University Lowbrow Astronomers

Far, Far Away—Getting Started in Quasar Observing.

by Christopher Sarnecki
Printed in Reflections: May, 2010.

NGC 4319, Markarian 205, NGC 4291

I don’t know how I got started on observing quasars. Perhaps it was because of a fascination with distant objects. In amateur astronomy, we observe objects at enormous distances. Quasars, short for ‘quasi-stellar radio source’ in reference to their stellar pinpoint radio source origin, are the farthest astronomical objects seen in our telescopes. Not tens of millions of light years away, or hundreds of millions of light years away, but billions of light years away. That’s right, billions of light years away. Talk about time travel! A quasar is understood to be the energetic nucleus of a distant galaxy surrounding a super massive black hole. Small in size, perhaps only the diameter of our Solar System, quasars out shine their host galaxy. Think about that for a moment. An object the size of our Solar System is emitting energy equivalent to entire out put of the home galaxy or about a trillion Suns. These objects are also associated with high redshift confirming their enormous distance from our point in space. In short, quasars are the most distant and luminous pinpoint objects you are ever going to observe in your telescope. So endith the science lesson.

So what are you going to see when looking at quasars? Well not much, in you eye anyway. Just a faint pinpoint of stellar light. Remember, these objects are after all ‘far, far way, (you know the line) in a distant galaxy.’ Your mind is going to ‘see’ much more. Just knowing that you are looking at the farthest object possible in the optical spectrum is impressive. Ancient photons bouncing around in your eyeball that started on their journey billions of years ago. Also, knowing these photons were generated on the edge of a black hole’s event horizon is something to think about.

While there may be a couple hundred thousand known quasars, we amateur astronomers can see only a handful. Here is a list of observable quasars in moderate and large amateur telescopes. Note that you are not going to find these objects on your usual star chart with the exception of 3C273. So pay special attention to locating finder charts. As with all faint objects, it helps to observe the target when it is at or near the upper meridian of the sky.

Also, don’t claim you can’t see these objects because you don’t have access to an appropriate sized scope. The Lowbrows are a generous lot and will help you dial up these objects in their scopes if asked. Just do you homework by bring the correct star charts at the correct time of year.

Name/Cat NoMagCoordinatesConstellation
3C273 11.7-13.2 12H26M/02^19’ Virgo
PHL 1811 13.8 21H55M02S/-09^22’24” Capricornus
MSH 04-12 14.9 04H07M49S/-12^11’36” Eridanus
Markarian 205 14.5 12H21.6M/75^18’ Draco

3C273—The brightest visible quasar as seen from the Earth. On a clear day you can see 93 million miles, or about 8 light seconds to the Sun. On a clear night, you can see about 2.2 million light years naked eye to the Andromeda galaxy. Well on a clear night, you can see almost 2 Billion light years in your scope by sighting quasar 3C 273. This quasar is visible in an 8-inch scope. See page 83 of Sky & Telescope’s May 2005 issue for maps and observing tips.

PHL 1811—This 13.8 mag quasar is located in Capricornus. Armed with the fine star chart from Skyhound web site (, I found this one too easily. Imagine, the look back time on this object is 2.4 Billion light years. That’s more than half the age of the Earth. While I located this one with an 18-inch scope, I’m going to try and find this quasar again with the 8- inch. It should be visible on a night of transparent seeing for our latitude.

MSH 04-12—A 14.9 mag pinpoint in Eridanus that’s 4.9 Billion light years away! The Skyhound web site also has some great charts and a locator photograph to help you find this one. You should print all Skyhound’s reference material for use in the field, especially the locator photo, if you stand a change of bagging this quasar.


Awesome quasars paired with awesome brews. This month’s beer review is all about high gravity micro-brews...

120 Minute IPA, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Sussex County, DE—$12 for a12 oz bottle doesn’t make a great brew, but for this powerful beer, a year in the Man Cave (otherwise known as the cellar) helped mellow its smooth taste.

Imperial Series, Double Bock, Boston Beer Company, Boston, MA—With enough malted barely in a bottle to make a loaf of bread, this full flavored caramel beer requires slow and easy consumption.

Bourbon County Brand Stout, Goose Island, Chicago, IL—At 13 1/2% ABV you better plan on placing this in a sniffer and spend the entire evening sipping it.

NGC 4319 and Markarian 205

Markarian 205—I recently located this quasar on a Sunday night (April 14th) at Peach Mountain with Mark Deprest as my witness. Over a billion light years away, this quasar has an infamous past. Astronomer Halton Arp claims the adjacent galaxy NGC 4319 expelled the quasar as evidenced by a photograph of a light bridge between the two objects. Such a light bridge would violate our understanding how galactic distances are established. Rather than go into extensive detail here, ‘Google: Markarian 205’ to read up on this controversy. To find this quasar, locate the 11th mag galaxy NGC 4291. You’ll find this galaxy on many star charts. Using the finder chart below, starting at the galaxy NGC 4291 and star hop to galaxy NGC 4319. Mrk 205 is off the south side of the galaxy. Wait for periods of steady seeing, and the quasar should pop in and out of view. Be patient and don’t forget to breath, as the increased O2 will improve your eye sight.

This short list quasars is not the limit for amateur astronomers. In researching this subject on the web, I came to the understanding that there are more quasars that amateur astronomers to chase down. Stay tuned, as I hope a future article will expand our list of quasars available for our observing.

NGC 4319, Markarian 205, NGC 4291

A sketch of Quasar Markarian 205 with Galaxies /GC 4319 and 4291 by Jere Kahanpää, Hartola, Finland.
Printed with permission of the author.

Object: Galaxies NGC 4291, 4319 and qso MRK 205 Constell: DRA RA: 12h 21.73m (-19) Decl: +75° 19.5’ Epoch: 2000 Mag: 12.8m(p)/11.4m(v) Size: 3’x2.3’/1.9x1.6’ Type: SB(r)ab/E(-19/-91)

Observer: Jere Kahanpää Obs. place: Hartola, Finland

Date/Time: 19./20.4.1995, 00.00 Telescope: N 205/1000

Magn: 133x Filter: n/a Field: 22’ NE Lim.mag: 6.0m

Background sky: 2 Seeing: 2 Weather: Good. +0 °C, no Moon.

Description: Two quite bright galaxies, both quite easy but small at 40x.

NGC 4291: A typical elliptical galaxy; Strongly concentrated towards a non-stellar core. 1.2’x0.9’. Core almost round.

NGC 4319: About as bright as -91. Round, diam 1.5’. Slightly concentrated towards a mag. 15 stellar nucleus.

Quasar Markarian 205: A stellar mag. 15 point a bit off the S edge of NGC 4319. Difficult but clearly visible with averted vision.


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This page originally appeared in Reflections of the University Lowbrow Astronomers (the club newsletter).
This page revised Sunday, March 9, 2014 4:30 PM.
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