M97 or "the Owl Nebula" is a famous planetary nebula located in the constellation of Ursa Major. It was discovered by Pierre Mechain on February 16, 1781 and is one of only four planetary nebulae listed in the Messier catalogue. The name Owl Nebula was first coined by William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse who noticed owl-like "eyes" when observing the nebula in 1848. At magnitude +9.9, it's not particularly bright but is spectacular and regarded as one of the more complex examples of its type.

Locating M97 is easy; it's positioned only 2.5 degrees southeast of bright star Merak (β UMa - mag. +2.3), which forms the southwest corner of the bowl of the famous Plough or Big Dipper asterism of Ursa Major. In the same wide field telescope field of view, 50 arc minutes northwest of M97 is the barred spiral galaxy M108 (mag. +10.2).

The Owl Nebula is best seen from Northern Hemisphere latitudes during the months of March, April and May. From latitudes north of 35N it's circumpolar and therefore never sets.

M97 The Owl Nebula (Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Finder Chart for M97 (also shown M40, M51, M101, M106, M108 and M109)

Finder Chart for M97 (also shown M40, M51, M101, M106, M108 and M109) - pdf format

Finder Chart for M81 (also shown M40, M97, M82, M108 and M109)

Finder Chart for M81 (also shown M40, M97, M82, M108 and M109) - pdf format

Due to its low surface brightness the Owl Nebula is a challenging object for large binoculars and small telescope observers. It's visible in 20x80 binoculars and 100mm (4-inch) scopes but usually requires very dark skies and excellent observing conditions to be seen. It appears as nothing more than a dim circular disk or fuzzy ball without detail.

The famous eyes consist of two dark patches superimposed on the face of the nebula. Under good conditions a 200mm (8-inch) scope at high power can show the eyes, but normally a 250mm (10-inch) scope is required to see them. An ultra high contrast deep sky or light pollution filter may also help. M97's central star is of only 14th magnitude making it an elusive target in anything less than a 350mm (14-inch) telescope.

M97 has an apparent size of 3.4 x 3.3 arc minutes. At a distance of 2,600 light-years form Earth this equates to an actual diameter of 3 light-years. It's a fantastic deep sky object that's estimated to be 8,000 years old. Although not that bright, it's a worthy object on any observing list.

M97 Data Table

NameOwl Nebula
Object TypePlanetary nebula
ConstellationUrsa Major
Distance (kly)2.6
Apparent Mag.9.9
RA (J2000)11h 14m 48s
DEC (J2000)55d 01m 07s
Apparent Size (arc mins)3.4 x 3.3
Radius (light-years)1.5
Notable FeatureOwl like "eyes" visible through larger amateur telescopes.

Sky Highlights - March 2017

Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak now visible with binoculars as it heads towards perihelion

Mercury heading towards greatest elongation east

Minor Planet
Vesta now visible with binoculars and small telescopes.

The Planets
This Month's Guide

Algol Minima
Algol eclipse dates and times for March 2017

Northern Hemisphere
West:- Venus (mag. -4.8 to -4.1 - first half of month), Mars (mag. +1.3 to +1.5), Uranus (mag. +5.9), Mercury (mag. -1.5 to -0.4 - second half of month)
Southeast:- Jupiter (mag. -2.3 to -2.5)
Southwest:- Jupiter
Southeast:- Saturn (mag. +0.5)

Southern Hemisphere
West:- Venus (first half of month), Mars, Uranus
North:- Jupiter
East:- Saturn
West:- Jupiter
Northeast:- Saturn
East:- Neptune (mag. +8.0 - second half of month)

Deep Sky
Naked eye / binoculars:-
Melotte 111 - Mel 111 - The Coma Star Cluster (Open Cluster)
Messier 44 - M44 - The Praesepe (Open Cluster)

Messier 67 - M67 - Open Cluster
Messier 51 - M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy)
Messier 97 - M97 - The Owl Nebula (Planetary Nebula)
Messier 101 - M101 - The Pinwheel Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy)
Messier 65 – M65 – Spiral Galaxy
Messier 66 - M66 - Intermediate Spiral Galaxy
Messier 95 - M95 - Barred Spiral Galaxy
Messier 96 - M96 - Intermediate Spiral Galaxy
NGC 4244 - Spiral Galaxy
NGC 4565 - Needle Galaxy - Spiral Galaxy

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