“When you run the marathon, you run against the distance, not against the other runners and not against the time.” -Haile Gebrselassie
Welcome to a very special Messier Monday, which just happens to be the twenty-first consecutive week we’ve taken a look at one of the 110 fixed, deep-sky objects that Messier and his collaborators catalogued to avoid confusion with comets.
Today’s Messier Monday is very special, because today is the new Moon closest to the vernal equinox. Each year, on (or very close to) the vernal equinox — March 21st (to mitigate my Northern-Hemisphere-bias) — marks your best chance, if you’re atmospherically lucky and at an ideal location, to see all 110 Messier objects in a single night: the Messier Marathon! If, that is, you can tear yourself away from hunting Comet Pan-STARRS in the early evening.
While there are many different (latitude-dependent) guides out there, today I’d like to highlight the first object to set during a marathon attempt from my latitude: the grand design spiral galaxy, Messier 74. Here’s how to find it after sunset tonight.
It was just a couple of weeks ago that we became familiar with the bright stars Hamal and Sheratan in the constellation of Aries; just after sunset they’ll be visible above the horizon in the West. If you follow the imaginary line that connects those two stars down towards the horizon just a few degrees, you’ll run into another naked-eye star, η Piscium.
And if you can fix your telescope (or outstanding binoculars) on η Piscium, about 1.5° back towards Sheratan you’ll find one of the most challenging Messier objects to observe: M74.
Messier 74 is an incredible challenge for most observers at this time of year, for two reasons:
- It’s one of the dimmest objects in the entire catalogue; only one object — the Pinwheel Galaxy — has a lower surface brightness as viewed from Earth, and
- It’s very close to the Sun in the sky, so by time it gets dark enough to see this galaxy, it will have almost set!
But if you can get there before it goes away for the spring and summer, this is really one of the most spectacular face-on spirals the night sky has to offer.
Only around 10% of spiral galaxies are classified as grand design spirals, with two large, sweeping arms that extend around the galaxy for quite some distance, and M74 is one of the best examples.
At about 30 million light-years away, Messier 74 has about 100 billion stars, making it somewhat smaller than the Milky Way. Although, unlike the Milky Way, it’s by far the largest galaxy in its very small group; the M74 group is one of the few nearby galactic groups that is dwarfed by our own, nondescript local group.
It’s a beautiful sight that you’ll want to observe at low magnification no matter how large your telescope is. Although it will only look like a faint fuzzball through moderate scopes, long exposures + image stacking make this an outstanding target for astrophotography.
It also has quite an eerie nickname: The Phantom Galaxy.
Shown above as imaged by the ground-based Digitized Sky Survey, this image is actually reduced from an extraordinary resolution, and the full-size image zoomed in on the Phantom shows exactly how spectacular it is.
But why stop with visible light images? The Spitzer Space Telescope took a composite image of this galaxy in the infrared, and revealed dusty arms full of cool, neutral gas, lending solid observational support to the density-wave theory of spiral-arm structure in spiral galaxies.
Ultraviolet light, provided below by GALEX, instead highlights the hottest, newly formed stars in the galaxy, as well as the most energetic ionized regions.
But as always, the best image of Messier 74 comes from Hubble, which really highlights the star-forming regions (in red), the hottest young stars (in blue), and the phenomenally coherent spiral arm structures from the interstellar dust.
I don’t know if any of you are planning to run the Messier Marathon, but you only have until maybe 9 PM to get a glimpse of Messier 74 before she sets if you do. All this week is the best time to try, and if you do, SEDS is happy to certify you!
I can’t claim credit for this, as I haven’t done it (yet), but perhaps someday I’ll be able to wear that badge with pride!
- M1, The Crab Nebula: October 22, 2012
- M8, The Lagoon Nebula: November 5, 2012
- M13, The Great Globular Cluster in Hercules: December 31, 2012
- M15, An Ancient Globular Cluster: November 12, 2012
- M30, A Straggling Globular Cluster: November 26, 2012
- M33, The Triangulum Galaxy: February 25, 2013
- M37, A Rich Open Star Cluster: December 3, 2012
- M41, The Dog Star’s Secret Neighbor: January 7, 2013
- M44, The Beehive Cluster / Praesepe: December 24, 2012
- M45, The Pleiades: October 29, 2012
- M48, A Lost-and-Found Star Cluster: February 11, 2013
- M52, A Star Cluster on the Bubble: March 4, 2013
- M53, The Most Northern Galactic Globular: February 18, 2013
- M60, The Gateway Galaxy to Virgo: February 4, 2013
- M67, Messier’s Oldest Open Cluster: January 14, 2013
- M74, The Phantom Galaxy at the Beginning-of-the-Marathon: March 11, 2013
- M78, A Reflection Nebula: December 10, 2012
- M81, Bode’s Galaxy: November 19, 2012
- M83, The Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, January 21, 2013
- M97, The Owl Nebula, January 28, 2013
- M102, A Great Galactic Controversy: December 17, 2012
See you next week for another spectacular deep sky object, where I’ll show you the most difficult Messier Marathon object in the pre-dawn skies!