Messier Objects - January 2021

Original article appears in GuideStar January, 2021.

by: Jim King

M39.jpgThis is the beginning of a new year (the end of a mostly sucky year), with new challenges, new opportunities, and a new emphasis on getting together in the field and having a gay ole time just looking up with our friends.  As far as COVID is concerned, astronomy is recognized as one of the safest pursuits anywhere, which is one reason equipment inventories are so tight…we have lots of new participants.  We need to get to know them.  This is truly an opportunity to make chicken and dumplings out of chicken leftovers (or words to that effect).

We have the opportunity to consistently be out in the fresh air where we can easily maintain safe social distancing.  (I really hate that term…it sounds like something that applies to teenagers at a church social.)  But we can circle up under the stars, have some good conversation and not have to worry about no stinkin’ viruses, with just a little common sense…like keeping eyepieces clean when sharing.

Astronomy challenges the mind in so many ways.  Whether it is the study of physics, cosmology, observing, or chasing that perfect photographic image. There is never a dull moment.  The Universe routinely supplies plenty of surprises.  Frustration, joy, excitement, good friends…it is all there for the taking.

Presented here are a series of monthly columns primarily revolving around observing the Messier Catalogue.   Messier provides easily observed celestial wonders along with objects that will challenge. 

It presents a good opportunity to learn about observing with friends while simultaneously usually having access to those who may be more knowledgeable.  The intent is to provide the reader a sampling of the Messier objects each month that are most visible in the time frame the column is published.  Hence, these deep sky objects should be easily identifiable in and around the month of January.  Some months may have a special treat in addition to the Messier Objects.  Check the trailer. 

M39: Open Cluster in Cygnus

This cluster is an object that one needs to jump on fairly early in the evening this month.  It looks like the best time to observe it is between ~7:00 to 8:00 pm.   Of the dozens of bright clusters and nebulae in Cygnus that are available to small telescopes, surprisingly few were recorded by Messier and his contemporaries – only three M29, M39, and M56. Open cluster M39, near the Swan’s tail, is of moderate age and belongs to a class of poorly populated open clusters – only 30 bright telescopic stars span its 31’-wide (~9 light-years) disk.  Yet, it shines at a magnitude of 4.6.


Messier notes: (Observed October 24, 1764) “Cluster of stars near the tail of Cygnus. They can be seen with a simple three-and- a-half foot refractor.”

NGC note: Cluster, very large, very poor, very little compressed, of 7th to 10th magnitude stars.

Data:           Messier 39 aka NGC 7092

Con: Cygnus                                                        Mag: 4.6

RA: 21h31.9m                                                    Dec: +48.25.5

Dist: ~950 ly


M74_0.jpgM74 Spiral Galaxy

Blazing with the light of 40 billion suns, flinging spiral arms across 96,000 light years of space, M74 is a prima donna among open-faced spiral galaxies.  At least, that is how it comes across in long exposure photographs taken through large telescopes.  In small telescopes, it is more like a phantom, which is its nickname.  No object in the Messier catalogue has proven more elusive, more troublesome, or more provocative to amateur astronomers than this giant spiral. The problem is that the galaxy’s large apparent size and low surface brightness (14.4) require a very dark sky for it to be seen well, if at all.

Mechain was right on the mark when he said, “This nebula…is quite broad, very dim, and extremely difficult to observe; it may be distinguished more accurately during fine frosts.”  The “fine frosts” he refers to likely are those incredibly transparent evenings following the passage of a cold front, when the night sky is free from moisture and atmospheric contaminants, and the stars can be seen with crystal clarity away from city lights.  On these nights, you have the best chance to see dim and diffuse objects.  Its best to use a small-aperture instrument, low power, and a wide field of view on these finest of nights.

Messier notes: (Observed October 18th, 1780) Nebula without a star close to the ribbon of Pisces.

NGC note:  Globular cluster, faint, very large, round, pretty suddenly much brighter in the middle, some stars seen.

Data:                     Messier 74 aka NCC 628 aka The Phantom (nick name per James O’Meara)

                                Con: Pisces                                            Mag 9.4                                        SB:14.4

                                RA: 01h 36.7m                                      Dec: +15.47

                                Dist: ~30 million ly                                          


M76_0.jpgM76: Planetary Nebula

Smaller, fainter, and less popular than its cousin, the Dumbbell Nebula M27 in Vulpecula, the Little Dumbbell in Perseus is nonetheless a dramatic planetary.  Sometimes, unfortunately, the popularity of a Messier object seems to be based more on how bright or large it appears in the night sky than on how much detail it reveals through the telescope.  But in the case of M76, its beauty lies not in its visual punch but in its wealth of subtle detail which lures small-telescope users into a web of visual suggestions.  It deserves a place among the most surprising and mysterious objects in the Messier Catalogue for viewing with backyard telescopes.

Messier notes: (Observed October 21, 1780) Nebula near the right foot of Andromeda. 

NGC 650: Very bright, western part of double nebula.

NGC 651: Very bright, eastern part of double nebula.


Data:                     Messier 76 aka NGC and NGC 361 aka Little Dumbbell Nebula

                                Con: Perseus                                                                  Mag: 10.4           

                                RA: 01h 42.6m                                                              Dec: +51.35

                                Dist: 3,900 ly                                                                     

Keep Looking up!!

Jim King

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