Helpful Advice for Novice Amateur Astronomers & How to Locate Some of the Major Messier Galaxies
Posted 12 January 2012 - 01:00 PM
M31 (the Andromeda Galaxy)
M31 (NGC 224), the Andromeda Galaxy, is a large Sb spiral galaxy (apparent size=185x75 arc minutes) and a member of the Local Group, as is our home galaxy, the Milky Way. It is the brightest of the Messier galaxies (magnitude=3.4, surface brightness=13.6 magnitudes per square arc minute) and the brightest galaxy visible to most northern hemisphere observers. M31 is best seen in the fall and early winter. The Andromeda Galaxy can be seen without optical aid from reasonably dark sites. From light-polluted urban locations, only the core of the galaxy is visible when viewed through a telescope.
M31 has four dwarf galaxy companions. Two of them, M32 (NGC 221) and M110 (NGC 205) are in close proximity. M32, a cE2 compact elliptical galaxy, is due south of M31's nucleus. M110, an E5 peculiar galaxy, ls located northwest of M31. M32 and M110 are the nearest bright elliptical galaxies. Much farther away in Cassiopeia lie NGC 147 and NGC 185, types dE5 peculiar and dE3 peculiar, respectively.
It is possible to observe M31's dust lanes and other features such as globular clusters and stellar associations telescopically under very dark skies. NGC 206 is a vast star cloud similar to but larger than M24. Mayall II (M31-G1) is M31's brightest globular cluster.
Sketches of M31, M32, and M110 are posted at the following URLs:
Many novices are interested in learning how to locate M31 manually. Here are three ways to do it:
1. Star-hop "down 2" stars northeastward from Alpheratz (Alpha Andromedae) to Mirach (Beta Andromedae), then head northwestward "up 2" stars to Nu Andromedae. M31 is situated 1.3 degrees to the west of Nu Andromedae.
2. Follow the apex of the triangle formed by Schedar (Alpha Cassiopeiae), the southernmost star in Cassiopeia, and the neighboring stars Caph (Beta Cassiopeiae) and Navi (Gamma Cassiopeiae), southwestward for just over fifteen degrees.
3. Use Mirach and Alpheratz to form a near right triangle with M31. M31 lies not quite eight degrees to the northwest of Mirach and approximately fourteen degrees to the northeast of Alpheratz.
The following finder charts may prove useful:
Telrad finder charts for M31 can be found at the following sites:
Browse http://www.skyhound....e/oct/M_31.html and http://www.seds.org/...ier/m/m031.html for further information on M31.
M33 (the Triangulum Galaxy)
M33 (NGC 598), the Triangulum Galaxy, is another galaxy that many amateur astronomers are interested in observing. M33 is a type Sc face-on spiral galaxy with a rather high integrated magnitude of 5.7 but a very low surface brightness of 14.2 magnitudes per square arc minute, making it rather difficult to discern through a telescope, especially if any significant light pollution or moonlight is present. However, M33 can be seen with the naked-eye from a very dark site and is a relatively easy binocular target under dark skies. The fall and winter are the best times of year to observe M33.
M33 is approximately the same distance - seven degrees - to the southeast of the second-magnitude star Beta Andromedae (Mirach) as M31 is to the northwest. The Triangulum Galaxy lies 4.3 degrees northwest of the third-magnitude star Alpha Trianguli (Mothallah). One method of locating it is to start at Alpha and go 2.5 degrees west to the sixth-magnitude star HIP 7906. The seventh-magnitude star HIP 6862 is situated 3 degrees farther west. M33 lies a bit north of a line connecting these two stars and is closer to HIP 6862, the fainter star.
The following web sites may prove useful in locating M33:
http://www.smokymtna... The Zodiac.htm (See 9.)
Telrad finder charts are available at the following sites:
The views of M33 can be quite amazing through a large aperture at a dark observing site. Numerous HII regions can be detected within M33, NGC 604 being the brightest. A narrowband filter such as an Orion UltraBlock or an OIII filter such as a Lumicon OIII will enhance the views of these nebulous areas. NGC 604 is over 100 times larger than M42 and can be detected with rather small apertures. I've logged this huge star-forming region rather easily with my 101mm f/5.4 Tele Vue refractor from dark sites. A chart showing M33's HII regions and star clouds is posted at http://astronomy-mal...tar.Clouds.html
For additional information on M33, click on the following links:
M51 (the Whirlpool Galaxy)
M51 (NGC 5194, integrated magnitude=8.4, surface brightness=12.6 magnitudes per square arcminute), a type SA(s)bc pec face-on spiral galaxy, and its irregular companion M51b or NGC 5195 (magnitude 9.6, surface brightness=13.1 magnitudes per square arcminute) are perhaps the most prominent example of an interacting pair of galaxies. They are best seen in the spring.
Due to the work of Lord Rosse In 1845, M51 was the first galaxy to be recognized as having a spiral shape. Of course, M51 was merely a "nebula" at that time, which was long before galaxies were determined to be objects external to the Milky Way.
M51 and NGC 5195 may be part of the M101 group of galaxies. Three supernovae have occurred in M51: SN 1994I, SN 2005cs, and SN 2011dh.
To star-hop to the Whirlpool Galaxy, proceed southwest from Alkaid (Eta Ursae Majoris), the final star in the Big Dipper's handle, to the fifth-magnitude star 24 Canum Venaticorum. Continue southwest to an isosceles triangle of seventh-magnitude stars. M51 and NGC 5195 lie just to the south of the triangle, approximately 3.5 degrees from Alkaid and 1/4 of the way to Cor Caroli (Alpha Canum Venaticorum).
Star-hops to M51 can be found at the following sites:
Telrad finder charts for M51 are available at
For further information on the Whirlpool Galaxy, consult these sites:
M81 (Bode's Galaxy) and M82 (the Cigar Galaxy)
M81 (NGC 3031) and M82 (NGC 3034) are two bright galaxies in the northwestern section of Ursa Major. M81, a type Sb spiral galaxy, has an integrated magnitude of 6.9 and a surface brightness of 13.0 magnitudes per square arcminute. M82, a type Ir II irregular galaxy, shines at magnitude 8.4 and has a slightly brighter surface brightness of 12.8 magnitudes per square arcminute. M81 and M82 were discovered by the German astronomer Johann Bode on December 31, 1774. Together they are sometimes known as Bode's Nebulae.
To locate this galactic pair, pan from "above" Dubhe (Alpha Ursae Majoris) towards the "front" of Ursa Major. The next fairly bright star is 23 Ursae Majoris (magnitude 3.5). To the northwest of 23 Ursae Majoris lies a moderately bright isosceles triangle of stars consisting of Sigma 1 and Sigma 2 Ursae Majoris and Rho Ursae Majoris. Northeast of the triangle is 24 Ursae Majoris, which shines at magnitude 4.5. Southeast of 24 Ursae Majoris is a magnitude 5.7 star. M81 is immediately to the southeast of that star. M82 is situated about 2° southeast of 24 Ursae Majoris and just 38 arc minutes, a bit more than the width of a Full Moon, to the north of M81. Extending a line from Phecda (Gamma Ursae Majoris) to Dubhe the same distance beyond Dubhe places one approximately one degree south of M81.
Finder charts for M81 and M82 are posted at the following URLs:
An MP3 guide to locating M81 and M82 can be found here and an accompanying finder chart at http://astronomerica...acewalk-m81.php
Telrad finder charts for M81 and M82 are available at
For more on M81 and M82, see the following sites:
M81 and M82 are the major members of the M81 group, which is one of the closest galactic congregations beyond the Local Group. NGC 2976 and NGC 3077 are two other member galaxies that are good targets.
M101 (the Pinwheel Galaxy)
M101 (NGC 5457), the Pinwheel Galaxy*, is a type Sc face-on spiral galaxy with an integrated magnitude of 7.9 and a very low surface brightness of 14.8 magnitudes per square arc minutes, the lowest of all the Messier galaxies. Because of this fact, M101 is often a difficult target for amateur astronomers observing from less-than-dark sites. However, from a good dark site, this "grand design" spiral galaxy is fairly easy to detect through binoculars.
One method of locating the Pinwheel Galaxy is to Imagine an isoceles triangle above the handle of the Big Dipper asterism made up of the second-magnitude star Alkaid (Eta Ursae Majoris, 85 Ursae Majoris), the final star in the handle, and the second-magnitude, naked-eye double star Mizar (Zeta Ursae Majoris, 79 Ursae Majoris) and Alcor (80 Ursae Majoris)**. M101 is located at the "upper" vertex of the triangle, as can be seen at http://www.aavso.org...1fe_chart_1.png
Another method of locating M101 is to star-hop northeastward from Mizar-Alcor (the Horse and Rider) to a chain of fifth and sixth-magnitude stars beginning with 81 Ursae Majoris. Continue eastward from 81 to 83 to 84 and finally to 86 Ursae Majoris. From 86 Ursae Majoris, proceed northeastward along a crooked "cross" of fainter stars. (Alternatively, M101 forms a right triangle with the two seventh-magnitude stars HIP 68196A and HIP 68138 north of 86 Ursae Majoris.) M101 is a bit past the top of the cross, as shown at
Telrad finder charts for the Pinwheel Galaxy can be found at the following sites:
Like M33, M101 contains a number of HII regions that can be seen through larger amateur telescopes. Two articles on these regions are posted at http://www.knoxville...pring/m101.html and http://www.robgendle...m/M101text.html
A number of eleventh-magnitude and fainter companion galaxies surround M101.
The M101 group is also likely to include the M51 group to the southeast and possibly the NGC 5866 group to the northwest.
M101 has been the host galaxy to four supernovae, the most recent being SN 2011fe. For more on this very bright type Ia supernova, browse http://www.rochester...1/sn2011fe.html
See the following sites for additional information on M101:
* Unfortunately, M33 and M99 are also sometimes called the Pinwheel Galaxy.
** Mizar and Alcor are actually a sextuple star system.
M104 (the Sombrero Galaxy)
M104 (NGC 4594), commonly known as the Sombrero Galaxy, is one of the easiest-to-see galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. This type SA(s)a spiral galaxy shines at magnitude 8.0 and has the highest surface brightness (11.6 magnitudes per square arc minute) of all the Messier galaxies.
How does one go about star-hopping to the Sombrero? It's actually quite simple. Approximately 2.5 degrees to the northeast of Delta Corvi (Algorab) is a triangle of fifth and sixth-magnitude stars that points to the Stargate asterism. The Stargate is also triangular in shape and, in turn, points to an asterism known as Jaws. Jaws lies 25 arc minutes west-northwest of M104.
http://www.bisque.co...nd The Stargate
An alternative method of locating M104 is by following a line of fifth and sixth-magnitude stars heading northeastward from Gamma Corvi (Gienah).
Telrad finder charts for the Sombrero Galaxy can be found at the following sites:
- pepit likes this
Posted 12 January 2012 - 01:25 PM
Thanks for taking the time to put all that together. There is a lot of good information there. A good way to hunt for these objects is start with some binoculars, not necessarily to see the objects themselves but to get a better view of the area of interest.
From my urban backyard, M31, M51, M104 and M81-82 are doable, I leave M33 and M104 to dark skies where both are visible in 40-50mm binoculars.
Posted 12 January 2012 - 02:46 PM
Posted 15 January 2012 - 11:40 AM
Your first link is broken (it has the parentheses and period included in the link)
Edit: That link worked on the forum where I originally posted the information on M31 but not here. I've incorporated it into the final sentence in the first paragraph.
Thanks for catching it.
Posted 19 January 2012 - 12:04 AM
Posted 08 February 2012 - 02:03 PM
I as well have yet to glimpse M101 or M104, using the info you have provided has re-energized my desire.
Posted 09 February 2012 - 09:07 AM
Posted 14 March 2012 - 01:16 AM
I'll never forget one of my first attempts at finding deep sky objects about 35 years ago involved positioning the scope to the specified celestial coordinates by using the setting circles on the equatorial mount without knowing much about the object itself. I got a good laugh when the scope ended up being pointed down to the ground for one of the objects I was hunting for that night!
Posted 29 June 2012 - 01:15 PM
Posted 13 August 2012 - 09:55 PM
I live in a blue zone, with a fairly bright Milky Way, but M101 is my bugbear. I know EXACTLY where it is (plotted a finder sheet with Eye & Telescope), but I can't see anything at all there with 7x50 binoculars. The best I can do is to point the scope in the direction of M101 on a really dark night, and look for a faintly lighter smudge where I know it is. Then, if I rotate the scope about 1/4 degree, and the smudge doesn't move, I know I've found it. Messier must have had really dark skies. What does that say about mine?
Posted 27 August 2012 - 01:27 PM
Posted 10 September 2012 - 02:38 PM
Posted 14 September 2012 - 02:17 AM
Posted 18 September 2012 - 01:56 PM
1: Galaxies are really faint. They're really hard or impossibe to see in light-polluted skies. To combat this, aperture and dark skies are your friends. Either one helps.
2: Binoculars and good dark skies may be the best combination for finding galaxies. –The wide view helps locate galaxies quickly by star-hopping. Big aperture telescopes are great, but are more difficult to scan through swaths of sky.
3: Short focal length scopes on an Alt/Az mount are more useful for hunting galaxies. If you're lucky enough to have a large aperture fast scope, USE IT. If you're on a budget, dark skies are free if you simply go to them. Under dark skies, even a small aperture fast scope is a good galaxy-hunter.
4: Have patience. Andromeda is one of the easiest to find because of its size. If you're just starting out, try for it first. Have plenty of time to let your night-vision adjust. Averted vision may be necessary to see a galaxy.
5: I suppose computer guided mounts would make locating galaxies easier, but in practice I've been more successful using a starchart and star-hopping. If you're going to do that with a scope (in addition to binoculars to help you hunt), you want a Right Angle Correct Image (RACI) finder scope, and probably a correct-image prism diagonal for your scope for scanning. Once you've zeroed in on your galaxy, you can switch over to a mirror star diagonal for better viewing if you like. There is nothing more maddening that trying to mentally switch back and forth between a star chart and a reversed left-right or upside-down view for star-hopping with a scope. A Telrad finder and chart are probably great galaxy-hunting tools as well, although I've not used one.
6: You'll probably find a lot of other interesting stuff while you galaxy hunt. There's nothing like sitting on one patch of sky for finding low-earth-orbit satellites and bright double-stars. Plan on spending some extra time viewing nearby interesting objects to keep your galaxy-hunting nights interesting. I've had more nights where I was not successful finding galaxies I was hunting (due to light pollution), so having secondary targets makes your time under the stars worthwhile.
Posted 16 December 2012 - 09:00 AM
Posted 19 December 2012 - 01:47 PM
Posted 23 December 2012 - 08:56 AM
Posted 19 January 2013 - 04:45 PM
Presented for your enjoyment and edification are the following tips that may provide some assistance to those who are just starting out in amateur astronomy.
Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe by Terence Dickinson is considered by many to be the single best book for novice amateur astronomers. As far as other beginning observing guides are concerned, I highly recommend Phillip S. Harrington's Star Watch: The Amateur Astronomer's Guide to Finding, Observing, and Learning About over 125 Celestial Objects and Turn Left at Orion: A Hundred Night Sky Objects to See in a Small Telescope--and How to Find Them by Dan M. Davis and Guy Consolmagno. One of the finest books, in my opinion, on learning how to star-hop is Alan MacRobert's Star-Hopping for Backyard Astronomers, which, unfortunately, is no longer in print.
At a more advanced level, The Backyard Astronomer's Guide by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer is an excellent guide to astronomy and amateur astronomy. Another very good, yet inexpensive, source of general information is A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets (Peterson Field Guides) by Jay M. Pasachoff.
As far as books on astronomy gear are concerned, look no further than Phil Harrington's excellent Star Ware: The Amateur Astronomer's Guide to Choosing, Buying, and Using Telescopes and Accessories. Astronomy Hacks by Robert Thompson and Barbara Thompson is another highly-recommended book full of great tips on equipment and the art of observing.
Information on planispheres, or star wheels, which portray the locations of the constellations and bright stars at a given time and date, is posted at http://www.skymaps.c...tore/cat04.html and http://www.skyandtel...ng/3303986.html
An online planisphere is available at http://www.topastron...lanisphere.aspx
Weekly updates on astronomical events are available at these sites:
Browse here or here for a free monthly star chart. There's a video on how to read a simple star chart at http://www.youtube.c...h?v=QTO11vNMRJg
An informative video discussing astronomical objects worthy of observing each month can be found at http://hubblesite.or...y/tonights_sky/
The major planets all orbit close to the ecliptic, the plane of the solar system. Their positions and that of the dwarf planet Pluto can be ascertained by consulting http://www.nakedeyeplanets.com/
Recognition quizzes on some of the major constellations can be found at the following URLs:
A rudimentary tutorial on star-hopping from Ursa Major and Orion is posted at http://www.astrocent...k/starting.html
Click on http://www.robhawley...sh101/index.htm for an excellent video tutorial on the technique of star-hopping. Some excellent seasonal star-hops are presented at http://www.rocketmim...nomy/index.html
Active observers will eventually need a good beginning star atlas in order to locate various stars and deep-sky objects or DSOs. Paper star atlases run the gamut from the simple and inexpensive to the complex and costly. Here are a few to consider: Orion's DeepMap 600, Norton's Star Atlas and Reference Handbook, 20th Edition by Ian Ridpath (Editor), The Edmund Mag 6 Star Atlas by Terence Dickinson, Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas by Roger W. Sinnott, The Bright Star Atlas 2000.0 by Wil Tirion and Roger W. Sinnott, and The Cambridge Star Atlas by Wil Tirion. The Sky Atlas 2000.0 by Wil Tirion is a more advanced and expensive atlas. The two volume Uranometria 2000.0 goes even "deeper" in stellar magnitude and displays the positions of a greater number of deep-sky objects.
Finder charts for various deep-sky objects can be found at http://astronomylogs...inderchart.html
Videos by professional astronomers on the Messier objects and other astronomical topics can be seen at http://www.deepskyvideos.com/
The Telrad is a very handy 1x (non-magnifying) reflex sight finder. Telrad finder charts for the Messier objects are posted at these web sites:
Additional information on observing deep-sky objects can be found at these sites:
Binoculars are a great way to get started in amateur astronomy. Binocular astronomy is rather easy to carry out and is also a lot of fun. Binoculars are relatively inexpensive and are eminently portable. Employing both eyes simultaneously definitely adds to the visual experience.
Binoculars are ideal for showing the "big picture". These instruments can readily display objects that are too large to fit into the fields of view of most telescopes. In addition, binoculars can often be useful in "surveying" the area where an object is located prior to conducting a telescopic star-hop.
A surprising number of celestial objects, including many binary stars, open and globular star clusters, nebulae, and some of the brighter galaxies, can be detected with binoculars. Scanning through the heart of the Milky Way with a binocular from a dark site is a very memorable experience.
I recommend purchasing a 10x50 (i.e., 10 power and 50mm aperture) binocular for astronomical use. A 10x50 binocular is usually not overly heavy for most people to hand-hold and provides a 5mm exit pupil that will be appropriate for most observers when age and observing site darkness are taken into account. People who must wear eyeglasses while observing may want to look for a binocular with at least 14mm of eye relief. Browse http://kingston.rasc...-binoculars.pdf and http://binocularsky....inoc_basics.php for tips on choosing binoculars.
There's more on binocular performance at http://www.wwnorton....owerbinocs.html
A chart showing the effects of magnification and aperture on binocular performance is posted at http://www.wwnorton....ages/pabin2.gif
A three part evaluation of three different binocular apertures can be found at the following URLs:
In my opinion, the best binocular observing guides available are Touring the Universe through Binoculars by Phil Harrington, Binocular Astronomy by Graig Crossen & Wil Tirion, Binocular Highlights: 99 Celestial Sights for Binocular Users by Gary Seronik, and Observing the Night Sky with Binoculars by Stephen O'Meara.
Phil Harrington discusses various targets monthly in his Cloudy Nights Binocular Universe column at http://cloudynights....category_id=182 and in a quarterly column in Astronomy. He offers an excellent freeware planetarium program known as TUBA (Touring the Universe through Binoculars Atlas), which also includes information on purchasing binoculars, at http://www.philharrington.net/tuba.htm
A number of articles on observing with binoculars are posted at http://www.skyandtel...g/86589452.html
Tips on binocular astronomy are available at the following sites:
A video on observing with binoculars is posted at http://www.youtube.c...h?v=wAnAZz-ZPJ0
This website discusses a number of deep-sky objects that can be seen through binoculars. See http://astrogeek.wor...ocular-objects/ for a long list of binocular targets. Other lists include the ones at http://www.starman.c...e/database.html and at http://www.backyard-...bino/homeb.html
My monthly lists of binocular deep-sky objects are posted at http://cs.astronomy....ms/t/48393.aspx
A list of binocular objects is included with each monthly Evening Sky Map at
The Astronomical League's Binocular Messier, Deep Sky Binocular, and Southern Sky Binocular lists include many of the best binocular deep-sky objects:
Sketches of a number of deep-sky objects as seen through binoculars can be found at http://rodelaet.xtre..._astronomy.html
Mounting a binocular on a tripod, or better still, a dedicated binocular mount (guider) will improve views markedly. An informative pdf on binocular mounts is posted at http://www.cloudynig...ts/thoughts.pdf
The vast majority of deep-sky objects visible in amateur telescopes are quite faint and are best seen from a dark location. However, there are a number of DSOs that can be seen by urban observers. For further information on urban astronomy, see my post at http://cs.astronomy....707.aspx#487707
A wealth of good astronomy freeware is listed here and here. Stellarium, Celestia, and Cartes du Ciel are all fine freeware planetarium programs. The Virtual Moon Atlas is a great aid for lunar observing. A number of surprisingly good free astronomy apps are also available. There are also many excellent commercial planetarium programs on the market, including MegaStar, SkyMap, Sky Tools, Starry Night, and TheSky.
These online planetarium programs may prove useful:
Daily, weekly, and monthly astronomy updates are available at these URLs:
The following web sites contain worthwhile information on many different aspects of astronomy and amateur astronomy:
- pgs/sdg likes this
Posted 19 January 2013 - 08:24 PM
Posted 20 January 2013 - 08:54 AM
I just picked up star hopping for backyard astronomers on amazon for under $3.00.