How Messiers get us Hooked on Astronomy
But, then what?
It's very easy as a new telescope owner to become discouraged with finding objects of interest after you've ticked off the brighter planets... but there is a whole universe (literally) of interesting stuff to discover.
In this article, I am going to share the 12 best Messier Objects for amateur astronomers to train their scopes on throughout the year.
You will need a star atlas to help with viewing. You can buy Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas, which I use, or download the free Stellarium sky map for your computer (and watch the how to use videos on my resources page).
What is The Messier Catalog?
Put simply, it's this:
The Messier 110 (or just M110) is a catalog of 110 night sky objects that were discovered by a French astronomer called Charles Messier in the late 1700s.
He found them as a result of his attempts to find comets in the night sky.
Over 100 hundred fuzzy objects appeared in his telescope that he couldn't explain, but he knew they weren't comets... and that was annoying.
So, to the joy of astronomers looking at the night sky 350 years later, he documented over 100 of them so that he would not waste time looking at them!
Numbered M1 to M110 on all star maps, these are mostly great objects for beginners astronomy, as you can hunt them down of an evening and increase your delight in the night sky.
For each object below, the map number it can be found on in the Pocket Sky Atlas is given in brackets above the picture.
What are the Messier Objects?
The Messier Catalog consists of 1 asterism, 29 globular clusters, 26 open clusters, 1 double star, 39 galaxies, 1 Milky Way star cloud, 7 nebulae, 4 planetary nebulae, 1 supernova remnant and one which is "not certainly identified" (M102).
You can find the detailed breakdown behind these numbers on this Wikipedia page.
They vary in brightness, interest and ease of finding, but they are all available to us in the northern hemisphere.
In fact, if you time it right (early spring, with a new moon) then it is possible to complete the Messier Marathon and see all 110 objects in one night. This site tells you the best opportunity for a 2016 Messier Marathon.
What I want to do is share something a little more achievable: the three best messier objects by season throughout the year through a small telescope (3" to 6").
The rest of this article assumes your night sky observing session is taking place around 10pm to midnight. If you're actually looking at 3 or 4am, then bump on a season. For example, the objects you can see in spring at 10pm, you can see in the same place in the summer at 4am.
Best Messier Objects for a Small Telescope
Fall (Oct - Dec)
M31, Andromeda Galaxy, Andromeda (map 3)
It is something quite amazing to see the Andromeda galaxy through your telescope. If you never have, then read our backyard astronomer's complete guide to finding Andromeda.
The reality is that you won't be able to resolve it to anything like the picture above - it is much more likely to be a faint smudge in the constellation of Andromeda.
But, standing there and realising that you are looking at the light of a trillion stars(!) some 2,000,000 light years outside of our own galaxy is really quite stunning.
There are two other Messier objects near the Andromeda galaxy: M32, which is a dwarf elliptical galaxy (bright spot above and to the left of the Andromeda galaxy in the picture) and M110, which is another dwarf elliptical galaxy, this time at the bottom and to the right of centre in the picture.
M110 actually wasn't added to the Messier catalog by Messier himself, read more here.
M15, Globular Cluster, Pegasus (map 75)
This is an ancient cluster, estimated to be some 12 billion years old and about 35,000 light years away.
Through a small telescope, you will see the bright centre of this cluster surrounded by a hazier outer region.
A larger telescope will resolve individual stars in the outer reaches (there are hundreds of thousands of stars all together in this cluster)... though not to the degree of the spectacular Hubble picture above.
M2, Globular Cluster, Aquarius (maps 75 & 77)
With around 150,000 stars, this cluster is (with ideal conditions) bright enough to see with the naked eye, but it is a challenge to locate being in a remote area of the sky.
The advice is to find M2 with a wide field eyepiece and then get the best viewing of it by increasing magnification.
Winter (Jan - Mar)
M42 & M43, Orion Nebula, Orion (map 16)
If I offered an astronomy for beginners course, then Messier 42 would be in it!
Orion is probably the iconic winter constellation in our night sky, and certainly one of the easiest to identify.
Shimmering around the stars making the sword which hangs from Orion's belt are both M42 and M43. This 'tiny' patch of light is actually some 20 light years across... our nearest star after the sun is only 4 light years away, so that gives a sense of scale.
A larger telescope will make it possible to distinguish the two, but even through a small telescope you will see the blurry nebulae and young faint stars being born in there.
M79, Globular Cluster, Lepus (map 16)
At 41,000 light years away from us, Messier 79 is believed to be outside of our galaxy, because it is actually 60,000 light years from the centre of our galaxy.
This is a much harder find than M42 and nowhere near as spectacular, but it is rewarding for the hunt of it and the ball of light it presents through your eyepiece.
M45, Pleiades, Taurus (map 15)
Easily visible to the naked eye as a indistinguishable patch of light containing a 'v'of stars, training a small scope (or even decent binoculars) on this area yields a sight which will make you say "wow!"
This extensive open cluster is only in the order of 500 light years away from us and contains young, hot, blue stars by the score.
Through a beginner's scope, you'll resolve a few dozen stars, maybe as many as 50, but they won't all fit in your eyepiece at once (unless you have low magnification and a wide field of view).
If you're fortunate to have a larger telescope, you may be able to pick out 200 stars that make up Pleiades.
Whatever instrument you have, M45 is a 'must see' in winter's evening sky.
M44, The Beehive, Open Cluster, Cancer (map 24)
On the edge of being visible to the naked eye, M44, the Beehive is a great spot through a small telescope.
Less than 500 light years away from earth, this 600 million year old cluster contains upwards of 1000 stars, of which a small telescope will resolve 30-60.
Because of its size, it is best viewed on low power with a wide field eyepiece to let you take in the scale and beauty of this rich star field.
M67, Open Cluster, Cancer (map 24)
This cluster of over 500 stars is ancient, estimated at between 3.2 and 5 billion years old.
It is a wonderful find for an astronomy beginner precisely because it is such a rewarding sight through the lens of a small telescope.
M67 covers a wide area of the sky and training your scope on it will resolve a number of the brighter stars, but the many fainter stars which aren't resolved add a rewarding light to the overall area.
M65 and M66, Galaxies, Leo (map 34)
This one is a little bit of a bonus: two Messier galaxies (M65 is upper right and M66 lower right in the picture above) plus NGC3628 upper left.
(Find out more about the NGC catalog at this link)
Together, these three galaxies are known as the Leo Triplet or Leo Trio.
The reality with all galaxies is they do look better in a larger aperture telescope, but for the beginner looking to cement her interest in the night sky, you can do a lot worse than getting three galaxies all in the same eyepiece view!
As suggested by their appearance in Messier's catalog, Messier 65 and Messier 66 are much easier to see than NGC3628, which will require dark skies and good eyes in a small scope.
All together though, this one is well worth the hunt!
M13, The Great Globular Cluster, Hercules (map 52)
Summer brings the Milky Way into its best view for those of us in the northern hemisphere, meaning clusters take to centre stage of the Messier catalog.
M13 is, as its name suggests, an epic globular cluster of some 300,000 stars.
Whilst a smaller scope will not reveal individual stars like the Hubble image above, it will show you an impressive ball of light sitting on the central 'square' of Hercules.
Stare in awe at a collection of stars spanning 145 light years which is just 100 light years away from our planet, which the infamous 'Turn Left at Orion' suggests "...is the best globular cluster to observe from northern latitudes"!
M92, Globular Cluster, Hercules (map 52)
Messier 92 is a very bright and nearby neighbour (if not quite as spectacular) of the Great Globular Cluster.
Even though it is over 26,000 light years away, great seeing can make this an object visible to the naked eye, but a small telescope helps bring it to life for us amateur astronomers.
This is one to take your time at the eyepiece with, as the longer you examine it, the more distinct it will become... as ever, you will resolve few individual stars of the several hundred thousand it is believed to contain, but it is a spectacular sight to keep returning to.
Incidentally, these are some of the oldest stars we know of, in some cases almost matching (at these timescales, this is a relative term) the age of the universe at 13-15 billion years old!
M57, The Ring Nebula, Lyra (map 52)
The beautiful Ring Nebula is a planetary nebula in the constellation of Lyra, and number 57 in Messier's catalog, marks a fitting climax to our seasonal tour of Messier objects.
Born out of the explosive transformation of a red giant into a white dwarf star. The bright white star at the very centre of the nebula in this picture is the star that shed the gas making this stunning vision.
Using a medium powered eyepiece in a small scope will easily bring the small disc of light into view, looking much more blurred than stars in the same view.
A bigger aperture telescope will yield a view which shows a definite ring of light around a darker centre.
Discover More about Messiers
To get the most enjoyment out of these twelve amazing night sky sights, I strongly recommend use the following books:
This collection of easy-to-use sky charts is a must for locating all the objects on this list, as well as all the other Messier objects, bright stars, NGCs, etc
Guy Consolmagno and Dan M. Davis's book is rapidly becoming my go-to book. It's written specifically to help the backyard astronomer actually place these tiny objects in our telescope eyepieces and is written in straight talking language with sketches setting expectations of what can be seen in a small telescope.
Finally - this link will take you to Wikipedia's central page for all things Messier, if you want to find out more.
All Messier Objects (numbered) credit: Michael A. Phillips
M2 Globular Cluster credit: NASA
M13 Great Globular Cluster credit: ESA/Hubble
M15 Globular Cluster credit: NASA/ ESA
M31, Andromeda Galaxy credit: Boris ŠtromarVedran Vrhovac
M42 Orion Nebula credit: NASA / ESA
M44 Beehive Cluster credit: Miguel Garcia
M45 Pleiades credit: NASA
M75 The Ring Nebula credit: NASA
M65 and M66 in the Leo Triplet credit: Anttler
M67 Open Cluster credit: Wikipedia
M79 Globular Cluster credit: Circumferenceofaturtle
M92 Globular Cluster credit: NASA