With the coming of spring, we feel the deep connections that innately bind us to the gentle and gradual changes our world magically undergoes. We witness the beauty of our many plants patiently waiting as spring nears. In silence, they remain poised with a buoyant energy ready and eager to be released. Come spring, their buds soon turn a vibrant and rich greens as they begin to flourish and grow. Likewise, the birds flock to our various feeders or peck at seed strewn on the ground. This they do, even while they pair up, readying to rear the next generation—endless hours of feeding, comforting and protecting. But amidst this discourse with nature, let’s take a moment to turn our heads skyward. And when we do, we note how, like here on our small planet, there are many things happening at springtime in the galaxy1and the universe beyond.
Throughout the year, armed with a telescope, we gaze heavenward and spy on countless stars—Pleiades, Cassiopea or Andromeda. However, during the spring in particular, we are privy to a true spectacle. At this time, when we peer beyond the Milky Way, our home galaxy, we can spy a vast cloud of galaxies known as the Realm of the Galaxies, a dramatic name that expresses the true grandeur of our universe.
The Realm of the Galaxies is also known by its more practical name, the Coma-Virgo galactic cluster. It is a name borne of the fact the Realm of Galaxies spans the borders of the constellations of Virgo and Coma Berenices. Just to orient ourselves, what is known as the Local Group is essentially the term used to describe where we live—our neighbourhood, so to speak.
We’re part of the Milky Way galaxy, but just around the corner, we’ll find the Magellanic Clouds and Andromeda galaxy. All are members of the Local Group, which is big, containing a little less than forty galaxies. Although this may appear immense, in the Realm of Galaxies, the Virgo Cluster alone boasts about 2,000 galaxies. The Virgo cluster of galaxies is around 60 or 70 million light years from the Milky Way (a light year is understood as the distance that light travels in a vacuum in one year is approximately 9.46 trillion kilometers). While the Milky Way contains maybe around two billion stars, by comparison, the Virgo Cluster likely holds trillions of stars. It’s mind-boggling.
The Virgo Cluster is home to several startlingly beautiful groups of galaxies, two of which are a part of Markarian’s Chain. Near the middle of this chain are two other galaxies, known as Markarian’s Eyes. Still further away, around 320 million light years, is the centre of the Coma Cluster. While it is difficult to conceptualise, it is absolutely heaving with galaxies, perhaps as many as 10,000 or more. At its centre is a cloud of gas, heated by extremely high temperatures. The majority of the galaxies within the Coma cluster are ellipticals, with an abundance of dwarf and giant ellipticals (a dwarf galaxy is a small galaxy of about 1,000 to several billion stars while an elliptical galaxy is shaped like a stretched-out circle).
We look up and are in awe of the pageant of planets and stars before us. For many of us, the sheer size and the distances of these seemingly boundless galaxies defy our understanding. They are breathtaking. And strangely similar, when we look around at the various plants, trees, and animals that come to life during the spring, here on our home planet, they are equally extraordinary and captivating in their complexity.
Whether the tiniest bud of an alder surrounded by spruce and fir or a massive star going supernova somewhere in the Virgo cluster, they are a reflection of spring. Both occupy two extremes of the gallant spectrum in our universe, ultimately unified, together as one.
1. Any numerous large-scale aggregate of stars, gas, and dust such as the Milky Way.