As a backyard astronomer, I’m on the lookout for interesting night sky objects to observe. One set I highly recommend is the deep-sky objects cataloged by French astronomer Charles Messier — called Messier Objects. Here, I list some favorites along with how to find them and what to expect.
Messier objects were first cataloged by Charles Messier, a French astronomer, in the 18th century. Hence the name.
Types of Messier objects
What are Messier Objects? Messier Objects are deep-sky objects that include galaxies, nebulae, planetary nebulae, open clusters, globular clusters, and star clusters. The Messier catalog contains 110 of these objects.
Why observe Messier Objects?
- Messier Objects are relatively easy to find and observe. Unlike meteor showers, they are relatively ‘stationary’ in the night sky
- They are also some of the most beautiful and interesting objects in the night sky
- Observing Messier Objects can be a great way to learn more about astronomy and the universe
You can observe them with just a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. Many amateur astronomers enjoy keeping track of which Messier Objects they’ve observed and trying to observe all 110 objects.
best times To observe Example Messier Objects
- M42 Orion Nebula: Summer
- M31 Andromeda Galaxy: Fall
- M45 Pleiades star cluster: Fall/Winter
- M13 Hercules Cluster: Summer
- M57 The Ring Nebula: Winter
- M81/M82 Bode’s Galaxy/Cigar Galaxy: Spring
- M42 Orion Nebula: Winter
- M31 Andromeda Galaxy: Spring/Summer
- M45 Pleiades star cluster: Summer
- M13 Hercules Cluster: Winter
- M57 The Ring Nebula: Spring
- M81/M82 Bode’s Galaxy/Cigar Galaxy: Autumn (only in the far north)
How to locate Messier objects in the night sky
As a one-time newbie to this hobby, I know exactly how daunting it can be at first with locating Messier objects in the night sky. But with a good guide and some practice, you’ll get to spot these celestial wonders. Here are some tips to help you on your way:
- Start by familiarizing yourself with the night sky. Learn to recognize the major constellations at your location and the brightest stars. This will help you navigate and locate Messier objects more easily.
- Use a star chart or night sky app to help you find the Messier objects you’re interested in. These tools will show you the exact location of the object relative to the stars and constellations around it.
- Once you’ve located the general area of the Messier object, use a low-power telescope or binoculars to help you spot it. I say low power because this will give you a wider field of view to find the object. Look for a faint fuzzy patch of light, which can be the Messier object itself. After you’ve found the spot you can then move to high power equipment.
Remember, practice makes perfect! Don’t get discouraged if you don’t spot the Messier object on your first attempt. Keep trying and enjoy the journey.
Top 6 Messier Objects for beginner amateur astronomers
If I were to limit it to just six, here are my picks in Messier Objects for beginner backyard astronomers. Of course, you or someone you know might have other favorites, but these are useful examples.
M42 – Orion Nebula
Here are 5 tips to help you find and view it:
- Find Orion: The Orion Nebula is located in the constellation Orion. Look for three stars in a row, which make up Orion’s belt. In the southern hemisphere, this is the base of the asterism known in the southern hemisphere as the Saucepan.
- Look below the belt (above the handle): Once you’ve found Orion’s belt (Saucepan base), look below (above) it for a “sword” of stars (Saucepan handle). The middle “star” in the sword (handle) is the Orion Nebula. For an image of this, see my article on what to see in the Milky Way.
- Choose the right time: The best time to view the Orion Nebula is during the winter months (in the summer months in the southern hemisphere), when Orion is highest in the sky.
- Be patient: Finding and viewing the Orion Nebula can take some time and practice. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t see it right away.
Many texts will give you expectations of seeing stunning colors through your home telescope. However, this tweet indicates the reality…
Overprocessed, exaggerated color images create unrealisitic expectations among newbies who never looked through a telescope. This image is a more accurate depiction of M42 as seen through an eyepiece. pic.twitter.com/yNeYl0Q6E3— Jay Ryan 🇺🇸 ✝️🌞🌙🌎🚴🏊 (@JayRyanAstro) January 13, 2023
M31 – Andromeda Galaxy
The Andromeda Galaxy is a spiral galaxy located about 2.5 million light-years away from us. It is the closest galaxy to our Milky Way (with lots to see) and is visible to the naked eye under good viewing conditions.
When observed through a home telescope, you should be able to see its bright central bulge and spiral arms. Some details, such as the galaxy’s dust lanes and individual stars, may also be visible if you have a larger telescope with good optics and viewing conditions.
The Andromeda Galaxy is best seen during the fall and winter months in the Northern Hemisphere. It is visible in the eastern sky after sunset and reaches its highest point in the sky around midnight
The Andromeda Galaxy can be seen from the Southern Hemisphere. The best time to see it is during the months of September to December when it is high in the sky and visible for longer periods of time.
Milky way vs Andromeda size wise
Andromeda is ‘slightly’ larger than the Milky Way – relatively speaking. It still is approximately 220,000 light-years in diameter compared to that of the Milky Way, at about 106,000 light-years. So it’s twice as big size-wise in that respect.
How to find the Andromeda Galaxy:
- Look for the constellation Andromeda. The Andromeda Galaxy is located within the constellation Andromeda.
- If you locate the constellation Cassiopeia in the night sky.
- Find the bright star called Mirach in the constellation.
- Move your gaze about twice the distance between Mirach and the next star in the constellation, and you should see a faint, hazy patch of light.
- This is the Andromeda Galaxy, also known as Messier 31.
M45 – Pleiades Cluster
The Pleiades Cluster is a group of stars located in the constellation Taurus. It is also known as the Seven Sisters or M45. With the naked eye, you can see a group of bright stars close together that forms a small dipper shape. Through a home telescope, you will be able to see more stars in the cluster, which may appear as a hazy patch or a group of stars surrounded by nebulosity.
The Pleiades Cluster can be seen from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. In the Northern Hemisphere, the best time to see it is during the winter months, while in the Southern Hemisphere, it is best seen during the summer months.
Many cultures have stories and myths surrounding the Pleiades star cluster. For example, in Greek mythology, the Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione who were pursued by Orion until the gods turned them into stars to protect them. In Native American lore, the cluster has been referred to as sisters, wives, or the “Lost Boys” and is associated with stories of creation, love, and bravery.
The Maasai people of Africa have a story about a man who climbed to the top of a tree to reach the stars and was granted the gift of cattle by the Pleiades. These are just a few examples of the many stories surrounding this beautiful cluster of stars. I wrote about the Seven Sisters as told by the aboriginal people of Australia in my article on Southern Hemisphere night sky objects.
How to find the Pleiades Cluster
- Locate the constellation Taurus, which looks like a V-shaped formation of stars.
- The Pleiades cluster is located within Taurus and looks like a small group of stars clustered together.
M13 – Hercules Cluster
The Hercules cluster, also known as Messier 13, is a globular cluster of stars located in the constellation Hercules. It can be found in the northern hemisphere, near the border between Hercules and Draco.
The best time to view it is during the summer months when it is highest in the sky. In the southern hemisphere, it can be seen low in the north during winter months.
The Hercules cluster, also known as M13, cannot be seen with the naked eye. Binoculars may give you a view of it, but a telescope will allow for more detailed observation.
The level of detail you can see will depend on the power of your telescope. With a basic home telescope, you may see a fuzzy ball of light, while a more powerful telescope may allow you to see individual stars within the cluster. However, keep in mind that light pollution and other factors may also impact your viewing experience.
How to find the Hercules Cluster
- Look for the constellation Hercules in the night sky.
- Locate the Keystone asterism, which is a group of four stars that form a trapezoid shape within Hercules.
- Identify the two stars that form the base of the Keystone (left side in the southern hemisphere). These stars are called Eta (η) Herculis and Zeta (ζ) Herculis.
- Draw an imaginary line between Eta (η) Herculis and Zeta (ζ) Herculis.
- You should see a fuzzy patch of light in your binoculars or telescope at the end of this imaginary line. This is the Hercules Cluster, also known as Messier 13.
M57 – Ring Nebula
Ring nebula looks like a small, glowing smoke ring in the sky.
The Ring Nebula is a planetary nebula located in the constellation Lyra, which forms part of the Summer Triangle asterism. You will find it south of the bright star Vega.
Scientists tell us that it is the remnants of a star like our Sun. Find out more about the different types of stars in my article about the different sorts of stars in our night sky.
It is formed by the expanding gas of a dying star, which has shed its outer layers and left behind a hot, dense core. Through an average home telescope, you will see a small, round, glowing disk with a pale bluish-green tint. The central star may also be visible as a faint point of light within the nebula.
The best time to observe it is in August from the northern hemisphere.
Can you see the Ring Nebula from Australia? Yes, you’ll see it along with the constellation Lyra, The Summer Triangle asterism, and Vega during Spring in Australia.
How to find the Ring Nebula
- Locate the constellation Lyra, which is shaped like a small parallelogram
- Find the star Vega, which is the brightest star in Lyra and is also part of the Summer Triangle
- Look about a third of the way from Vega towards the star Sulafat and locate a small, faint, ghostly ring shape in the sky
- You have found the Ring Nebula!
M81/M82 – Bode’s Galaxy and Cigar Galaxy
Bode’s Galaxy, also known as M81, is a spiral galaxy located approximately 11.8 million light-years away from Earth. It has a bright nucleus and prominent spiral arms that contain numerous star-forming regions. You won’t see it with the naked eye except under exceptional viewing circumstances. Through a home telescope, you would be able to see the bright nucleus and some of the spiral arms.
Cigar Galaxy, also known as M82, is a starburst galaxy located approximately 12 million light-years away from Earth. It has a cigar-shaped appearance with a bright, compact core and elongated halo of gas and dust. Don’t expect to see it with your naked eye. Through a home telescope, you would be able to see the bright core and some of the halo.
How to find Bode’s Galaxy and Cigar Galaxy
Bode’s Galaxy (M81) and Cigar Galaxy (M82) are located in the constellation Ursa Major. To find them, follow these steps:
- Locate the Big Dipper, which is part of Ursa Major.
- Draw an imaginary line from the two stars at the end of the Big Dipper’s bowl towards Polaris, the North Star.
- Continue along this line for about the same distance as the distance between the two end stars of the Big Dipper’s bowl, and you should come across a faint fuzzy patch of light. This is M81, also known as Bode’s Galaxy.
- To find M82, look slightly to the north of M81. M82 is a smaller and fainter galaxy than M81 and appears more elongated and cigar-shaped.
The best time to view these in the northern hemisphere is during spring. You won’t see these from the southern hemisphere unless you are in a latitude range directly south of the equator during autumn.
Equipment needed to observe Messier objects
Some options for telescopes suitable for observing deep sky objects include the Celestron NexStar 8SE, the Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian, and the Meade Instruments LX90-ACF. These telescopes have appropriate focal lengths and aperture sizes for observing deep-sky objects such as galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. It’s important to consider factors such as portability, ease of use, and budget when selecting a telescope.
When choosing a telescope for observing deep sky objects, look for features such as aperture size (the larger the better), focal length, and a sturdy mount for stability. A low focal ratio (f/5 or lower) and a wide field of view will also enhance your viewing experience. Consider a telescope with a computerized tracking system for easy navigation of the night sky. Finally, look for a good-quality eyepiece for clear and sharp images.
The focal ratio of a telescope is the ratio of its focal length to its aperture diameter. A low focal ratio means a wider field of view, while a high focal ratio means a narrower field of view. For viewing a nebula, a low focal ratio is generally preferred as it allows for a wider field of view to capture the faint and extended structure of the nebula. A focal ratio of f/5 or lower is often recommended for this purpose.
For observing Messier objects, you’ll need binoculars with an aperture of 50mm or more and a magnification of 10x or higher. Some popular models include the Celestron SkyMaster 25×70 and the Orion Scenix 10×50. It’s important to also consider factors such as weight, durability, and ease of use when selecting binoculars for astronomy.
Make sure you have a sturdy mount, a high-quality eyepiece, a light pollution filter, and a star chart or guidebook. Additionally, it can be helpful to have a red flashlight to preserve your night vision while observing.
Tips for observing Messier objects
- Find a dark sky location with minimal light pollution.
- Use a telescope with a large aperture and low magnification to start with, then increase magnification once you locate the Messier object.
- Use a star chart or app to identify the object and its location in the sky.
- Allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness for at least 20 minutes.
- Use a red flashlight for reading your guide to reduce glare and preserve night vision.
- Be patient and take your time observing the object, allowing your eyes to fully adjust and appreciate its features.
- Consider joining a local astronomy club or attending star parties to learn from experienced astronomers.
Dark sky locations
Some of the best dark sky locations for viewing Messier objects include the following:
- Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania, USA
- NamibRand Nature Reserve, Namibia
- Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, New Zealand
- Brecon Beacons National Park, Wales, UK
- Mont-Mégantic International Dark Sky Reserve, Quebec, Canada.
For an extended list with more details, see my article on dark sky locations.
- Use a star chart or planetarium software to locate the object’s position in the sky
- Choose an appropriate telescope with proper focal length and aperture size
- Use a low-magnification eyepiece to locate the object
- Adjust the focus to ensure the object is sharp and clear
- Increase the magnification with higher eyepieces to observe details of the object
- Use filters to enhance contrast and reduce light pollution
- Take notes on the object’s appearance and characteristics for future reference or documentation
- Use astrophotography techniques to capture images of the object if desired.