It’s not long though before most of us feel the need to look for something in deeper space. It’s not unusual to harbor a deep desire to see your first galaxy. After all, the pictures of them in astronomy magazines are gorgeous.
Then comes the disappointment. These distant worlds are small, faint, and really tricky to find… it’s tempting to give up.
In this article, we’re sharing with you the nine easiest galaxies to find and observe in the northern hemisphere, including all the star charts and guidance you need to get you there.
Getting Started With Observing Galaxies
You might think that because they are far away, galaxies need a lot of magnification to see them.
It’s a popular misconception and it couldn’t be further from the truth!
When you begin to hunt for a galaxy, make sure to have a large eyepiece in your telescope. Something greater than 20mm of focal length will be ideal. This will show you more of the sky, i.e. a larger field of view, with more stars, making it easier to sweep the sky for faint galaxies.
This larger field also makes it easier to spot galaxies because they will look so different from the stars in the view, even if you don’t see them immediately.
Galaxies are mostly empty space and, generally speaking, they are faint. That’s why they’re known as ‘faint fuzzies’ or ‘gray smudges’ by experienced astronomers. When on the lookout for a galaxy, you’re not going to be confronted with a Hubble image but a ghostly cloud.
Your first glimpse of one might even just be a sense of it in the field. Something at the edge of your vision that’s not quite there but not quite not there either.
Only once you’ve securely centered your galaxy should you try looking at it with more magnification to see what detail can be teased out.
Finally, before you get going, don’t forget to check the basics. All of these need to be in place for successful galaxy spotting (each link opens a new tab so that you don’t lose this page):
- Align your finderscope
- Collimate your primary mirror
- Avoid light pollution, including the moon (which adversely impacts galaxy viewing)
- Have good seeing
Once all that is in place, get started, and good luck!
The Best Galaxies to View in a Telescope
The following nine galaxies are the ones that we think are most enjoyable for telescope viewing.
However… there are thousands more we can see with the right equipment.
If you want to get into galaxy viewing in a serious way, take a look at our best telescopes for seeing galaxies – don’t worry, the link opens a new tab, so you won’t lose this page.
Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
|00h 42m 44s||+41° 16′ 08″||177’x70′||3.3||Very easy|
Andromeda Galaxy is the 31st entry in Messier’s famous catalog, which is why it’s given the designation M31. It is the poster boy of galaxies and the one pretty much every astronomer starts out with.
There are three large galaxies in what is called the Local Group. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of these three, alongside Andromeda and Triangulum Galaxy, M33, which is next on our list.
In galactic terms, Andromeda is nearby and it orbits a common center of gravity with the Milky Way but it’s still 2.5 million light-years away. Even so, M31 is by far the easiest galaxy to find and observe in our night sky and is believed to look like the Milky Way too.
It’s companion galaxy, M32, which you can see in the image above, has one of the most densely packed galactic cores we know of.
The table below shows when Andromeda Galaxy is visible at night in the northern hemisphere.
|April||Early evening / early morning|
|December||Evening and early morning|
You can see that we get to enjoy finding this galaxy all year long, but it is highest in evening skies in November.
The SkySafari 6 chart below shows where to find it at 9pm on an evening in the middle of October.
We’ve got much more detail about observing this galaxy in our guide to finding Andromeda Galaxy, which opens in a new tab.
The Triangulum Galaxy (M33)
|01h 33m 21s||+30° 39′ 36″||62’x37′||5.8||Easy*|
This is the third-largest member of the Local Group. M33 is not as large or as bright in our night sky as Andromeda but it is easy to find and observe within the tiny constellation of Triangulum.
As you can see from the sky chart a little further down, it is not too far from Andromeda and so is visible at the same times as its larger sibling throughout the year (refer to the chart, above).
M33 is 2.8 million light-years from Earth and contains between 30 and 40 billion stars within its 50,000 light-year diameter. Here on Earth, we see it cover as much sky as four full moons! However, we’ll only see its small, bright core with astronomy binoculars or a telescope.
From an astronomy observation perspective, Triangulum is a curious beast. It is bright but that brightness is spread over a large area, giving it low surface brightness. This makes it especially sensitive to light pollution.
*When the sky is dark, you’ll have no trouble finding this gorgeous spiral galaxy with binoculars; possibly even with unaided eyes. Yet, if there is anything more than moderate light pollution, you should probably forget hunting for this beauty.
The following chart is produced by SkySafari and shows the location of M33 in relation to bright stars in the constellations of Andromeda and Triangulum. Click on it for a full-screen version.
When you do hunt for and observe it, use lower magnifications to get the best views.
Bode’s Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy (M81, M82)
|09h 55m 33s||+69° 03′ 55″||22’x11′||6.7||Easy (M81)|
|09h 55m 52s||+69° 40′ 47″||11’x5′||8.0||Easy (M82)|
These two galaxies are so close together in our sky they are seldom mentioned separately, and we’re not about to break that tradition.
Well, place a low magnification eyepiece in your telescope for a 1-degree field of view, and you’ll see both of them within it!
These two are straightforward to find because they are both bright and they live in an easily-identified part of the sky: near Ursa Major, famous for its Big Dipper/Plough asterism.
Both galaxies are located roughly 12 million light-years from us. M81 has a diameter of 90,000 light-years, M82 is smaller with a diameter of ~37,000 light-years. The two galaxies are part of the same group, named after M81, and are gravitationally interacting.
These galaxies are within 22° of the pole star, Polaris, which means they are circumpolar from mid-US latitudes northwards, i.e. they never set below the horizon.
Their best evening viewing comes in April when they are two-thirds of the way towards the overhead point (zenith). M81 and M82 are lowest in the evening skies of October, when they may only be 20° over the horizon.
The following chart is produced by SkySafari and shows the location of the two galaxies in relation to Ursa Major. Click on it for a full-screen version.
While M81 is a relatively bright galaxy, and third on our list, it is still only one-tenth the brightness of M31, so is not as easy to stumble across, especially as there is 10° of practically starless space to cross to find it.
Stick with the task though because it is worth the effort.
Your telescope will reveal the bright core of M81 and the obvious cigar shape (hence the name) of M82. As with most galaxies, don’t expect to see structural detail in either of these without a larger telescope and darker skies.
The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51)
|13h 29m 20s||+47° 11′ 43″||14’x12′||7.9||Easy|
M51 is a stunning galaxy to photograph, which is why we see so many copies of it in astronomy publications. If you don’t think you’ve seen it before, just feast your eyes on the image below.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this in our telescopes but its bright, face-on aspect more than rewards the small effort of looking for it.
This galaxy is a little farther from us than M81/82 at 31 million light-years. It’s 76,000 light-years wide and resides in the non-descript constellation of Canes Venatici.
It’s easier to find the Whirlpool Galaxy when you look for it in relation to the much more obvious Big Dipper because it is only 3.5° southwest of the bright star Alkaid. More detail on that in a moment.
Also, like M81/82, the Whirlpool Galaxy is circumpolar from latitudes in the north-US, northwards, which means it never sets below the horizon in those locations.
It reaches almost to the zenith (overhead) in May and June evenings but dips below the horizon in southern US states during November and December.
The following chart is produced by SkySafari and shows the location of the Whirlpool galaxy in relation to the Big Dipper. Click on it for a full-screen version.
If you locate the Big Dipper, find the bright star at the end of its ‘handle’ then travel 3.5° southwest to find M51. This is about the same distance as three fingers held at arm’s length.
When you have it in your telescope’s eyepiece, you should notice it has what appears to be two bright cores instead of the one we’d normally expect. This is because there’s another bright galaxy next door to M51, NGC 5195.
Depending on the size of your scope and the darkness of your sky, you should be able to see fainter, fuzzy light around both halos, perhaps even meeting in the middle. Only the largest telescopes reveal more structure than this but you can have fun challenging yourself to see more details.
The Sombrero Galaxy (M104)
|12h 39m 59s||-11° 37′ 23″||8’x5′||8.6||Easy|
Just one glimpse at the truly stunning image Hubble below will tell you why M104 is known as the Sombrero Galaxy – no further explanation is required.
This beautiful, almost edge-on spiral galaxy is 29 million light-years away from us. We know from X-ray analysis that a huge black hole, the mass of a billion suns, lies at its heart.
Its diameter is about 49,000 light-years and it is believed to be about 30% the size of our own Milky Way galaxy.
This is a bright galaxy, possibly the brightest in absolute magnitude within the ‘nearby’ galaxies, being measured at -21.8. In our night sky, it shines at magnitude 8.6, at the boundary between Virgo and Corvus constellations.
The table below shows when we can see the Sombrero Galaxy in a dark sky in the northern hemisphere.
The best time of year to observe M104 is in April and May when the galaxy reaches 40° above the horizon in the dark skies of late evening.
Use the SkySafari 6 star chart below to discover M104 in your own telescope. It is bright enough to see in binoculars, so pointing your scope in the right area makes it straightforward to locate.
Locate the star Eta Corvi, which shines at magnitude 4.3 and is shown on the chart above with a white arrow. The blue ring on the chart is a 5° field of view, which is about that of a magnifying finderscope, and you can see that when Eta Corvi is at the southwest rim, M104 is at the northeast.
In dark skies, a larger telescope reveals the dust lanes and central bulge. The Sombrero is bright, especially at its core, which reveals itself to be elongated into an oval oriented in an east-west orientation.
Treat yourself to a higher magnification to reveal the iconic dust lane as a sharp line across the oval glow.
The Leo Triplet of Galaxies (M65, M66, NGC 3628)
|11h 18m 56s||+13° 05′ 35″||8’x2′||9.1||Easy (M65)|
|11h 20m 15s||+12° 59′ 30″||10’x5′||8.9||Easy (M66)|
|11h 20m 17s||+13° 35′ 22″||11×3||9.1||Moderate (NGC 3628)|
Our final easy galaxy to see is actually three easy galaxies. Well, two easy, and one that’s a little bit fainter.
The Leo Triplet of galaxies consists of two Messier objects, M65 and M66, and the fainter NGC 3628.
M65 is 42 million light-years from Earth and is between edge- and face-on to us. It is 80,000 light-years from edge to edge and has the brightness of 15 billion suns. It is possible that the other two galaxies in the triplet physically interacted with M65 800 million years ago.
M66 shines with the brightness of 21 billion suns and is ~75,000 light-years wide and 37 million light-years away. It is much more face-on to us than its sibling, which may be the reason it appears brighter to us even though both galaxies shine with almost the same brightness.
Finally, we turn to NGC 3628. The last galaxy in the trio is 35 million light-years from our solar system. It is the hardest of the three to see, which is probably why Messier didn’t include it in his catalog.
The table below shows when we can see the Leo Triplet in a dark sky in the northern hemisphere.
|January||Late evening & all morning|
For evening astronomy, the best time of year to hunt these last three galaxies is mid-May, when they’ll be at their highest around 9pm. Look for them 65° over the southern horizon.
To locate the Leo Triplet, use the SkySafari 6 star chart below. The two bright Messiers are particularly easy to find, located midway between the bright stars Chertan (Theta Leonis) and Iota Leonis in the constellation of Leo.
The two Messiers are a beguiling sight to rival that of M81 and M82, which appeared earlier in this list. Each is a relatively bright, well-contained spiral galaxy. Their brighter cores are what you’ll first notice when you spy this pair in your eyepiece.
Spend some time trying to tease out more detail and you’ll see that M65 is obviously elongated but it is not as bright as M66. The latter has a bright core and, if your seeing conditions are good, you can also tease out faint signs of halo around it.
NGC 3628 is longer than the other two galaxies, but it lacks a bright core, is fainter and so harder to find. Under a light-polluted sky, you’ll struggle to see this third member of the group at all.
How to See More Challenging Galaxies
If you’ve enjoyed hunting for your first galaxies and had success at the eyepiece, then you’ll love our Virtual Astronomy Club!
Each month, we issue three observation challenges and members also have access to the archive, which is rapidly approaching 100 individual galaxies, nebulae, and clusters to find.
Every new challenge comes with useful background information about the object. detailed charts showing you when and where to find it, as well as views through your telescope to help you with the correct orientation.
Oh, and as well as telling you what you should expect to see at the eyepiece, you can also download and print each of the star charts. Click this link to find out more.
If you’d like more information about seeing Messier objects in suburban skies, then you’ll do a lot worse than checking out Tony Flanders for further reading.
If you enjoy looking at galaxies through a telescope, have a look at these telescopes which are ideal for deep space viewing.
Seeing galaxies is one of the hardest things to do as a new astronomer, especially if you don’t have a huge telescope.
What we’ve shown you in this article is that there are several bright, easily located galaxies that you can enjoy at pretty much any time of the year.
Next time the sky is clear, get your telescope outside and hunt down one of these massive, distant beauties.