Sunday, October 16, 2016


Issue #513: How Hard are the Messiers from the Backyard?

We haven’t yet run through all the Messiers in my series of articles on them, but I thought I’d give you a quick guide (in two installments) to how difficult the Ms are from a suburban backyard, and what it takes to get a decent look at them from there. The reason for this executive summary is the weather is turning beautiful, at least in the southland, and I know plenty of you will be out in that good, old back-forty chasing faint fuzzies. 


The Crab Nebula is at least detectable in a 4-inch telescope as a dim oval on good evenings. However, you will need a 12-inch range scope to begin to see much beyond that. In my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy, it would show its basic zig-zag shape without much fuss on a nice night. More than that visually, like the tendrils of gas that give it its name? That demands at least 12-inches of aperture, an OIII filter, and a dark site.


A 3-inch will show it, a 4-inch will deliver a little resolution, and an 8-inch will make this big thing begin to look nice indeed.


Similar to M2, if a little more difficult to resolve. Looks nice if mostly unresolved in my 80mm APO.


M4, the Cat’s Eye Cluster, is loose and a little dim. You can pick it up with a 4-inch, but don’t expect it to look like much.


My 80mm APO, Veronica Lodge, will show some stars at high power, and a C8 makes it into a semi-spectacle from less than perfect backyards.


At 25’ across, this cluster is big, but not too big and was just perfect for my old 4-inch StarBlast reflector, Yoda.


If the StarBlast richest-field-telescope did a nice job on M6, its wide field was required for M7, which is 80’ across. As a matter of fact, I much preferred my 70mm Burgess binoculars.


I can always see the Lagoon Nebula from out-back with a 4-inch, but it does not look like much. Just a little fuzz around a star. 8-inches of aperture and a UHC filter definitely help.


M9 is difficult, sometimes to the point of impossibility, with the 3 or 4-inch scopes. Mainly because of its low altitude. An 8 or 10-inch is a really good idea for this one.


Visible if unresolved in a 4 or 6-inch scope. My10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda, does a fine job on this rich and pretty globular star cluster.


The beautiful Wild Duck Cluster, one of the very best galactic clusters in the sky. Great in all instruments large and small. In binoculars or an RFT at low power, it resembles a loose globular. In telescopes of larger aperture and longer focal length it is an amazing flight of fowl.


Really needs a 6-inch even just to easily see this looser glob. A 10-inch can make something of it even on hazy backyard evenings.


My 80mm APO will show a few stars at high power, but just like the old observing guides say, a 6-inch is needed for much resolution. From the more light polluted suburbs anyhow.


Like M9, this glob is rather low for many of us and an 8 or 10-inch telescope is the way to fly if possible.


The Horse’s Nose Cluster was very pretty in a 3-inch refractor or 4-inch reflector, but this globular is unresolved in the small instruments. Better in a C8 or my 6-inch refractor, Big Ethel, but doesn’t begin to be great till you get to 10-12-inches.


If you just want the open cluster, a 3 or 4-inch will do it. Heck, 50mm binoculars will do it. If you want the Eagle Nebula you need an OIII filter, a 10 or 12-inch scope, and a dark hood to block ambient light from your eyes.


The Swan is easier than the Eagle, but from the backyard 8-inches of aperture is a help, and a UHC filter is a Good Thing.


This smallish open cluster is quite nice in my 80mm APO.


Somewhat tough southern glob. Low and large. Save yourself some frustration and apply 8-inches of aperture.


I can usually pick up the Trifid with the 80mm (equipped with a UHC filter), but it doesn’t look very good from compromised skies even with 12-inches.


Large and bright, this open cluster is not a challenge for a small telescope or binoculars.


I used to enjoy looking at this big globular with my old Short Tube 80 refractor, Woodstock, who didn’t have much trouble resolving a few stars in it.


Another bright open cluster that is nice in binoculars large and small.


This open cluster is small, about 5’ across, but rather dim with a given magnitude around 11. Nevertheless, I can sometimes see it with a 4-inch—if with difficulty. Nice in the 10-inch.


At almost half a degree in diameter, this open cluster is good in binoculars and excellent in an RFT like the StarBlast.


A magnitude 9 open cluster, M26 can be difficult in a 4-inch, looking much like a distant, unresolved globular.  It’s not that much better in a 10-inch, which at best resolves a handful of stars.


The Dumbbell was sweet in my Short Tube 80, and really, really sweet in the filtered 10-inch, which shows the apple core shape most convincingly from suburbia.


This glob near the Sagittarius Teapot’s lid is visible in a 4-inch with fair ease, but difficult to resolve even with a C11 in the suburbs.


A small, dipper-shaped open cluster in Cygnus, M29 is good with a 3-inch, and a 10-inch or larger scope really doesn’t show much more.


A 6-inch is required to make M30 even look grainy, and a 10-inch is a must for appreciable resolution. I can usually spot it with a 3 – 4-inch, however.


I could often see the Andromeda Nebula (galaxy) naked eye even from my downtown backyard. Needs mucho field. The StarBlast was super fine for this monster.


M32, M31’s brightest satellite galaxy, is visible in the 4-inch, but sometimes dubious in binoculars.


Dimmer than M31 and still quite large. I've found the Triangulum Galaxy a pain with the StarBlast. The C8 reduced to f/6.3 and equipped with a 27mm Panoptic can always turn the galaxy up when it is riding high, however.


Bright but large. Perfect for the StarBlast or a similarly wide-field scope.


Nice in a 3-inch and just gets better with every increase in aperture.


Easy in the 3-inch Short Tube, and beautiful in a 10-inch.


Visible in the 4-inch, but needs the 10-inch Dobsonian to begin to show its incredible richness and its red central star well.


Very similar to M36. Very nice in the Short Tube 80 and in my 80mm f/11 SkyWatcher achromat.


This triangular open cluster is, like M29, good in an 80mm, and doesn’t get much better with larger telescopes.


A magnitude 10 range double star, it is very attractive in the 80mm f/11 refractor.


Another win for the StarBlast RFT. It’s bright and big and perfect for the little guy.


Looks great in any aperture, even from badly compromised backyards.


In the suburbs, it takes about 10-inches of aperture to show M43’s comma shape, but it is easy to at least detect in a 3-inch or a 4-inch as haze around the bright star Nu Orionis.


The Beehive. This huge open cluster in Cancer requires the StarBlast or a pair of binocs. Easy, natch.


The Pleiades are scrumptious in my 66mm APO, but I’ve never seen their Merope Nebula with that or any telescope from the suburbs—up to and including a 24-inch Dobsonian.


The open cluster is easy in a 3-inch, but the involved planetary nebula, NGC 2438, is invisible. Seeing that takes my 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda, and an OIII filter.


Sparser but brighter than M46, M47 was rewarding enough in the Short Tube 80, but didn’t look truly nice till I applied the 6-inch refractor or an 8-inch reflector.


Like many Messier opens “bright and large.” An RFT is practically mandatory for good framing.


I could pick up this elliptical (S0) galaxy from the backyard with my 4-inch f/10 refractor or the 5-inch MCT without much hassle. Not a whole lot to see, of course.


This Monoceros open cluster is easy enough to see in a 3 – 4-inch. The main problem is finding it without goto.


The Whirlpool Galaxy is visible in suburban 4-6-inch telescopes as two dim fuzzballs, a larger one and a smaller one, from even under very poor skies. I've detected the pair from a spot less than a mile from a major shopping mall. To see more than that requires 10 - 12-inches and an especially good night.


This medium-sized, medium-bright open cluster is pretty in a 4-inch, and the entire area is impressive on a good night in an RFT.


To make spotting this glob easy, use at least 4-inches of aperture. 6 is better. And 8 is better still. It will take the 8-incher to achieve much resolution of the cluster’s stars.


To barely detect this less than impressive Sagittarius glob sometimes requires my 6-inch refractor. The 10-inch is mandatory if I want to see it at least look “grainy.”


This is an easier globular than M54 to resolve—if more difficult to find. I can achieve fairly impressive resolution with the 10-inch, and can often at least at least see it easily with the 4-inchers.

So…next time we wrap up this executive summary of the Messiers, and after that it’ll be time for me to get ready for my next big star party, the 2016 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. Fingers crossed, but for once it looks like the weather gods might be on my side!

Nice summary, but I am curious. Was there a reason at M11 was omitted?

Paul Lennous

Hi Rod, Maybe you will have some very good skies this fall. You do some great articles. Reading your blog makes my Sunday. Thanks will w
M11 is now there. My bad. :)
Ah well, 54 out of 55 is a 98%, which is still an A. :)

Paul Lennous

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