Messier 74

It's been nearly 11 years since I first observed and made a very simple sketch of M74 in 2004. Because it is seen face-on and has a low surface brightness, it is considered one of the more difficult Messier objects. When I first observed it with my 6-inch Newtonian from Wupatki National Monument, I made note that some mottling was visible--but definitely not shown in the sketch! With the 8-inch Dob and a bit more galaxy practice since then, I was really hoping to pick it apart.

Beyond the soft, diffuse glow and concentrated core, the first irregularity I noted was that the brighter central section elongated preferentially to the northwest. Next up, a dip in brightness on the east side of the core, stubs emerging from north and south, and more subtle patches on the northwest side helped define interesting structure.

This is also the subject of the "Object of the Month"/"Sketch It article" in the October 2015 issue of Astronomy Now.

SubjectMessier 74 (NGC 628)
ClassificationSpiral Galaxy SA(s)c
Position (J2000)*Pisces [RA: 1 36 41.6 / Dec: +15 47 03]*
Size*10.5' x 9.5' PA 25°
Brightness*9.5 vMag 10.0 bMag
Date/Time20 August 2015 - 2:00 AM
Observing Loc.Cinder Hills Overlook, Sunset Crater National Monument, Arizona
InstrumentOrion SkyQuest XT8 (203 mm f/5.9 Dobsonian)
Eyepieces/Mag.Pentax XW10 10 mm (120X)
Seeing6/10 Pickering
Transparency21.4 mag/arcsec^2
AKAM 74, UGC 1149, MCG+03-05-011, PGC 5974, h 142, GC 372, CGCG 460.014
*ReferencesNGCIC Project

Observation Notes:

This was the 2nd of 2 galaxies I observed the night of an observing trip out to Wupatki National Monument, north of Flagstaff. It was a large diffuse galaxy. The core was on the verge of being stellar, but I don't think I had enough aperture to make it out. It seemed to be elongated west to east and had a slightly mottled appearance.


M74 is a spiral galaxy that is 30 to 40 million light years away and is receding at 793 km/sec. It is roughly 95,000 light years in diameter, which is about the same size as our Milky Way Galaxy. The beautifully symetrical arms of M74 are salted with clusters of young blue stars, and pink emission nebulae. It was found by Pierre Méchain in September 1780. He reported the discovery to Charlse Messier who included it in his catalog in October 1780.

Date/Time9 October 2004 - 1:30 AM
Observing Loc.Wupatki National Monument, AZ
InstrumentOrion SVP 6LT Reflector (150 mm dia./1200 mm F/L)
Eyepieces/Mag.32 mm (47X)
Seeing4/10 Pickering
TransparencyMag 5.5


Before the bad weather rolled in, I drove out to Cinder Hills Overlook at Sunset Crater to get some dark sky shots of the comet. The tail was not as prominent as it was from home the night before. After checking out the shots, it looks like it was fanned wider with lots of streamers and detail. The best shots were tracked, 3-minute exposures. I was only able to wrap up with three of those before the Moon crested the horizon and started washing things out.

C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) - 9 January 2015 - 10:00 PM (10 January 2015 - 0500 UT)

Despite the tail being more challenging, the coma was still bright, and easily visible to the naked eye.


Venus and Mercury have been sharing space in the evening sky recently. This shot was taken along Route 66, east of Flagstaff.


Venus-Mercury Conjunction - 8 January 2015 - 6:01PM (9 January 2015 - 0101 UT)

I haven't made a trip to a dark sky location to observe, sketch and photograph the latest Lovejoy comet yet. But I did take a look with binoculars and grab some photos from my front yard tonight.

I took a few tripod shots in the general direction first and was impressed by how bright the comet appeared even with short exposures. The following image was shot at ISO 3200, 10 seconds, f/4.0, 55 mm.

C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) - 8 January 2015 - 10:40 PM (9 January 2015 - 0540 UT)

Tripod photo of C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) - 8 January 2015 - 10:18 PM (9 January 2015 - 0518 UT)

Since that worked so nicely, I brought out the SkyView Pro equatorial mount, did a rough polar alignment and started shooting some longer 30 second exposures zoomed in to 250 mm. This shot is a stack of 10 30-second exposures at f/5.6. I used median combine to separate comet from stars and recombine so the stars and comet were as sharp as possible. Too bad I didn't shoot any flat fields to get rid of the uneven background. But you can see a disruption in the ion tail toward the center of the frame.

C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) - 8 January 2015 - 10:40 PM (9 January 2015 - 0540 UT)

Equatorial tracked photo of C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) - 8 January 2015 - 10:40 PM (9 January 2015 - 0540 UT)

Enhanced Contrast of C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) - 8 January 2015 - 10:40 PM (9 January 2015 - 0540 UT)

Enhanced contrast of Equatorial tracked photo of C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) - 8 January 2015 - 10:40 PM (9 January 2015 - 0540 UT)

Through binoculars, the blue-green color was visible and about 2 degrees of the ion tail. It would be much better from a dark site, but still very impressive from here. With my stargazing glasses on, it was visible without magnification.

As long as my first astro run with the 250 mm lens was doing ok, I gave M42 a 30-second exposure. This lens might be fun for some more wide field work.

The Orion Nebula Complex

30-second Equatorial tracked photo of the Orion Nebula Complex - 8 January 2015


The Belt of Venus at Sunset Crater

The full Moon was rising on a clear evening with fresh snow on the ground. I knew Sunset Crater would be in top form, veiled in white, with the Belt of Venus framing it beautifully. I wasn't sure whether the moon would be in good position to add the finishing touch. I gave it a shot anyway—it was a learning opportunity. The Moon was not in a great location. At nine degrees up at 5 minutes after sunset, it was too high for a zoom view of the volcano with the moon in the frame. For the Bonito Park area, the Moon was also too far north for a good pairing. Next time around, I'll need to look for a full moon that has the moon around 3-6 degrees altitude at 5 minutes after sunset. I'd also want the Moon at least 12 degrees further south—about 87 degrees azimuth.

So, after a little research in Starry Night Pro for sunset timings:

The next options for full Moon / Belt of Venus at Bonito Park / Sunset Crater are:

  • March 4, 2015, 6:25 PM (6.7° altitude / 87° azimuth)
  • April 3, 2015, 6:52 PM (5° altitude / 98° azimuth) other side of the crater
  • October 26, 2015, 5:40 PM (2° altitude / 82° azimuth) hike to south side of Bonito Park

For other opportunities, some good full Moon / Belt of Venus pairings in northern Arizona:

  • July 1, 2015, 7:46 PM (3° altitude / 116° azimuth)
  • July 30, 2015, 7:33 PM (6° altitude / 114° azimuth)
  • November 24, 2015, 5:17 PM (5° altitude / 77° azimuth)
  • December 24, 2015, 5:21 PM (1.7° altitude / 69° azimuth)

And a couple of the photos:

The Belt of Venus and Sunset Crater I
Snow coats Sunset Crater Volcano while
Earth Shadow and the Belt of Venus rise behind it.
Prints Available.
The Belt of Venus and Sunset Crater II
A wider view including the full Moon.
Prints Available.


I drove out to Sunset Crater tonight to get a shot of an Iridium Flare, and brought my equatorial mount with me to follow up with some images of Comet Jacques. Its beautiful turquoise coma was drifting through the Cassiopeia Milky Way this evening and showed up even in my 20-30 second wide angle tripod shots. The images below are from stacks of 3 3-minute exposures at 55 mm from the Canon T3i on the SkyView Pro equatorial mount.




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