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This is kind of continuation of my article Planets Through A Telescope where I covered all the planets of our solar system. I was talking about how you can see them through the telescope and added some interesting information about them as well. Go check it if you want because this article will be about something different.
I know, almost everyone wants to see planets, but there are other beautiful things in space to look at with your telescope. They are called deep sky object because they are far away from our solar system and in some cases even from our galaxy.
When you go out at night, walk under the dark skies and look up, you will see many many stars and some fuzzy objects. These objects are nebulas, star clusters, and even other galaxies far away from our own galaxy (Milky Way). Astronomer Charles Messier in the 18th century was doing the same thing- looking up at the sky at fuzzy objects while he was searching for comets. This was his main task, to hunt comets. The comets look like fuzzy patches on the sky, but they were moving relative to the stars. While he was scanning the skies looking for comets, he noticed other objects too because they were not moving. They were not stars nor the comets, and he didn’t know what they are. So, he started a catalog of them that we now know as Messier catalog.
There are 110 objects in the Messier catalog. We know them as M1, M2, M3, etc. These numbers are only telling us in what order Messier found the objects and put them into the catalog. Today we know, that there are far more objects like the ones in Messier catalog but these 110 objects are the brightest, so you can easily see them with any backyard telescope. He was also using a very simple telescope in that time.
Moreover, some objects are visible with the naked eye. So, there is no particular recommendation for what telescope to use because any telescope will show you all the Messier objects. However, you can see more details with a bigger telescope preferably Newtonian reflector design.
I’m not going to talk about all of the 110 Messier objects here, but I will tell you about the brightest and most interesting ones. There are some that are not worth to look at, like double stars and open star clusters that are basically just stars closer together.
I will use screenshots from Stellarium for each object because you can simulate the view with your telescope in this software. I will be simulating my SkyWatcher 130P with a 23mm eyepiece. You can use shorter focal length eyepiece for more magnification or different telescope. But, don’t expect so many details as on the screenshots. To see so many details you need to do Astrophotography or use a huge telescope. I just want to show you how big they appear in my scope and how they look like.
M45 – Pleiades
The Pleiades are the brightest of all Messier objects. It is very easy to find the Pleiades on the winter skies. Find the Orion belt(3 bright stars of Orion constellation) and follow the belt to the right. It points to a bright orange star called Aldebaran, keep the line going and eventually, you will see 6 bright stars very close together. M45 is an open star cluster and also reflection nebula but to see any nebulosity you need long exposure photograph. You won’t see the nebulosity with a telescope through the eyepiece. The M45 is relatively young because it was formed only around 100 million years ago. It is not very interesting to look at, but it’s very famous, so it is worth your attention with the telescope.
M31 – Andromeda Galaxy
This is the biggest object in the catalog and the biggest one in the sky. It is 10x bigger than our Moon. Of course, I’m talking about the size like a portion of the sky, not the actual real size. In the telescope, you will only see the bright core surrounded by gas. Andromeda is the closest galaxy to us, the twin of the milky way. It is predicted that in the far future, about 4 billion years, our Milky Way will collide with Andromeda and form a new bigger galaxy. Some stars will be ejected from the newly formed galaxy, but there is almost zero chance that two different stars from each galaxy will collide. The scientists have already come up with two names for the new galaxy- Milkomeda or Milkdromeda. But it’s so far away that maybe we will not be around here anymore.
M42 – Orion Nebula
Orion is a very famous nebula. When you go out in the winter and look at the Orion constellation, you can see fuzzy blob under the Orion belt, that’s M42. It is a most wildly photographed object on the night sky because it is visible from both northern and southern hemisphere. And it is maybe the most beautiful object to observe. In the huge telescope, you can actually start to see some color in it which is unique for a deep sky object. Usually, the colors are only visible by doing astrophotography with long exposure image captured on the sensitive camera sensor.
M42 is a star-forming nebula that astronomers call stellar nursery. This is a vast cloud of gas and dust where stars are being born. Thousands of stars are born in these nebulas. Studying these nebulas is allowing astronomers to gather the knowledge of how the stars are born. M42 is also relatively close to us, that’s also the reason why it is so bright. I recommend this target to anyone with the telescope or pair of binoculars.
M13 – Great Globular Cluster in Hercules
As you can see in the title, M13 is sitting in the Hercules constellation. It is one of the many globular clusters in the Messier catalog. Globular clusters are much older than open clusters. They are a high-density constellation of a few hundred thousand stars making the globular shape. These clusters live in a halo of our galaxy, so they are not inside of the galaxy. They sit out of the galactic plane and are the oldest objects of our Milky Way. The stars in the M13 are almost 12 billion years old, and they remember how was our galaxy formed. The globular cluster has a long life because it consists of low mass stars. Low mass stars have a very long lifespan. On the other hand, the high mass stars live short. Luckily, our Sun is a low mass star so it will be here for many billion years.
Globular clusters are also a frequent target of astrophotographers. M13 is simply beautiful to photograph and to look at through the telescope. I would suggest a higher magnification for all the globular clusters to enjoy the view. It is also special because in 1974 we sent a radio message from Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico carrying basic information about humanity towards it, known as Arecibo message. The 3 minutes signal was sent despite the distance to the M13 which is more than 22 000 light years. It means that the radio signal to M13 will arrive there in 22 000 years. Remember that globular clusters sit outside of the galactic plane. For example, the closest star to our solar system, Proxima Centauri, is only 4 light years away. But the real purpose of the message was not to contact extraterrestrials but to show the capabilities of the new pieces of equipment.
M27 – Dumbbell Nebula – Planetary Nebula
It is one of the most popular planetary nebulas in the Messier catalog. The name of the nebula originated from its look because it looks like the dumbbell. It is a Planetary nebula, but it has nothing to do with the planet. It got this name because, in the early days when we looked at planetary nebulas, they looked like small round objects bigger than stars, and they were confused for planets. Planetary nebulas are the opposite of starforming nebulas like M42. They are actually the last stages in the life of the low mass stars. The origin of the nebulosity is the explosion of the star. In the case of M27, we can still see a white dwarf star that was created after the explosion of the original star. I will suggest higher magnification for planetary nebulas because they are pretty small in the sky.
All of the objects I mentioned here must be observed through the telescope. And keep in mind that there are far more objects to see in the deep space. Additionally to Messier catalog, you can also encounter NGC(New General Catalog) or IC(Index Catalog) numbers of these objects. However, they are just different, more current catalogs of the deep sky objects. NGC, for example, has 7840 objects list. And if you buy a telescope on the motorized GoTo mount, it has a database of more than 40 000 objects. So, there are plenty of targets to keep you busy. Of course, the easiest one for me is our own galaxy, Milky Way. It is overwhelming to see it even with a naked eye and realize how small we are in the size of the universe.