Popular Mechanics has a great series of articles today on amateur astronomy, including Affordable Ways to Become an Amateur Astronomer, and How to Computerize Your Telescope. But my favorite is the Top Five Galactic Bodies Anyone Can See With a Cheap Telescope. Number one on the list is the Orion Nebula, above. Granted, with small telescopes, it won’t look like this Hubble Space Telescope image, but The Great Nebula is even visible with the naked eye in the northern hemisphere, and looks pretty impressive in small telescope, too. To find it, those in the northern hemisphere will have to wait until cooler weather approaches. But look for Orion’s belt, three bright stars in a row. Hanging south from the belt is Orion’s sword, composed of three bright dots; the center dot is the great nebula.
Andromeda_Galaxy Credit: Hubble
Number two is the Andromeda Galaxy. A.K.A M31, this beautiful galaxy is another naked eye object that shows up well in small telescopes. To find it, locate the North Star, then the constellation Cassiopeia, which looks like a giant “W” and is directly across the Big Dipper, with the North Star in between the two. Look at the right “V” shape within the larger “W” of Cassiopeia; 15 degrees down from the tip of the ‘V’ is M31. Popular Mechanics recommends using the lowest power on the telescope to get as much as the galaxy into the field of view as possible.
Number three is the Hercules Globular Cluster. It is relatively close, only about 25,000 light-years away and it pretty big –about 150 light-years wide, making it an easy target. Hercules is best viewed from the northern hemisphere in the summer months during a new moon. Locate Hercules by looking for the trademark trapezoidal keystone within the constellation. M13 is the brightest spot on the western side of the shape, about 20 degrees due west of the constellation Lyra.
Crab Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESA
Number four on the list is the Crab Nebula. This is the left-overs from a supernova that occurred in the year 1054. Back then it was bright enough to see in the daytime, and now it makes for a great sight at night, but a telescope is required. M1 is located on the southern horn of Taurus, the bull shaped constellation southeast of Orion. The object is best seen using a 200x zoom from the northern hemisphere around midnight.
Whirlpool Galaxy. Image credit: Hubble
Number five is the Whirlpool Galaxy. A.K.A. M51, this is one of the largest galaxies visible without using professional telescope. Millions of years ago two galaxies collided to create this colorful and dramatic object. To find it, look about 3.5 degrees southeast of the last star in the Big Dipper’s handle.
By Nancy Atkinson
- Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.