This is an image I took Wednesday night (April 19, 2006) from my moderately light polluted backyard in Howell, Michigan.
The object is M51 (“Messier 51”), also known as the “Whirlpool Galaxy.” It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1773, who described it as “a very faint nebula without stars, difficult to see.” A few years later his friend Pierre Mechain noted that it had a small companion galaxy, now designated NGC 5195. Until early in the twentieth century objects like this were thought to just be clouds of glowing gas (nebula). In the early twentieth century it became possible to measure how enormously distant (67 million light years, in this case), and hence how enormously large galaxies really are. The material making up galaxies like this one, thought to be just glowing gas, is actually billions and billions of stars, far too distant to be seen as separate objects (the stars that are visible in this image are probably much closer “foreground” stars in our own galaxy). The faint light visible through a telescope eyepiece gives you little clue as to how unimaginably huge these objects actually are.
Through the eyepiece of my scope the object the galaxy appears as little more then an almost imperceptible brightening of the background sky. With a somewhat larger scope and/or darker skies, you may be able to see just a hint of the spiral structure (this is the first galaxy observed to have a spiral structure), but it is difficult to truly appreciate these objects except by viewing images built from very long exposure photographs. The attached image was built by summing together more then 60 one-minute exposures through my AtiK 2HS “Astro-Webcam.”
For more details about M51, see http://www.astrocruise.com/m51.htm.