Messier Column - April 2021

Original article appears in GuideStar April, 2021.

By: Jim King

M44.PNGThe sucky winter, hopefully, is behind us.  During the past couple of weeks, we have had some nice weather and a couple of really good nights for observing.  We now get to move into the Messier early spring portion of his catalogue.

A TRIBUTE: Charles Messier passed on April 12, 1817, at the ripe old age of 86.  During his lifetime, he suffered through the French Revolution and was reduced to poverty.  He was finally restored to prominence as a member of the Academy of Sciences and Bureau des Longitude, after the revolution had run its course. Ironically, Messier wanted to be known for his list of cometary discoveries, but ultimately his list of objects that were not comets earned him immortality.

M44 Open Cluster (2) Easy

Cancer is the only constellation whose brightest stars are fainter than a Messier object within its boundaries.  In fact, if it were not for the mystifying cloudy appearance of open cluster M44, which draws your gaze to the surrounding 4th-magnitude stars, it is conceivable that dim Cancer might have been overlooked by ancient stargazers or possibly envisioned differently.  To the naked eye, the 3rd-magnitude glow of M44 looks like the bearded head of a tailless comet. 

Messier notes: (Observed March 4, 1769) Cluster of stars known as the nebula in Cancer.

NGC note: None                    Data: Messier 44 aka NGC 2632

Con: Cancer                           Mag: 3.1    RA: 08h40.4m           Dec: +19.40         Dist: 577 ly

M81 Spiral Galaxy (2) Easy, M82 Irregular Galaxy (2) EasyM81-M82_0.PNG

Unquestionably, M81 and M82 are the most popular close pair of galaxies in the heavens. M81 and M82 lie about 2 degrees east of 24 Ursae Majoris – a magnitude 4.5 star about a fist-width northwest of Alpha Ursae Majoris, which marks the Bear’s ears.  If one has access to a dark sky, use binoculars first to locate the galaxy pair. The telescopic view is top-drawer: M81 is an egg-shaped, 7th magnitude oval, almost as large as the full Moon.  M82, magnitude 8.4, is a cigar-shaped ellipse.  The two galaxies moved past one another about 300 million years ago.  Now, they continue to part going their own separate ways.

Messier notes: (M 81 Observed February 9, 1781) Nebula close to the ear of Ursa Majoris.  Nebula is slightly oval, the center is light, and it is easily visible with a simple three and a half-foot refractor.

M82. (Observed February 9, 1781) Nebula without a star near (M81). Both appear in the same telescopic field.

NGC note:  M 81: Remarkable! Extremely bright, extremely large, extended towards position angle 1546 degrees, gradually, then suddenly much brighter in the middle to a bright nucleus.

Data:                     Messier 81 aka NGC 3031

                                Con: Ursa Major                                           Mag 6.9                              

                                RA: 09h55.6m                                                Dec: +69.04

                                Dist.: 12 million ly


NGC note: M82: Very bright, very large, much extended.

                                Con: Ursa Major                                          Mag 8.4                              

                                RA: 09h55.8m                                                Dec: +69.41

                                Dist: 12 million ly

M3.PNGM3 Globular Cluster (2) Easy

M3 Is another bright and stunning globular star cluster that presents some visual challenges, including seeing it with the unaided eye.  Discovered in 1764, it was Charlie’s first official discovery; M1 and M2 having both been spotted before he came along.  M3, however, may have spurred him to begin a systematic and persistent search for other uncatalogued nebulous objects. The “new” cluster remained a “mottled glow” until 1784, when German-born English astronomer William Hershel resolved M3 into a “beautiful cluster of stars.”  

M3 Messier notes: (Observed May 3, 1764) Nebula discovered between Boötes and Canes Venatici.  It does not contain any stars, the center is bright, and its light decreases imperceptibly away from the center.

NGC note: Very remarkable, globular cluster, extremely bright, very large, very suddenly much brighter in the middle.

Data:                     Messier 3 aka NGC 5272 aka The Jellyfish Cluster

                                Con: Canes Venatici                                                    Mag: 6. 2

                                RA: 13h42.2m                                                             Dec: +28.23                             Dist: ~33,300ly


M40 Double Star (1) ObviousM40 - zoomed.PNGM40 - far.PNG

M 40 is a pair of close stars of nearly equal magnitude that John Hevelius (1611-1687) had described as “a nebula above the back {of Ursa Major}” in his star catalogue.  When Messier saw the object plotted, he sought it out.  Messier tried to locate it at the coordinates given, but only identified the two stars.  He decided to include it in his catalogue since the stars appeared as a nebula in any telescope under two feet.

Messier notes: (Observed October 24, 1764) Two stars very close to one another and very faint, located at the very root of the tail of Ursa Major.  They are difficult to detect in a simple six-foot refractor.

NGC note: None

Data:                     Messier 40

                                Con: Ursa Major                                                            Mag: 9.0 and 9.6              

                                RA: 12h22.4m                                                               Dec: +58.05      Dist: ~510 ly (primary)                                  



Keep looking up!

Jim King

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