Updated: May 18
Spiral galaxy Messier 81 and starburst galaxy Messier 82 are two galaxies often photographed together as a pair in the constellation Ursa Major. M81 and M82 are great broadband targets that are easy for beginner astrophotographers. They are also rich in hydrogen-alpha gas, especially the starburst galaxy M82. M81 and M82 are best imaged in Spring.
Object Designation: M81 & M82
Also known as: Bode's Galaxy & The Cigar Galaxy
Constellation: Ursa Major
Object Type: Spiral Galaxy & Spiral Starburst Galaxy
Distance: 3,650 light-years away
Magnitude: 6.94 & 8.41
Discovered in: 1774 by Johann Elert Bode
The photo on the right shows Messier 81 and Messier 82 in infrared.
As you can see, the Cigar Galaxy (right) is incredibly bright and looks almost as large as M81 in infrared! This is because of its extreme starburst activity, which we'll talk about more in-depth below!
We captured M81 and M82 several times. We'll show you all our attempts in this post!
Revealing as much IFN as possible around M81 and M82
March 2022 - Bortle 2
Here is my latest attempt at M81 and M82. The data was obtained using Utah Desert Remote Observatories. Be sure to read the full story about how this image was captured just below!
I processed this image using PixInsight with the main goal of bringing out as much IFN as possible.
This is very difficult to do and meant I had to sacrifice a great amount of detail in the actual galaxies. I also had to accept a rather annoying amount of noise from the background space. But because my priority was to display as much of the IFN as I could, I am okay with the result. M81 is still beautiful and the starburst galaxy M82 shows a ton of Hydrogen Alpha which is great!
M81and M82 swimming in a sea of IFN. Click the image to see it in higher resolution
Camera: ZWO ASI6200MM
Telescope: Takahashi FSQ-106
Processing: Pixinsight, with RC-Astro plugins
Total Exposure Time: 20.25 hours (91 L, 26 R, 24 G, 25 B, 8 Ha)
Exposure Time per frame: Luminance: 600 seconds
R/G/B: 180 seconds
Ha: 600 seconds
The Story Behind the Image
Earlier this year, we collaborated with Craig Stocks, an astrophotographer from Utah who owns his own remote observatories in the desert. We imaged the Seagull Nebula together and each processed the data using our favorite software, Photoshop for Craig, and PixInsight for me. Be sure to visit our full blog post about the Seagull Nebula to see both results!
We also made a full video about using Photoshop Vs. PixInsight for processing astrophotography images. While editing the video, I really wanted to also include a galaxy in there and not just a nebula, so I asked Craig if we could collaborate again but this time using M81 and M82. Craig is a pretty cool guy so he said yes. 😎
The area around Messier 81 and Messier 82 is fairly easy to process... if you only care about showing off the galaxies. Now, if you also want to reveal all of the hidden signals in the frame, which includes a very faint gas called IFN, processing now becomes extremely difficult.
Without the use of perfect masks, bringing out the faint IFN automatically blows up any deep-sky object present in the image. Because of that, it is crucial to be familiar with all sorts of masks when processing images full of IFN.
The only experience I had with IFN was with the Shark Nebula image I captured a year earlier. At the time, that was the most difficult object I ever had to process. Now, let me tell you that this image of M81 and M82 takes the number 1 spot for the hardest data to process. It took me many frustrating hours, as I struggled so hard to protect the galaxies as I worked on the IFN.
On the right is Craig’s image using Photoshop. He did a really great job at protecting the galaxies and keeping a clean image overall.
The main difference between the two here is that I went with a much more aggressive approach in revealing the IFN, which also means that my image is much noisier than his.
Let us know what you think in the comments. I would say my image looks great on a small screen, like on a phone for example, but his image is much better when opened on a larger screen because of how clean it is.
The equipment used for these shots, which you can see on the left, was obviously top-notch. It is controlled entirely remotely from anywhere in the world thanks to the Nuc computer and WiFi router attached to the rig.
The total integration time was just over 20 hours which is great from a Bortle 2 site. Doubling this amount would have likely made the final results cleaner and with much less noise.
If you would like to image from Craig's dark site, you can set up your entire astrophotography rig there for a monthly fee and image every single clear night remotely. You can learn more about this on the Utah Desert Remote Observatories website.
M81 and M82: Two Popular Astrophotography Targets in the Sky
Before showing you all our other attempts at imaging M81 and M82 with our beginner telescope setup and our portable wide-field rig, let's learn a bit more about our targets! Why are Bode's and the Cigar galaxies so popular for astrophotography? How large is M81 compared to M82? Why is M82 so red?
Messier 81 - Bode's Galaxy
Messier 81 is a Grand Design Spiral Galaxy seen face-on, meaning it has spiral arms that extend quite a bite away from the galactic center and are very well-defined. You can see how obvious the spiral arms are in the picture on the right.
The colors in Messier 81 are bright and beautiful. In both regular broadband images and infrared versions, you can see a clear division between the colors near the galactic center and the colors extending in the spiral arms.
This is also easily seen in amateur images, where blue dominates the arms while the core is bright yellow.
M81's nickname is "Bode's Galaxy" after it was discovered by Johann Elert Bode in December of 1774.
Bode was a German astronomer, who lived from 1747 to 1826 and had a nice impact on astronomy.
For example, he is the one who came up with the name of the planet Uranus, and he even determined the planet's orbit!
What if Uranus was called... Bode? Surely there would be fewer silly jokes about it. 😅
M81 is a very active galaxy. It has a ton of star-forming regions full of hydrogen-alpha, as well as interstellar dust scattered throughout the spiral arms. Those are easily seen in the picture above as bright red areas.
Besides these star-forming regions, Messier 81 is known to be home to more than 200 globular clusters!
I tried circling several of them in the image on the left after checking several maps online. I wanted to make sure I did not accidentally circle a star so I only circled what I was 100% sure was a globular cluster.
Bode's Galaxy is a great target for owners of large telescopes. If you plan on photographing this galaxy by itself, be sure to image it from a dark site preferably, and if possible, spend several full nights on it! We also recommend that you spend a few extra hours with a hydrogen-alpha filter to capture the many star-forming regions and areas of nebulosity within the spiral arms. These might show up without the filter but will pop up much more if you take the time to image in that wavelength as well.
Messier 82 - The Cigar Galaxy
M82 is very different from its neighbor M81. It is a starburst spiral galaxy seen edge-on, and so appears much smaller than the other. M82's galactic core is 100+ times brighter than the one in our Milky Way.
Messier 82 has got a pretty cool nickname, the "Cigar Galaxy". This is because of the intense starburst activity going on, expelling an incredible amount of hydrogen-alpha gas from its core in two opposite directions. This gas can be seen in fiery red in the image on the left.
M82 is the best example of a starburst galaxy as it is the largest and brightest object of this type in the night sky. This is a favorite galaxy for many amateur astrophotographers, including us!
Getting the hydrogen alpha gas expelling from M82 can be quite a challenge for beginner astrophotographers imaging with an unmodified DSLR camera. Getting your camera Astro-converted or using a DSLR Ha Clip-On filter is recommended for this target.
Messier 82 is located 11.42 million light-years away from us, and is the closest Starburst galaxy to Earth! Other examples of popular starburst galaxies include Centaurus A and the Antennae Galaxies.
In 2014, Steve Fossey, an astrophysics lecturer at the University of London Observatory, made an interesting discovery with 4 of his students.
They noticed that a new star, which wasn't there before on any image and couldn't be found in catalogs, just "popped up" in the galaxy.
Steve and his students determined that this new star was in fact a supernova, and the IAU classified it as a Type Ia supernova.
The same year, X-Ray data showed an extremely bright pulsar in the galaxy. It has a luminosity of 100 times what was believed to be possible before its discovery!
Find out more about different types of galaxies in our galaxy astrophotography page.
M81 and M82 with a Reflector Telescope and Cooled Astronomy Camera
February 2020 - Bortle 2
This was a huge disappointment. I was expecting this picture to look amazing, but it actually looks terrible. Let's go over what went wrong... and move on. 😅
I drove about 2 hours away from home to a Bortle 2 zone. This was my first time imaging seriously from such a dark site and I assumed that whatever I photographed would look awesome no matter how long I spent on it
I went there with a fancy telescope I had never used before, the Takahashi E-180
My priority was not to get a fantastic image but to make a video about the telescope. I was too distracted by that task
I photographed another target on that same night, the Rosette Nebula, instead of focussing all my attention on M81 and M82. Because of that, I only had 2 hours to spend on this second image
Here is the image below. It honestly makes me want to puke. Wait, hold on a second... 🤢🤮
Ok, I'm back. Scroll down for the acquisition details and more info on the telescope used.
M81 and M82 with the ASI1600MM and Tak E-180. Don't click to enlarge. It's not worth it
Camera: ZWO ASI 1600MM
Telescope: Takahashi Epsilon-180
Guiding: ZWO ASI 290MM Mini
Acquisition: ZWO ASIAIR
Total Exposure Time: 2 hours
Exposure Time per frame: 3 minutes
I have to admit two things though:
There is some faint IFN visible! 🥳
There is some hydrogen alpha visible from the starburst activity in M82! 🥳
But besides that, everything else is terrible. The image is very noisy, the core of M81 looks terrible, the colors fade, the stars are blurry, and so on...
I also had some issues with guiding, because the mount was not cooperating that night, but I don't have the mental capacity to go deeper into that...
Let's make something clear though, this was entirely my fault and not the equipment's fault. The camera used (ASI1600MM) was one of the best entry-level mono cameras of the time, and the telescope is one of the best Newtonians made in the world.
The Takahashi E-180 is a fast (f/2.8) Hyperbolic Newtonian reflector telescope. At 500mm in focal length, it is great for capturing almost any nebulae, clusters, and large galaxies in the sky.
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M81 and M82 with a Reflector Telescope and Unmodified DSLR Camera
May 2017 - Bortle 4
This was the first time we were very happy with our final result of the pair of galaxies!
We drove about one hour out of the city to our imaging spot under a Bortle 4 sky. We only spent a total of 3 hours on it before getting sleepy and going back home. Bortle 4 is not excellent but it is fairly dark and good enough for astrophotography!
Below is our image of M81 and M82 from 2017 when we used our stock Canon DSLR camera and beginner Newtonian telescope. Notice how I was unable to show the starburst activity in the Cigar galaxy with the data acquired.
Camera: Canon 7D Mark II
Telescope: 8" Astrograph f/3.9
Mount: Equatorial Motorized Mount
Guiding: Autoguider - 50mm Guide Scope
Total Exposure Time: 3 hours
Exposure Time per frame: 3 minutes
60 lights - 15 Darks - 15 Bias
Bode's Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy are not difficult targets for beginner astrophotographers, but there are two tricky areas:
The IFN, which we talked about earlier
The hydrogen alpha gas expelling from M82
If, like us, you used an unmodified DSLR camera, revealing the starburst activity in the Cigar Galaxy is no easy task. It is likely that you will struggle to bring out the HA regions, mostly because the IR Cut filter built in every stock DSLR and mirrorless camera will block most of that wavelength.
If M82 is one of your favorite galaxies out there, and you really want to get the best possible image of it despite owning a stock DSLR/mirrorless camera, here are a few options you could try:
Spend multiple full nights imaging it from a dark site (Bortle 2, Bortle 1)
Dedicate one extra night to image it with a DSLR Ha Clip-On filter then stack the Ha data with your other files
Consider modifying your camera for astrophotography, which will make it much more sensitive to hydrogen alpha. See the comparison image above.
If none of the above is possible, just have fun imaging it with your current camera as is. You'll have plenty of time to re-photograph this target in the future once you upgrade your camera!
Locating Bode's Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy
Before jumping into the wide-field astrophotography of M81 and M82, let's first learn how to find the pair in the night sky.
Both galaxies are visible through binoculars and telescopes, but not with the naked eye. Depending on the instrument, M81 will look like a blurry oval shape with a bright center, while M82 will appear as a thin line of light.
The pair is located in the constellation Ursa Major (where the famous Big Dipper asterism is). The easiest way to find them is to first spot the bright star Dubhe, which forms the top point of the Big Dipper pan, then travel about 10 degrees northwest to spot the two galaxies.
M81 and M82 are part of the M81 group of galaxies, which span from Ursa Major to Camelopardalis. This is one of the nearest galaxy groups to our Local Group. Both the Local Group and the M81 group are part of the Virgo Supercluster.
The 34 members in the M81 group of galaxies almost all have high apparent brightness, but M81 is the brightest and largest of them all!
Do Messier 81 and Messier 82 interact with one another?
The answer is yes.
Messier 81 has a very strong gravitational pull, and its tidal forces do impact Messier 82.
This can be seen in some images taken with special filters as you can see on the left. This gravitational pull not only affects M82 but other nearby galaxies.
These gravitational forces can affect the shape of a galaxy, but also increase its star-forming activity, as is the case with M82.
Cool Facts about M81 and M82
The pair were discovered together in 1774
M82 is the closest starburst galaxy to Earth
M81’s tidal forces affect M82 and increase its star-forming activity
Below you can watch the video we made about Messier 81. In the video, we give you tips to capture the best possible image of the galaxy and show you some of our previous attempts. We talk about imaging Bode's Galaxy with both a telescope and wide-field without a telescope.
This is a great resource for beginner astrophotographers looking to make M81 their next target!
Wide-Field Capture of M81 & M82
Although not the best for DSLR lens astrophotography, M81 and M82 can still be captured without a telescope. Below is our image of the pair using a 300mm lens on a Canon t3i and iOptron SkyTracker.
This was taken when we were just beginning astrophotography, and we know for sure it has a ton of room for improvement! We might decide to re-visit this image with our current mirrorless camera and star tracker, and most importantly with better processing skills. Watch out for an updated pic soon!
If you do not own a telescope or a sky tracker just yet, there is still hope! M81 and M82 are large enough and bright enough that you can photograph the pair with just a tripod, any DSLR camera, and any beginner lens.
We used our old used Canon T3i and cheap 75-300mm lens to obtain the picture you see on the right.
Sure, it's not worthy of any award, but this proves that you also can photograph M81 and M82 without tracking the sky!
At this focal length (300mm or so), you'll have no choice but to take very short exposures, and recenter your camera every few minutes. We suggest aiming for about 3 hours of total integration time.
You can learn more about capturing deep-sky objects with just a DSLR camera and a tripod by reading our full guide!
Messier 81 and Messier 82 are two wonderful targets for any amateur astrophotographer. Whether you are a beginner astrophotographer or an advanced imager, you will always feel the need to photograph M81 and M82 over and over again to improve on your previous attempts.
When taking a photo of the two, make sure to double-check that both galaxies fit nicely in the frame of the camera. Spend as much time collecting photons as your patience will allow, and do not feel lazy to drive to a dark site, it is worth it for these targets!
If you are able to, add some extra hours of data using a hydrogen-alpha filter, which will help reveal the starburst activity expelling from M82, as well as the many star-forming regions in the spiral arms of M81.
Lastly, be prepared for a tough processing session. If you are a beginner, prioritize making the galaxies look as beautiful as possible instead of trying to bring up the IFN. If you are an advanced astrophotographer with lots of processing hours behind you, take the time to do many different masks and work on the galaxies and IFN separately. You might pull your hair a few times, but keep going at it!
Have you captured M81 and M82? Attach your image in the comments and let us know your acquisition details!
Antoine & Dalia Grelin
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