||The famous Whirlpool galaxy M51 was one of Charles Messier's original discoveries: He discovered it on October 13, 1773, when observing a comet, and described it as a "very faint nebula, without stars" which is difficult to see. Its companion, NGC 5195, was discovered in 1781 by his friend, Pierre Méchain.
M51 is the dominating member of a small group of galaxies. As it is about 37 million light years distant and so conspicuous, it is actually a big and luminous galaxy. The value of M51's distance is still not very well known. Some authors give significantly lower values (less than 20 Mly), but a recent (2001) STScI Press Release gave 31 million light years.
This galaxy was the first one where the spiral structure was discovered, in spring 1845 by Lord Rosse, who made a very careful and acurate painting. Therefore, M51 is sometimes referenced as Rosse's Galaxy or Lord Rosse's "Question Mark" - he is cited with this name.
According to our present understanding, the pronounced spiral structure is a result of M51's current encounter with its neighbor, NGC 5195 (the fainter one in Messier's description). Due to this interaction, the gas in the galaxy was disturbed and compressed in some regions, resulting in the formation of new young stars. As is common in galactic encounters, spiral structure is preferably induced in the more massive galaxy.
For the amateur, M51 is easy and a showpiece if the sky is dark, but is quite sensitive for light pollution which easily makes it fade in the background. Under very good conditions, even suggestions of its spiral arms can be glanced with telescopes starting from 4-inch. Low magnification is best for viewing this pair.