Returning To The Pinwheel Galaxy

“So if we assume we are not the only civilisation in the galaxy, then at least a few others must have arisen billions of years ahead of us. But where are they?” – Brian Cox

Messier 101, the Pinwheel Galaxy, in the constellation Ursa Major, is one of the most imaged objects in the night sky, by amateur and professional astrophotographers and astronomers alike, and with good reason. A face-on spiral galaxy some 21 million light years distant, it is a rich and beautiful object, which doesn’t take a lot of data to show.

Several times I’ve attempted this one myself, but I’ve never been happy with the results. Although it doesn’t need a lot of data to show it, to truly appreciate its beauty and elegance you should really put some decent time into it.

I first glimpsed it several years ago at 55mm with my old Nikon D5300 when I shot a widefield image of the area. Back then it was a faint smudge only several pixels across.

It was still exciting to me though, knowing I’d captured photons of light that had travelled since long before the dawn of humanity, to be captured by the mechanics and electronics of the product of a couple of million years of evolution of a big ball of stuff contained within my skull.

I was determined to have a proper go at it at some point, so now, with a decent OSC I’ve been pouring as much time into it as I can. This means shooting it at home under the class 4 skies I’m blessed with, and also under the class 5 at my children’s home.

Kit-wise I’ve been using the 72ED (Miranda) and the ZWO ASI178MC. At home I can get away without using any filters, although at the kids I’m having to use a CLS (city light suppression) filter due to the skies being class 5. The final image is a combination of 2 minute subs plus a full set of calibration frames for each of the six sessions. All of this is mounted on the SkyWatcher Star Adventurer portable tracking mount.

Unfortunately, because I’m pushing the capabilities of the mount quite hard with regards to weight, I lose a high percentage of the frames I take. Once my main rig is back online, that will improve, but for the time being I’m having to use this setup. I’m also looking forward to using the Star Adventurer for its intended purpose of short widefield focal length tracked imaging. As we’re coming into Milky Way season currently, I’m hoping to get some really good integration time there.

Ursa Major itself has been especially well placed for me this season in both locations, and as I don’t tend to image a lot of galaxies, it makes sense to try for one that’s relatively-speaking not too hard. The hardest part is finding the time with limited opportunities due to weather and the moon, plus balancing this with a relationship, kids and work. It helps that all three understand my passion for the stars, and oftentimes the kids and Amanda will come out with me.

The final image (this season) was finished back in June, but I’ve been going back to it and re-editing. I’m still not happy with it, but for now this is just shy of 4 hours worth of total exposure time. I hope you enjoy this (for now) final version.

Thank you for reading, and clear skies all.

Messier 101, The Pinwheel Galaxy in the constellation Ursa Major. Shot with the SkyWatcher 72ED and ZWO ASI178MC on the Star Adventurer

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