and is often in used in Mexico to keep out the very hot sun. The hat’s wide brim seems similar enough to be able to describe M104 as the “Sombrero” galaxy. The dust lane adds depth to the illusion of a brim when looking at pictures of M104.

In the 1990’s, using spectroscopy data, it was shown that the speed of rotation of the stars in the center of M104 could not be sustained unless a mass of 1 billion times more than our Sun was present in the center. This is one of the most massive black holes measured in any nearby region of space.

The Sombrero Galaxy has a large number of globular clusters, estimated at between 1,200 to 2,000, The distance of M104 is approximately 29.3 million light years away. The galaxy is visible with 7×35 power binoculars or a 4 inch telescope. An 8 inch scope will help define the bulge within the center of the galaxy.

I like the picture of M104 taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. It has nice symmetry, a well defined ring, bright center and a slight incline that makes it very interesting to look at. Also, it makes for a really good desktop wallpaper for my computer.

Photos: Hubble, left and Spitzer, right