M74 is a beautiful face-on spiral galaxy located in the constellation of Pisces. It's an archetypal example of a grand design spiral that was discovered by Pierre Méchain sometime during September 1780. Méchain reported his discovery to Charles Messier, who subsequently determined its position and then catalogued it on October 18, 1780. With an apparent magnitude of +9.4, M74 is not a faint galaxy but does suffer from low surface brightness and therefore can be difficult to spot especially when some light pollution exists. As a result, it's widely regarded as being one of the more difficult Messier objects. This galaxy is best seen during the months of October, November and December.
M74 is located in the barren star fields of Pisces. Although Pisces is the 14th largest constellation in the sky it contains no bright stars. The brightest star eta Piscium (η Psc) shines at magnitude +3.6. Luckily this star acts a perfect marker, with M74 positioned 1.5 degrees east-northeast of it. To pinpoint eta Piscium start in the adjacent constellation of Aries. First locate stars, Hamal (α Ari - mag. +2.0) and Sheratan (β Ari - mag. +2.6). Then imagine a line connecting Hamal to Sheratan and extend in a southwesterly direction for another 7.5 degrees to reach eta Piscium.
Observationally, M74 is a very difficult binocular object. In 7x50 or 10x50 models, it requires dark skies and excellent seeing conditions. At best the galaxy appears as only a very faint smudge of light. Larger 20x80 binoculars make the task easier, revealing a dim small round patch of nebulosity without detail. The view through small 100mm (4-inch) telescopes at low magnification is slightly improved. The core region of the galaxy is visible surrounded by a very faint fuzzy halo. With 200mm (8-inch) reflectors the halo is more pronounced and appears large. The halo of course represents the beautiful spiral arms, evidence of which can be glimpsed in larger scopes of the order of 300mm (12-inch) aperture or greater. Visually, M74 looks like a smaller version of the Triangulum Galaxy (M33) but with a more defined nucleus. The full glory and majesty of M74 is revealed in images and photographs.
This galaxy is located 32.5 million light-years away and has a diameter of about 95,000 light-years, which is similar to that of the Milky Way. It has an apparent size of 10.5 x 9.5 arc minutes. In 2002 and 2003, supernovae were discovered in M74. This first brightened up to mag. +12.3, the second to mag. +13.2.
Interestedly, M74 was the subject of a mistake made by Sir John Herschel in his General Catalogue (GC). Herschel mysteriously catalogued M74 as a globular cluster, an error that was also carried over into the subsequent New General Catalogue (NGC).
M74 Data Table
|Object Type||Spiral galaxy|
|Distance (light-years)||32.5 Million|
|RA (J2000)||01h 36m 42s|
|DEC (J2000)||+15d 47m 03s|
|Apparent Size (arc mins)||10.5 x 9.5|