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M78 - Reflection Nebula in Orion - Astrophotography

Updated: 1 day ago


Messier 78 is a dark diffuse reflection nebula in the constellation of the hunter, Orion. It is very close to Messier 42 (The Orion Nebula) and IC 434 (The Horsehead Nebula). M78 is the brightest diffuse reflection in the night sky and looks great when photographed with a telescope, but can also be captured wide-field using a camera and lens.


Object Designation: M78, NGC 2078

Constellation: Orion

Object Type: Reflection Nebula

Distance: 1,600 light-years away

Magnitude: 8.3

Discovered in: Pierre Méchain in 1780


We've imaged the M78 Nebula several times, with and without a telescope! We'll show your our results below along with useful information and tips to prepare you to capture this beautiful object. M78 is not a difficult target and is popular among beginner astrophotographers.


In the northern hemisphere, Messier 78 starts to rise at a good time in November and stays high until January. This means the best time to photograph M78 is in the Winter season.


 

Deep M78 Astrophotography from a Dark Site

November 2023


We decided to spend a total of 27 hours on the M78 nebula using our fast RASA f/2 telescope from the Bortle 2 skies of Utah Desert Remote Observatories.


We framed the object in the hopes of also capturing part of Barnard's Loop to the left. As you can see below, this was a success! A band of rich hydrogen-alpha gas from the Barnard's Loop complex is visible very close to our main object. M78 looks very nice, with thick dark bands overlapping the bright area and blue light within.


The main eye-catcher about this image though is the incredible amount of dust all over the frame! As you can see, the background behind and around M78 is completely filled with interstellar dust (ISM), also known as molecular clouds. A few regions of extra HA can be seen within these clouds, for example at the top of the image.


Click the image to see it in high resolution!

Messier 78 astrophotography with RASA 8

Download our practice data for M78 and see what you can achieve!


GEAR USED:

Telescope: Celestron RASA 8

Mount: 10Micron GM1000 HPS

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

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 27 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 300 seconds

Filters: N/A

Gain: 100

 

M78 Astrophotography with a Stock DSLR Camera and Telescope

January 2019


The photo below was taken through our 8” telescope with a total exposure time of only 1 hour and 9 minutes! This was taken from a Bortle 4 zone in the desert, and was our very first attempt at capturing M78 with a telescope.


We like that with just an hour of exposure time, the nebula still looks great with the blue color popping out very well. This also shows that M78 astrophotography can result in a beautiful picture with beginner-grade equipment and little time.


Messier 78 - Unmodified DSLR Astrophotography

GEAR USED:

Telescope: 8" Astrograph

Mount: Atlas EQ-G

Processing: Pixinsight

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 1 hour and 9 minutes

Exposure Time per frame: 3 minutes

23 lights - 15 Darks - 15 Bias

ISO: 800



 

How to Find Messier 78

Map to find M78 in Orion

M78 cannot be seen with the naked eye, but can be spotted with binoculars or a small telescope. It is located very close to other deep sky objects, such as the Horsehead and Flame nebulae, the Orion nebula, and not too far from the Witch Head nebula.


An easy way to find this target is to use a camera lens, such as a 50mm lens, and take a long exposure shot of the area around Orion's sword. You should be able to spot an area of bright/fuzzy stars where M78 lies.

The location of M78 in the Milky Way galaxy
The location of M78 in our Milky Way galaxy - SkySafari

Relative to the Milky Way, Messier 78 is very close to the solar system as you can see on the image above (the small orange dot next to the green square is the Sun).


The best time to observe and photograph M78 is in Winter.

 

Messier 78 Information


Messier 78 is the brightest diffuse reflection nebula known. Being a reflection nebula, the object does not emit its own light. The dust and gas within the object only reflect the light coming from nearby stars.


Do not be confused by the word "diffuse" often emphasized when talking about the type of nebula M78 is, all reflection nebulae are diffuse. You can learn more about the different types of nebulae on our Nebula astrophotography page.


 

M78 by NASA and ESO


NASA and ESO both photographed the Messier 78 nebula using different instruments. Here you can see an image taken from the ground-based telescope VISTA from ESO located in the Atacama desert in Chile. It was taken in Infrared and shows M78 filling up the entire field of view. On its right, you can see a tiny section imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope's NICMOS instrument (Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer).


Although this is not one of Hubble's best pictures, both images look fantastic and helped NASA study protostellar evolution, meaning the early developmental stages in a star’s life.


M78 ESA and Hubble NASA Infrared

These Infrared observations also taught scientists that a minimum of 192 stars have formed in M78 so far. Out of these 192 stars, 45 are T Tauri variables which are young pre-main sequence stars.


There are also 17 Herbig-Haro objects in M78, which are expected to disappear slowly over the next thousands of years.

 

M78 Discovery


Pierre Méchain portrait
Pierre Méchain

Messier 78 was discovered at the beginning of 1780 by Pierre Méchain, who has also discovered several deep sky objects now part of the Messier Catalog.

His first discovery that ended up in the catalog was M63 (the Sunflower Galaxy) and the last was the open cluster M103.


When Méchain took notes about the object, he wrote:

"On the left side of Orion; 2 to 3 minutes in diameter, one can see two fairly bright nuclei, surrounded by nebulosity."



Pierre Méchain and Charles Messier were both friends and colleagues. Méchain told Messier about this discovery, so that he could add it to its catalog of deep sky objects. Charles Messier, when adding M78, noted:


"Cluster of stars, with much nebulosity in Orion & on the same parallel as the star Delta in the belt, which has served to determine its position; the cluster follows the star on the hour wire at 3d 41', & the cluster is above the star by 27'7."


 

McNeil's Nebula


McNeil's Nebula is a variable reflection nebula that can be visible within M78 only when it is bright. This nebula was discovered by amateur astronomer Jay McNeil on January 23, 2004, using a 3-inch refractor telescope.

In our 2023 picture, the nebula is not visible, although the location where it is supposed to be seems to be glowing just a tiny bit.


McNeil's Nebula near M78 - 2004 vs 2006
McNeil's Nebula - 2004 vs 2006. Credit: ESO

During this discovery, the nebula looked very bright and could not be found in previous images taken just a few months prior. The nebula could be found by going way back to October 1966 on Evered Kreimer's picture.


You can see below a history of McNeil's nebula. When will it once again become visible?


McNeil's Nebula over the years
McNeil's Nebula over the years. Credit: Sky & Telescope

 

Cool Facts about M78


  • M78 was discovered in 1780 by Charles Messier's friend and colleague Pierre Méchain.

  • M78 is the brightest diffuse reflection nebula in the sky.

  • The interaction of gasses within M78 has formed about 200 stars.


 

Our Online Astrophotography Course


Want to learn how to capture deep sky objects, the Milky Way, and more? Join the Galactic Course to have access to all our astrophotography courses, as well as all our processing guides!


Get courses and processing tutorials individually, or sign up for a bundle to get access to it all!


 

Wide-Field Capture of Messier 78


M78 can be photographed with just a camera lens! Attach your camera to a tracking mount, and aim for the emission nebula Barnard's Loop. You can also get IC 434 and M42 in the same frame if using an 85m or 50mm lens!


Below is Barnard's Loop, we spent 7.2 hours on it (watch Episode 8!), using a 50mm lens, tracking the stars with our motorized mount. We also used a DSLR clip-on filter to gather some HA data, which made a huge difference in the end as you'll see in the video.


Barnard's Loop stock DSLR astrophotography

GEAR USED:

Processing: Pixinsight

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 7.2 hours

RGB Exposure Time: 3.6 hours

Hydrogen Alpha Exposure Time: 3.6 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 6 minutes

73 lights, calibrated with Darks and Bias

ISO: 800


 

Single Shot and Processing of M78


M78 doesn't look like much on single shots. Below you can see what a 5-minute shot looked like before stacking it with all the rest. As you can see, you can easily notice the two bright regions within M78, but none of the dust in the background is visible, and none of the HA from Barnard's Loop pops up as well.


Single 5-minute shot of M78

Processing M78 is very fun but can be tricky depending on what your end goal is. In my case, I'm a bit obsessed with revealing as much interstellar dust as possible so my goal was to make the dust visible and obvious. This is great scientifically speaking as it is not easy to do and so you do not often see all the extent of this dust, but in the case of M78, the whole image quickly becomes overwhelmed with ISM (interstellar medium).


When I was done processing the image, I actually had to open it one more time and make it darker to purposefully make the dust less obvious as it was simply too much.


Processing Messier 78 on PixInsight

If you'd like to download the master file and process the data yourself, you can get our practice dataset immediately. We also have a premium version that includes the full-resolution master file along with a 4K walkthrough processing video that teaches you exactly how to get a result similar to ours. You can find the premium dataset below:




 


Messier 78 FAQ


  • In which constellation is M78 located?

You can find Messier 78 in the constellation Orion.


  • How big is M78?

The nebula has a diameter of 10 light-years. From Earth, it has an apparent size of 8 by 6 arc minutes.


  • How far is M78

Messier 78 is located about 1,600 light-years away from Earth.


  • How long should my exposure times be when photographing Messier 78?

This is a nebula with dark bands but a bright star near the center. There is also a ton of interstellar dust in the background. We suggest starting out with 5-minute exposures, and tweaking that number depending on the quality of your sky and the focal ratio of your telescope. From Bortle 2 with an f/2 telescope, 5 minutes is good for us!


  • Should I use a filter to image M78?

M78 itself is a good broadband target, so you will not need a filter. If you'd like to get the faint HA regions near the nebula, as well as the Barnard's Loop section, a Hydrogen Alpha filter is highly recommended! We were able to get a nice result with bright HA thanks to the fast optics of the RASA and the nice dark skies.


 

M78 Astrophotography - Final Thoughts


Messier 78 is one of our favorite nebulae in the sky, as it is both easy and challenging depending on if you want to capture just the object or the dust around it. M78 itself is overall an easy target for beginner astrophotographers, and one of the most popular objects of the Winter season.


To photograph M78, we recommend to drive away from the light pollution as this is a nice broadband target that cannot be captured with narrowband filters.

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


Clear Skies,

Antoine & Dalia Grelin

Galactic Hunter

 

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