Deep Space Objects for Beginners
Deep space objects (DSO) are also full of wonder and awe. For backyard astronomers like us, they provide an excellent introduction into the cosmos.
But, the visibility of DSOs is heavily influenced by your latitude and seasons. Most DSOs are at their peak of visibility only for a month or so. It’s frustrating to discover that the nebulae we planned to see tonight peaked out last month.
To avoid that happening to you, we have prepared this two-part series about the best deep space objects you can see by season. In this ‘episode’ we’re looking at spring and summer, you can read about the best deep space objects of fall and winter here.
If taking pictures of DSOs is your thing, check out our astrophotography telescope guide here.
What Do Deep Space Objects Look Like in a Telescope?
But before we get into the objects themselves, let’s discuss what you can expect to see, and what you can’t.
One of the most common questions our email subscribers ask is “what does a galaxy look like in a small telescope?”. One of the biggest reasons new scope owners quickly give up stargazing is false expectations of what they will see.
It’s completely understandable, though:
Excited, you start making preparations to see it in all its glory – with your own eyes.
Crab Nebula in a 10″ Telescope (source)
The time arrives, you are sitting with eyes on the telescope, furiously hunting this stunning orb, but…
When you finally land on it, you see this white fuzzy blotch:
And that’s with a 10″ scope!
Why you wonder, does this happen?
The simple answer is that cameras (especially big expensive ones owned by NASA) gather much more light over more time than our tiny eyes can.
Often the pictures we see are combinations of pictures taken in different wavelengths. Sophisticated software knits them together to form beautiful, magazine-worthy pictures.
Our eyes and scopes can not compete with that. Our budgets and the laws of physics will not allow it!
The joy for a backyarder is in discovering the object itself. Taking the time to hunt for and locate a galaxy or nebula, especially if it’s at the edge of your equipment’s limit.
Finding, observing and wondering are what make astronomy addictive. Find each of the following objects and spend time with them in your eyepiece. The longer you observe them, the more detail your brain will notice.
Try averted vision to tease out more detail. Watch your object on more than one night. You’ll be surprised at how much structure you can tease out when you see the same object many times.
Finally, read more about the object and study detailed pictures. Find smaller parts of the structure to hunt for, like a gas cloud in a nebula or an arm of a galaxy. With something specific to discover, your brain will work harder to see it.
Deep Space Objects are Different to Planets
This is the final point to keep in mind when seeking deep sky objects.
Your planet-viewing experience is not the same as DSO hunting. Planets are much brighter and easier to find than any DSO.
DSOs do not shine like stars, their light is diffuse, which makes them hard to find even in great conditions. Seeing conditions and light pollution wildly affect your experience.
With all that in mind, our list contains the brightest and easiest to find DSOs for amateurs. We hope you enjoy hunting them for yourself!
Some of the images in this article come from Stellarium, which is free software we recommend. However, no DSO hunt is complete without a copy Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Atlas by your side. It’s available at a great price from Amazon, click here.
Best Deep Sky Objects for Spring
These three objects are all simple to locate in the spring sky, between April and June.
1. Whirlpool Galaxy (M51)
The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) is a sight to behold.
M51, The Whirlpool Galaxy (source)
It’s one of the most studied galaxies because of its unique feature- a galaxy feeding on a dwarf galaxy! Wikipedia describes it as “an interacting grand-design spiral galaxy with a Seyfert 2 active galactic nucleus”. Whoa!
The Whirlpool Galaxy was first discovered in 1773 by the infamous Charles Messier. He wasn’t actually compiling a catalogue of objects to look at… he was charting the skies finding objects that might be confused with comets.
In a master stroke of irony, he wanted to avoid looking at the objects he catalogued!
M51 is a galaxy we can see face-on, which reveals finer details. The companion galaxy is NGC 5195, also called M51b, is in a merging process with the bigger M51a.
M51 is in the red circle near Alkaid in the Big Dipper (click to zoom)
You can see M51 in binoculars, but the precious details are only revealed by a decent telescope.
And here’s a fun fact: The Whirlpool and its companion, M51b have already passed by or through each other once as they dance through a cosmic merger. The smaller galaxy has been severely disrupted by the encounter. The spiral arms of the larger galaxy are also distorted, although to a lesser extent.
The Whirlpool Galaxy’s best visibility is in May.
Discover more galaxies that are great for beginners to see
2. The Leo Triplet
The Leo Triplet, or the M66 Group, is a group of interacting spiral galaxies located in the northern constellation Leo. The group consists of the galaxies Messier 65, Messier 66 and NGC 3628, AKA the Hamburger Galaxy!
The galaxies of the Leo Triplet (source)
The trio is also fairly easy to locate. Navigate to Leo and you’ll find the trio, in a common field, near the star Chertan.
This screen shot, taken from SkySafari 6, will help. Click the image for a bigger version and look for the orange circle.
Where to find the Leo Triplet of galaxies (click for full-screen)
3. The Virgo Cluster
The Virgo Cluster is one of the grandest deep space objects. Visible from March to July, you can see it throughout spring.
And you should make the effort to do so since it packs a few surprises!
The Virgo Cluster of Galaxies (source)
In fact, there so much to get from the Virgo Cluster that we are writing an entire article on it! Click here to sign up for our weekly email and we’ll notify you when it goes ‘live’.
The cluster, located in the constellation Virgo (unsurprisingly), contains 16 Messier objects, so there’s a real lot to see here. The image below highlights the Messiers – click it to zoom.
Where to find the Messier objects in the Virgo Cluster (click to zoom)
Locating the cluster is no issue. The area between Vindemiatrix and Denebola beside the constellation Leo, lies the Virgo Cluster, as a patch of fuzzy greyness.
Use Stellarium to take a tour or the Pocket Sky Atlas from Sky & Telescope.
The Best Deep Sky Objects for Summer
These three objects are all simple to locate in the summer sky, between July and September.
Even though summers are associated with shorter nights, that doesn’t mean there aren’t sights to behold. If you know your game, there are plenty of visual wonders to be savoured!
Given below is a list of a few DSO’s that are visible in peak summer months and offer enough detail to make for a good stargazing session:
1. The Dumbbell Nebula (M27)
M27, also known as the dumbbell nebula, is an easily identified object in the summer skies, especially visible in August.
M27, The Dumbbell Nebula (source)
Where to find the Dumbbell Nebula (click to zoom)
The Dumbbell Nebula is easy to find because the two birds are high overhead in the summer sky.
Through a backyard telescope, the nebula appears white, but its characteristic double-lobed shape is clearly visible.
2. The Trifid Nebula (M20)
Trifid Nebula or M20 is another DSO that is particularly well visible in August.
M20, the Trifid Nebula (source)
Its name comes from its characteristic three partitioned structure.
Despite the name, it’s actually a clump of three types of Nebulae and a Star formation merged into one. There is plenty to see here!
Binoculars will reveal the three dark ‘lanes’, but a telescope will let you see the finer details of this wonderful object.
M20 lies in the constellation Sagittarius. To find it, locate the teapot asterism in Sagittarius and find Kaus Borealis, the tip Star. Follow the line Northwest, towards lagoon nebula, you will see the binary system 7 Sagittarii. The Trifid Nebula lies about 2 degrees north.
Click the screenshot below (from Stellarium) for more detail.
Where to find M20, the Triffid Nebula (click to zoom)
If, when you find it, you wonder what the smaller cluster on the northeast is, it’s M21. So that’s another object for you!
3. M4 – Globular Cluster
M4 is a globular cluster in the constellation Scorpio, best visible in July. Even if you’ve never done stargazing before, you can still find the object. It’s also great for city-based astronomers to observe.
M4 Globular Cluster (source)
Start by looking out for Scorpio. Then, find Antares, also known as the heart of the scorpion, at its center.
M4 lies just at the right of Antares. They both easily fit in the same field of view in a finder scope or binoculars.
Where to find M4, Globular Cluster (click to zoom)
Globular clusters are groups of hundreds of thousands of stars. They populate an area of sky called the Galactic Halo, circling above and below the pancake-shape galactic disk of the Milky Way.
Best DSOs Spring and Summer – Summary
Those are the 6 best DSO’s for backyard astronomers visible in the spring and summer months.
However, if you’re looking for a few more, you can try these:
- Omega Nebula
- Lagoon Nebula
- NGC 7000 (The North American Nebula)
- M57 (The Ring Nebula)
- M13 (The Great Globular Cluster)
Useful Resources for DSO Hunting
There are plenty of resources available that can enhance your DSO hunt.
To start with, DSO Browser is an online tool that can help you to a great extent in planning your DSO hunting sessions.
Based on your location and other parameters entered (like minimum altitude of the object), it gives you a list of DSO’s you can observe. It’s super useful!
Another useful resource is 111 Deep Sky Wonders for Light-Polluted Skies. By James Mullaney, this list is a brilliant resource for the city-bound backyard astronomer.
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