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Messier 74 - The Phantom Galaxy | Astrophotography Photos and Tips


The Phantom Galaxy is a beautiful spiral galaxy seen face-on that is relatively similar to the Milky Way in size. In photographs, Messier 74 has some similarities with Messier 33 (The Triangulum galaxy) and both have very bright stars in their spiral arms. In this post, you will find information, images, and tips to photograph the Phantom Galaxy.


Object Designation: M74, NGC 628

Also known as: The Phantom Galaxy

Constellation: Pisces

Object Type: Spiral Galaxy

Distance: 32 million light-years away

Magnitude: 9.4

Discovery: Pierre Méchain in1780


The Phantom galaxy can be very difficult to observe, as it has the 2nd lowest surface brightness of all the deep sky objects in the Messier catalog, hence its name: The Phantom. We were able to spot it using our eyepiece, but this is thanks to our Bortle 3 desert sky.


We have photographed the Phantom Galaxy several times using different telescopes and cameras, and will show you our favorite results below!



 


M74 Astrophotography from Bortle 1 with a RASA telescope

February 2024


In January and February, we decided to go deep on M74 in the hopes of revealing IFN dust. IFN is extremely faint space dust that is only visible with long integration times from a dark site. If you want to learn more, we have a full guide about IFN in astrophotography you can read.


RASA 8 and 10Micron mount at remote observatory
The equipment used to capture M74

This data was captured from our Bortle 1 observatory telescope in New Mexico, at a place called Astronomy Acres.


If you'd like to host your telescope under the dark skies of New Mexico, you can contact the owner through the website and become our telescope neighbors!


Astronomy Acres has piers available from $500/month which is very affordable in the US!



The picture turned out great, with a lot of IFN visible despite the galaxy being so small in the wide field of view of the RASA 8. The IFN regions are faint but impressive, especially the section near the bottom left of the image. This was a total of 32.5 hours of integration time, with a very fast f/2 telescope under Bortle 1 skies... that tells you how faint that IFN is!


Click the image to see it in high resolution!

M74 the Phantom Galaxy with IFN

GEAR USED:

Camera: ZWO ASI2600MC  

Telescope: Celestron RASA 8 

Mount: 10Micron GM2000 HPS

Processing: Pixinsight, with R-C Astro plugins. Final touches in Skylum Luminar Neo

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 32.5 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 300 seconds

Filters: N/A

Gain: 100


 

How to Find the Phantom Galaxy

The Phantom lies about 32 million light years away from our home, in the constellation of Pisces, right next to the constellation of the flying horse Pegasus. For reference, Messier 104 (The Sombrero galaxy) is located at about the same distance. When it comes to galaxies, 30-ish million light years away is actually not that far when compared with other galaxies.


M74 has the 2nd lowest surface brightest in all of the Messier objects, right behind M101, making it a difficult galaxy to observe through an eyepiece. You will need a dark sky away from light pollution (Bortle 3 or better) if you are hoping to spot the galaxy with your eyes. A big pair of astronomy binoculars can also be used to spot the object, but do not expect to see more than a faint dot of light.


To find Messier 74, first locate the brightest star in Pisces, Kullat Nunu. This star is visible towards the Aries/Triangulum side. Your target will be 1.5 degrees northeast of that star.


Messier 74 is best observed and photographed in November and is a good astrophotography target for the Fall season.



 


M74 Astrophotography with a DSLR camera and Reflector Telescope

November 2018


This was our first attempt at imaging M74, and it turned out... okay.


We spent 3 hours and a half capturing photons to get this image from a site one hour away from home. We had trouble with our equipment for two nights in a row trying to photograph it, and had to go home empty ended both times which was frustrating. This means that in reality, with all the driving, setting up, and troubleshooting, it took more than 21 hours of our time to get this 3.5-hour integration result.


You can see how we captured this target in Episode 11 of Galactic Hunter!


M74 with a DSLR camera and reflector telescope

GEAR USED:

Processing: Pixinsight

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 3 hours and 30 minutes

Exposure Time per frame: 3 minutes

70 lights - 15 Darks - 15 Bias

ISO: 800


 

Messier 74 Information


The Phantom Galaxy is a spiral galaxy with very low surface brightness. This makes it difficult to observe visually, but it doesn't have much of an impact on photography!


M74 is the brightest member of the M74 galaxy group which is part of the Virgo Supercluster. The M74 group of galaxies includes 5 confirmed objects, and a potential 5 extra irregular galaxies.


The Phantom Galaxy is classified as a Grand Spiral type of spiral galaxy, and is believed to have approximately 100 billion stars. It has 2 spiral arms that rotate counter-clockwise from the core.



 

Messier 74 Discovery



Astronomer Pierre Méchain
Pierre Méchain

The Phantom Galaxy was discovered in 1780 by Pierre Méchain, who then gave its location to Charles Messier to include in his catalog.


Pierre Méchain was Charles Messier's friend and assistant, the two astronomers worked together for several years, spotting new objects and recording their location.


Pierre Méchain is credited for the discovery of several objects in the Messier catalog, 26 to be exact. Some of his discoveries include M63 (the Sunflower Galaxy), M78, and M101 (the Pinwheel Galaxy) to name a few.


English astronomer John Herschel entered M74 in his own catalog, but mistakenly classified it as a globular cluster.


 

Messier 74 Image by NASA/ESA


NASA and ESA have used professional telescopes to study the Phantom Galaxy several times. Below you will be able to feast your eyes on results from the Spitzer Space telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the James Webb Space Telescope.


Messier 74 by the Spitzer Space Telescope


The image below shows the Phantom Galaxy photographed in Infrared with the Spitzer Space Telescope's Infrared Array Camera (IRAC). This is a false-color image where you can see three main colors, blue (3.6-micron light), green (4.5-micron light), and red (8-micron light). The blue "dots" all over the image represent stars and gas that are very hot. The red areas show the cooler dust.



M74 in Infrared with the Spitzer Space Telescope

As you can see in the image, two boxes are displayed on the left side which shows an identical area of the galaxy. Within each box is an arrow that points to the exact location of a supernova that was visible in July of 2004 and before.


The supernova got the designation of supernova SN 2003gd. Supernovae occur when massive stars die and explode.



Messier 74 by the Hubble Space Telescope


This image of the Phantom Galaxy taken by the Hubble Space Telescope was released on November 29, 2007. The data was captured using the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ASC) in 2003 and 2005 and made into a composite image. A total of four filters were used to create this result: F435W (mapped to blue), F555W (mapped to green), F656N (mapped to red), and F814 (narrowband).


M74 with the Hubble Space Telescope

An interesting fact is that a small portion of this image did not come from the HST, but instead from Earth-based telescopes so that the data could fill up a section that the HST could not capture. The telescopes used were the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and the Gemini Observatory.



Messier 74 by the James Webb Space Telescope


On August 29th, 2022, NASA released a new picture of the Phantom Galaxy, this time taken with the James Webb Space Telescope. The goal was to use the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI) to study the earliest phases of star formation in this galaxy and several others. Once again, four filters were used to capture this image, but they are completely different than the filters used on the HST (7.7, 10, 11 and 21 μm).



M74 with the James Webb Space Telescope

This image from the JWST shows a lot of fine filaments of gas and dust in the spiral arms, with an unobscured view of the core of the galaxy.


 

The First Picture Ever Taken of the Phantom Galaxy


The first ever picture of the Phantom Galaxy was taken by Isaac Roberts, and was named "Spiral Nebula Messier 74 Piscium".


This picture was shot on the night of December 9th, 1893 using a 20-inch reflector telescope. The total exposure time is three hours and forty minutes.



First picture of the Phantom Galaxy 1893


Astronomers back then believed that galaxies like M74 were nebulae. It is interesting to read the following passage from Isaac Robert's full description of the photograph when knowing that he had no idea about galaxies:


"Every spiral nebula that I have photographed has a stellar nucleus surrounded by dense nebulosity in its centre of revolution, and around that centre the nebulous convolutions and the stars involved in them are more or less symmetrically arranged. The records of these features are now so numerous and accordant that they cannot be attributed to accidental or to fortuitous circumstances".



M74 astrophotography 131 years appart

 

Cool Facts About the Phantom Galaxy


  • Discovered in 1780

  • Was initially cataloged as a cluster by John Herschel

  • Part of the M74 group of 5 to 7 galaxies


See the different types of galaxies on our galaxy gallery page.


 

Single Shot and Processing of Messier 74

2018 image


On our first night trying to capture M74, in September, the temperature in the Nevada desert was still very hot. We are talking 110+ degrees. Our camera, the Canon 7D Mark II, is a really great DSLR camera, but it is not cooled in any way. All 70 of our shots from that night went to the trash, as the final image, even processed as best as we could, was simply... horrific. See for yourself:


Single shot. Click the arrow to see the final image with 3.5 hours of data.


We imaged the target again on a different night a few weeks later when the temperature started to go down noticeably. During the night, the temperature was much cooler and our single shots revealed a much cleaner image.


Single shot of M74, in medium/cold temperatures.

The Phantom Galaxy single 3 minute shot - cold temperature

A crop on our final image reveals a bright core, with beautiful, long, and defined spiral arms. Faint gases are visible a little around the galaxy.



A galaxy similar to Messier 74 is the Triagulum Galaxy - learn more about it here.



Processing M74 was easy with our DSLR image, but very difficult with our 2024 attempt due to all the IFN I was trying to bring up. The IFN is so faint in that area that it was almost impossible not to blow up the galaxy's brightness, especially since our 300-second exposure times with the f/2 telescope were too long to begin with. Using masks of course helped, but some of the IFN clouds pass right through the galaxy so I wasn't able to protect it well.


Starless Messier 74 with IFN
Starless Messier 74

In the end, I had to open the almost-finished image on different software and use a brush to minutely protect the entire galaxy from the IFN clouds. I then finished the processing back onto PixInsight.


 

Messier 75 FAQ


  • In which constellation is the M74 Galaxy located?

You can find the Phantom Galaxy in the constellation of the fishes: Pisces.

  • How big is the Phantom Galaxy?

M74 is a large Grand Design spiral galaxy. It has a diameter of approximately 95,000 light-years.

  • How far is the Phantom Galaxy?

M74 is located approximately 32 million light-years away from Earth.

  • When was the first picture of the Phantom Galaxy taken?

The first picture of M74 was taken on December 9th, 1893, by astronomer Isaac Roberts.

  • How long should my exposure time be when photographing the M74 Galaxy?

We took 300-second exposures from our Bortle 1 site using our fast f/2 telescope. We recommend doing between 180 and 300 seconds to not blow out the core. In our case, 300 seconds was already almost too long, and processing the galaxy without making the core too bright was a challenge...

  • Should I use a filter to image the Phantom Galaxy?

M74 is a good broadband target, so you don't need any specific filter to image it. You can use an HA filter if you'd like to reveal the star formation within the spiral arms, but it is not crucial.



 

Galactic Hunter Episode #11 - The Phantom Galaxy


The Phantom Galaxy was the focus of the 11th episode of Galactic Hunter!

Discover how we captured this target with our DSLR camera below.



 

Final Thoughts


Although Messier 74 is one of the most difficult galaxies to observe visually, it certainly is a great target to photograph! It has beautiful spiral arms and great details thanks to its angle being face-on.


or advanced astrophotographers, a lot of very faint IFN is present around the object, which can be exciting if you are planning to capture this region widefield from a dark site.


Clear Skies,

Antoine & Dalia Grelin

Galactic Hunter




 

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