Updated: Sep 19
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
Object Type: Open Cluster
Distance: 610 light-years away
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
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!
Telescope: Stellarvue SVX130
Mount: 10Micron GM1000 HPS
Guiding: ZWO ASI 290MM Mini
Accessories: Moonlite Nitecrawler focuser / Pegasus Astro Ultimate Powerbox
Processing: Pixinsight, with RC-Astro plugins
Total Exposure Time: 5 hours
Exposure Time per frame: 5 minutes
Filters: Chroma 3nm R/G/B
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.
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.
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.
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).”
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.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!
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 :)
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