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M44 - The Beehive Cluster in Cancer | Astrophotography Tips & Pictures

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

Messier 44 is a bright and popular open cluster in the constellation Cancer. It is large and best observed and captured with a small telescope so that all the stars can fit in the field of view. In this post, you will find information, images, and tips to photograph this beautiful cluster.


Object Designation: M44, NGC 2632, Cr 189

Also known as: The Beehive Cluster, Praesepe

Constellation: Cancer

Object Type: Open Cluster

Distance: 610 light-years away

Magnitude: 3.7

Discovery: Galileo Galilei in 1609


The Beehive Cluster is an easy target for beginner astrophotographers because the stars are bright and spread out over a large field of view. Being in Cancer, M44 is best observed during the months of February, March, and April.


 

M44 Astrophotography with a Refractor Telescope and Monochrome Camera

April 2023


I've wanted to capture the Beehive Cluster for years, but kept pushing it back because I really wanted to use a reflector on this target instead of a refractor. Why? So that I could get beautiful diffraction spikes on all these bright stars within the open cluster.


Realizing that I wouldn't be using a reflector for quite some time, I decided to point my refractor at it and start imaging it. I spent 5 hours on this target, although one or two hours would have been enough from a dark sky (Bortle 2). I did 5 full hours not to try revealing more details anywhere, but to ensure that I would not have any noise in the background. You can see the final image below!


Messier 44 Beehive Cluster Astrophotography

GEAR USED:

Camera: QHY600M

Telescope: Stellarvue SVX130

Mount: 10Micron GM1000 HPS

Accessories: Moonlite Nitecrawler focuser / Pegasus Astro Ultimate Powerbox

Processing: Pixinsight, with RC-Astro plugins

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 5 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 5 minutes

Gain: 56


 

How to Locate M44


The Beehive Cluster is located 610 light-years away in the constellation Cancer, not far from the two bright stars "Castor" and "Pollux" from the nearby Gemini constellation.


How to find Messier 44 in the night sky, map

Messier 44 is large and bright, and is easily visible to the naked eye from a dark location. You can of course also spot the cluster with binoculars and any telescope.


The constellation that hosts M44, Cancer, is overall very dim, so it is easier to use the two constellations on either side of Cancer (Leo and Gemini) to spot the cluster, as these are much more easily recognizable. Once you know where Cancer is, see how its stars form a "Y" shape (which can be upside down depending on the time!). The Beehive Cluster can be found in the center of the "Y" shape.


There aren't many other deep-sky objects around M44, besides the open cluster Messier 67, the Eskimo Nebula, and the Leo Triplet.


The best time to observe and photograph the Beehive Cluster is in the Spring.


 

Messier 44 Cluster Information


Let's learn a little more about the beautiful Beehive Cluster, like how it was discovered, what it is made of, and more.



Discovery


Messier 44 was discovered in the year 1609 by the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei. M44 was one of the very first deep sky objects that Galileo studied using his telescope. After counting a total of 40 stars, he wrote:

The nebula called Praesepe contains not one star only but a mass of more than 40 small stars. We have noted 36 besides the Aselli (Gamma and Delta Cancri).”


Drawing of Galileo Galilei portrait
Galileo Galilei. Credit: ZU_09 via Getty

One hundred and sixty years later, Charles Messier measured its location precisely, and added M44 to his famous catalog of objects that could be confused with comets. Because of how large and obvious M44 appeared in the sky, some people wondered why Messier decided to add M44 to his catalog, especially with other recent entries like the unmissable M42 and M45. Reports say that Messier started adding such large and unmistakable objects to his catalog to have a larger catalog than his rival, Nicolas Louis De Lacaille. Lacaille's catalog included southern objects, and totalled 42 objects in 1755.


A map of the cluster was drawn by the director of the Göttingen Observatory, Wilhelm Schur, in 1894. The map is really cool-looking as lines were drawn between each star for calculations, giving it a 3D feel.



M44 map by Wilhelm Schur

 

The First Picture of M44


When was the first astrophotography image of the Beehive Cluster taken, and by who?

The picture you see below is the first known image of M44, and it was taken by Isaac Roberts on February 13th, 1891.


The exposure time was 90 minutes using a 20-inch reflector telescope.


First astrophotography picture of Messier 44

 

The Stars in the Beehive Cluster



Messier 44 contains more than 1,000 stars that are bound by gravity. Latest studies bring this number to 1,010. M44's total mass is estimated to be at 500-600 Solar masses. The types of stars in M44 are as follows:



  • Class M dwarfs - 68%

  • Class F, G, K - 30%

  • Class A stars - 2%

  • Giant Class K0 III - 4

  • Giant Class G0 III - 1


Lastly, almost no brown dwarves have been found in the cluster, and eleven white dwarves were spotted.



 

Discovery of Planets in Messier 44



An important discovery was done in September of 2012 by Sam Quinn using a research telescope at the University of Georgia. Two gas giant planets (Pr0201 b and Pr0211 b) were discovered orbiting separate sun-like stars. This was the first time that planets were discovered orbiting sun-like stars within clusters.


The "b" that follows the planets' names simply designates that they are planets.


In 2016, a third planet, designated Pr0211 c, was discovered in the Pr0211 b Solar System.

 

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How to Process Messier 44


Processing this target was very simple because it is large and does not have any thing special to it besides bright stars scattered across the field of view.


The processing was very quick, and did not include anything tricky. All I had to do was to bring out the brightness and color of the bright stars, while keeping the background noise-free and dark.


Astrophotography PixInsight processing guide

If you would like to learn how I process our images, you can access our full "beginner processing workflow" guide that contains plenty of lessons, walkthrough tutorial videos, our custom pre-sets for your dashboard, and even raw data HERE.


This is a guide made specifically for beginners, we also have other guides available if you want something more advanced.


The file is updated whenever I decide to tweak my workflow or add more to it, and you always get the updates for free!



 

Utah Desert Remote Observatories


Messier 44 was imaged from a Bortle 2 sky using our 655mm refractor telescope and monochrome camera hosted at Utah Desert Remote Observatories. To learn more about this remote observatory, check out the video below!



If you would like to permanently install your rig next to ours under desert skies, you can contact the owner at info@utahdesertremote.com


 

Messier 44 FAQ


  • What is M44?

M44 is an open star cluster also known as the Beehive Cluster or Praesepe.


  • In which constellation is the Beehive Cluster located?

M44 can be found in the constellation Cancer.


  • How big is M44?

M44 has an apparent size of about 95 arcminutes, making it one of the largest open clusters in the night sky.


  • How far is the Beehive Cluster?

M44 is believed to be around 577 light-years away from Earth.


  • When was the first ever picture of Messier 44 taken?

The first astrophotograph of M44 was taken on February 13th, 1891 by Isaac Roberts.


  • How long should my exposure time be when photographing M44?

Because this is an open cluster, you don't risk much doing short or long exposure times. We did 300-second exposures which was fine. You honestly can go anywhere from 30 seconds to 600 seconds. Doing longer exposures is great if you don't want to end up with too many files to stack. Either way, we didn't find any faint gas or other hidden objects in the background.


  • Should I use a filter to image M44?

M44 is a perfect broadband target for color cameras without filters. There is no narrowband signal in or around the object, so it would be a waste to use an HA, OIII, or SII filter unless there in fact is something very faint hidden somewhere in there!


  • What equipment do I need to photograph the Beehive Cluster?

We suggest using a small telescope to capture M44, so that you can fit the entire object in your field of view and not cut off any stars.


A good small beginner telescope like the Askar FRA300 Pro is a good option!


 

Final Thoughts


The Beehive Cluster is a large, bright, and exciting target to capture. It is one of the easiest open clusters to image for beginner astrophotographers, and is extremely easy to process as well!


Have you imaged M44? If so, upload your picture in the comments! We'd all love to see your work :)



Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to stay up to date with our work!


Clear Skies,

Galactic Hunter




 

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