The illustrious discovery of Bode’s Nebula, as witnessed by the great Johann Bode himself in 1774. So remarkable was his description of this “nebulous patch” that the galaxies became forever immortalized with his name. But it wasn’t just Bode who was captivated by these distant worlds. Pierre Machin discovered them independently in 1779, and they were soon included in Messier’s prestigious catalog from 1781.
These luminous orbs are a true spectacle to behold, especially in the springtime when they ride high in the late evening sky. And for those of us in the northern hemisphere, they are circumpolar, meaning they never set below the horizon. With both galaxies comfortably fitting inside the same 1° field of view, it’s a sight that will take your breath away. Even with just a pair of binoculars or a small telescope under dark skies, they shine brightly enough to be admired.
M81, the larger of the two galaxies, is a mere 12 million light-years away, making it “close by” in astronomical terms. It is also the largest galaxy in the M81 group, a cluster of 34 galaxies neighboring our very own Local Group. This galactic giant recently made headlines for being home to the first-ever imaged supermassive black hole, with a mass equivalent to 70 million suns.
But M82 is no slouch either. Despite being smaller, it is five times brighter than the Milky Way, with a center 100 times more luminous. This galaxy may have been dramatically deformed by a close encounter with M81 hundreds of millions of years ago, but it also caused M82 to experience a burst of new star formation in its arms.
The two galaxies may be separated by 130,000 light-years today, but their celestial dance will continue to capture the imagination of stargazers for generations to come.