Galaxies are found many light-years away, and they are very challenging to observe, even with a good telescope. Since their light is so spread out and their details are not very bright, they may seem too faint and small.
Let us explore the wonders of the telescope and see what specifications you need to observe some of the closest galaxies to us.
These are the easiest galaxies to see with a telescope
Most stargazers find that Andromeda, the Whirlpool galaxy, the Pinwheel galaxy, the Magellanic Clouds, and the Sombrero Galaxy are relatively easy to observe. Many are visible with good binoculars (or even the naked eye), but they will appear more vividly through a telescope with an aperture of at least 8 inches.
Light filters may help you see even more by enhancing contrast and/or reducing the glow of Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Can I see a galaxy with my telescope?
Yes, you can see a galaxy with your telescope. In fact, most galaxies can only be seen with a telescope, but you have to keep in mind that to be able to observe a galaxy, you need to put in a lot of effort.
While astronomy is one of the most beautiful and oldest sciences, getting to know the sky is not an easy job. It requires a lot of patience, time, and dedication.
Keep in mind that atmospheric and light conditions make an enormous difference in what you can see and how easily you can see it. We’ve put together this article to shed more light (no pun intended!) on the right conditions.
How telescope specs impact what you’ll see
We’ll keep this very brief and non-technical, but it’s worth reading up on telescope specs if you’re new to the optical side of astronomy.
It’s best to use telescope with an aperture of at least 8 inches for a good view of a galaxy. The larger the telescope, the better. For example, when you look at Bode’s Galaxy, also known as M81, with an 8-inch scope, you will be able to see a bright region surrounding a brighter core.
However, if you update to a 12-inch scope, you’ll manage to observe its spirals that surround the nucleus.
Once you have a fitting telescope, you can start looking for galaxies. The first step is finding a good location, preferably with little to no light pollution for an unobstructed view.
The next step is to allow your eyes the time they need to adapt to the darkness. This process takes somewhere around 10 to 15 minutes. Now you are ready to begin your search for galaxies.
At first, it may be hard to recognize a galaxy, even with the use of a telescope. The best thing you can do is to guide yourself after the nearest stars and constellations.
Once you have spotted your target galaxy, you can start increasing the magnitude of your telescope. A higher magnitude will improve the contrast between the galaxy and the rest of the sky, making it much easier to observe.
What are the easiest galaxies to see?
While few galaxies can be seen with the naked eye, such as our own galaxy the Milky Way) and Andromeda, the rest require a telescope to be seen in significant detail. But the trouble is worth it, as every galaxy has a lot to share.
You need to remember when you look at a galaxy that you are actually looking in the past. Since every galaxy is found at least 2 million years away, it took the light 2 million years to reach us.
Thus, what we see is actually how the individual galaxy looked like 2 million years ago. From what we know, it can no longer exist. All you can do is admire its beauty and complexity.
Therefore, the easiest galaxies to see with a telescope are the Andromeda Galaxy, the Magellanic Clouds, the Whirlpool Galaxy, the Pinwheel Galaxy, or the Sombrero Galaxy. Let’s analyze them a bit:
1. Andromeda Galaxy
It is the closest large galaxy to our Milky Way galaxy. Also known under the name Andromeda Nebula, NGC 224, and M31, it is found 2.5 million light-years away from Earth, and it is part of the Andromeda constellation.
Andromeda is a spiral galaxy with a diameter of almost 200.000 light-years, being one of the few galaxies that can be seen with the naked eye. It was first discovered in 965 B.C. by Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, a Persian Astronomer, who described this galaxy as a “nebulous smear” in his “Book of Fixed Stars.”
Soon after the telescope’s invention, it was rediscovered by Simion Marius, a German astronomer, in 1612.
From the northern hemisphere, the Andromeda galaxy can be seen at any time throughout the year. To find it, you can first look for the W shaped constellation of Cassiopeia.
Once you have spotted it, look for the second star from the top, Schedar. This particular star points directly to the Andromeda Galaxy.
2. The Magellanic Clouds
They are two dwarf galaxies that orbit around the Milky Way. Nubeculae Magelanni is also formed by the Large Magellanic Cloud, LMC, and the Small Magellanic Cloud, SMC.
LMC is located at approximately 163,000 light-years away from Earth, while the SMC is found even further, at about 206,000 light-years away.
These two galaxies have been known by the indigenous people from Africa and South America since ancient times, but their first official mention took place in 964 B.C. when Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi listed them in his “Book of Fixed Stars. They have been classified and reclassified as spiral galaxies throughout time, as they both seem to have a bar structure.
Both the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud are visible every night of the year from the southern hemisphere, lying close to the South Pole. Only the ones who find themselves below 20 degrees north latitude can observe these galaxies in the northern hemisphere.
The Magellanic Clouds have been formed at around the same time as our galaxy, the Milky Way, somewhere around 13 billion years ago, and they have been orbiting our galaxy ever since. They are known for their many star clusters and young stars, being very important to star formation studies.
3. The Whirlpool Galaxy
The Whirlpool Galaxy is an interacting grand-design spiral galaxy, which means that it has very prominent spiral arms, whose strong gravity influences the other surrounding galaxies.
Also known as M51a, Messier 51a, and NGC 5194, this galaxy is located 23 million light-years away from Earth, and it was the first-ever galaxy to be classified as a spiral one. Its size covers up to 76,000 light-years in diameter, and it is part of the small northern constellation Canes Venatici.
The famous French astronomer Charles Messier discovered it on October 13, 1773, but it wasn’t categorized as a galaxy (along with NGC 5195) until several decades later.
These two galaxies have been known to interact with each other ever since they were discovered, and they are recognized as the most famous interacting galaxy pairs.
4. The Pinwheel Galaxy
This is a spiral galaxy located 21 million light-years away from Earth, and it can be easily seen with a telescope. Also Known as M101, Messier 101, and NGC 5457, the Pinwheel Galaxy is part of the constellation Ursa Major, the third largest constellation in the sky and the largest one in the northern hemisphere.
The Pinwheel Galaxy was discovered on March 27, 1781, by Pierre Mechan, a French astronomer, and confirmed by Charles Messier, who included it in the Messier Catalogue.
With a diameter of approximately 170.000 light-years, the Pinwheel Galaxy is comparable in size with our galaxy, the Milky Way. It is believed that Messier 101 is home to more than 1 trillion stars.
5. The Sombrero Galaxy
The Sombrero Galaxy is a stunning spiral galaxy located in Virgo’s constellation, in the northern hemisphere. Also known as M104, it was discovered in 1781 by Pierre Mechan, a French astronomer.
Even though it is located approximately 28 million light-years away from Earth, the galaxy can be easily recognized due to its shining white core, surrounded by thick spirals of dust. It is said to be 10-13 billion years old and to have a total mass of 800 billion suns.
How to see more through your telescope
Every galaxy is unique, and it can emit light from different types of celestial objects. This light, regardless of its origin, can obstruct your view of the galaxy. So how to see more through your telescope?
You need to block this type of light, and some observers use light filters, such as 82A, to achieve this. This specific filter works best on large scopes, and it removes the glow of the upper atmosphere.
Dark- and light-blue filters are also used to improve the arms’ contrast in bright spiral galaxies. Before applying any of these filters, you need to see if they are compatible with your telescope.
Another tool that can help you see better through your telescope is a Barlow lens. It is placed between the eyepiece and the telescope, and its primary purpose is to increase the magnitude by the amount of the Barlow’s divergence. The most common Barlow lenses are 2x or 3x, but there are also adjustable Barlows available.
Check out this article for more information on this extremely useful accessory.