My Messier Marathon blog and YouTube series is designed to provide quick and easy ways to locate, identify, and understand the best deep sky objects to view in your telescope or binoculars. Many times, however, in most real-world circumstances you would view or image many of these objects in a single night.
In today’s post, we are going to start to change up a bit. Rather than covering a single object at a time, I will be helping you locate TWO Messier objects. M81, Bode’s Galaxy, and M82 The Cigar Galaxy, because quite frankly, you would likely never view or image only one of them at a time.
The reason for this because they are so insanely close together that you can fit both in a single eyepiece or in a single image, even at relatively high focal lengths. To top that off, these objects are visible nearly year-round from most Northern Latitudes.
In addition to bringing you high quality content on how to find deep sky objects, I also want to start to highlight some of the amazing work being done by others in the astronomical community. As you can see in this image [above] by astrophotographer Drew Evans, the region around Bodes Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy is chock full of gas and dust when imaged under sufficiently dark skies.
Drew took this image from Bortle 4 skies in Flagstaff, Arizona using his William Optics SpaceCat 51 with a ZWO ASI 2600MC Pro with over 10 hours of integration time. Drew recently moved to Flagstaff and is building his dream home in Bortle 2 skies. Although I admit I am a bit jealous, I am excited for Drew and cannot wait to see what he will be able to accomplish in the years to come. Awesome job Drew!
If you would like to have your astrophotography featured on my YouTube channel, leave me a comment below, and sign up on my Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts to find out more about upcoming videos and share your amazing work with me.
Watch the YouTube Video for this Blog Post
M81, Bode’s Galaxy, (also known as NGC 3031) is a nearly face-on Grand Design Spiral Galaxy, while M82, The Cigar Galaxy, (also known as NGC 3034) is a nearly edge-on Starburst Galaxy. Located in the constellation of Ursa Major “The Great Bear” these two galaxies are separated by an angular distance of around half a degree, or approximately the width of the full moon.
Both of these galaxies are part of the same group of galaxies a distance of 12 million light years, and are gravitationally bound to one another. In fact, the “starburst” characteristics of M82, The Cigar Galaxy, are likely due to the gravitational interaction with the neighboring M81 Bode’s Galaxy.
Both M81 and M82 were first discovered in 1774 by Johann Elert Bode, for whom the discovery was named after, and subsequently re-discovered by Charles Messier in 1779, who proceeded to list both of these objects in the now famous Messier Catalog.
The brightness and relatively large size of M81 and M82 makes them some of the most easily accessible galaxies in the entire sky, but the fact that these two galaxies are so close together is really the icing on the cake. Additionally, the fact that these galaxies are circumpolar objects near the North Celestial Pole makes them a great target year round for anyone above 20 degrees north latitude.
M81 and M82 are bright enough to be observed with a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. In order to increase the detail and brightness of your image, however, a larger diameter telescope is required. A minimum of an 8” telescope will be required to make out detailed structures of the galaxies when viewing visually, like the phenomenal spiral arms of M81.
To conduct astrophotography on these objects, a small apochromatic refractor telescope will have no issue providing stunning images of these galaxies due to their large angular size, but additionally focal length and aperture is helpful to truly resolve the gorgeous structures found within these two galaxies. My Stellarvue SVX130 at it’s native focal length of 930mm paired with my Atik Horizon II dedicated Astronomy Camera provides a nearly perfect field of view. I find the sweet spot with this galaxy pair is a Field of View of around 1 degree.
Longer focal lengths, like my 8” Celestron Schmidt Cassegrain, for example, can be used on these objects individually, but the much smaller field of view causes the overall composition of the image to fall short as I feel you lose the majesty of having both of these deep sky objects in same image.
Step 1) Find a Starting Asterism or Constellation
At my location in the Northeast US, we will start our observation by locating the “Big Dipper” located in the Constellation Ursa Major, "The Great Bear".
Throughout the year, the “Big Dipper” moves along a circumpolar path around the North Celestial Pole. The point at which these objects are at their highest point, the meridian, appears when the Dipper’s “bowl” is completely upside down in the North.
Keep in mind that observations of any celestial objects are best viewed or imaged when they are at their highest points in the sky due to the significant decrease in the amount of atmosphere you are observing through.
Although very well known, “The Big Dipper” is actually not one of the officially recognized constellations recognized by the “International Astronomical Union” the IAU.
The “Big Dipper”, an asterism, is an unofficial, yet very helpful grouping of stars that is part of the larger “Constellation” of Ursa Major, The Great Bear.
Step 2) Find the Object Using Star Hopping
In order to locate M81 and M82, we are going to start our observation by finding the “Big Dipper'' asterism in the night sky. If you would like to familiarize yourself with the individual stars within the big dipper, check my “Star Hopping with the Big Dipper- The Celestial Guidepost” video in the link above.
The main stars of the Big Dipper are Alkaid, Alcor & Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak, and Dubhe.
For this observation, we will only need to locate Phecda and Dubhe.
First, draw an imaginary line between Phecda and Dubhe [ADD LINE] which are approximately 10 degrees apart from each other in the sky.
This angular distance can be easily measured by using your hand as a basic measuring tool. 10 degrees is approximately the width of your fist held at arm’s length.
If you have a Telrad Finder Scope, The angular diameter of the Telrad’s reticle is 6 degrees, and therefore Phecda and Dubhe are nearly 2x the width of the Telrad’s reticle.
Continue the line you made between Phecda and Dubhe an equal distance past Dubhe along this same line, either using your hand or the Telrad to measure the sky as you go.
If you are using a Telrad, you may also want to keep in mind that the Telrad’s reticle is extremely useful when viewing as each of the in lines are equal to 1 degree increments in the sky, for a total diameter of 4 degrees. So to locate M81 and M82 simply move two Telrad widths distance from Dubhe to center yourself on these objects.
Step 3) Move your eye to your Magnified Finder
At this point you should have M81 Bode’s Galaxy and M82 The Cigar Galaxy, in your magnified finder scope.
In light-polluted skies M81 and M82 should be easily visible in a 50mm or larger finder scope or binoculars. They will appear as wispy cotton-ball like objects.
Center M81 and M82 in your finder scope.
Step 4) Move your eye to your Widest-Field Eyepiece
Always start your observations at your widest-field eyepiece
For this simulation, I’ve chosen my 100 degree apparent field of view Stellarvue Optimus 20mm eyepiece on my Stellarvue SVX130T Premier Apochromatic Triplet Refractor.
Center your object in the field of view, and slowly work your way down to smaller and smaller focal length eyepieces, centering each one, until you get the desired field of view for your setup.
Short focal length telescopes and long focal length eyepieces work best on this object due to its very large angular size.
Thank you so much for reading today’s post. This is part of my Messier Marathon blog series, in which I plan to go through all 110 Messier objects.
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