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M81 and M82, GALAXIES

In Ursa Major

Just off the bowl of the Big Dipper, lie two of the most interesting galaxies accessible to backyard telescopes. They form the nucleus of a small group of galaxies, which at a distance of around 8 million light years, may be the nearest group of galaxies beyond the "Local Group".


They can be seen in binoculars and are easy to find. Just follow the diagonal line north through the stars Alpha and Gamma in the bowl of the Big Dipper.


M81 is the largest of the "M81 Group" of about a dozen members. M81 is one of the densest galaxies known. It contains the mass of about 250 billion suns which somewhat exceeds the mass of our own Milky Way. However, at a diameter of about 36,000 light years, it is less than a third the size of the Milky Way.

Note the dagger-like feature on the right edge of the galaxy at center.

The Dagger in M81

In this high resolution CCD image, the dagger resolves itself into unpretentious star clouds and a few foreground stars.

M82, an "Irregular" Galaxy

To the telescope, M82 presents a very striking spindle shape which, in spite of being much smaller than M81, is far more conspicuous. On photos, it shows a great deal of amorphous structure but not a hint of spiral arms or resolution into stars, even in the largest telescopes.

M82 is also known as a "peculiar" galaxy and has long presented a number of unsolved problems to astronomers. It is a very strong "radio source", the light is highly polarized and shows what seems to be a very strong magnetic field. When photographed at various different wavelengths of light, streamers and jets seem to be squirting out of the center, perpendicular to the main axis of the galaxy. Nothing is known for sure but it appears that something very violent has taken place in the past several million years.

Technical details of images:

The group picture is a wide angle view taken with the 8" scope in 1995. It was a 60 min exposure on hypered Techpan.

The M81 photo was taken with the 16" and is a 40 min exposure on TechPan film. The Dagger was a 40 min CCD image taken with the MX5 camera and M82 was a 10 color image taken with the MX5C.

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