The Messier challenge

Charles Messier was an 18th Century French Astronomer who created a catalogue of objects found in the sky that might be mistaken for comets – which were his primary interest.

Today the Messier Catalogue with its 110 objects is the most popular starting point for what is called Deep Sky Observing – those objects that are well outside our solar system; star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies.

Although it’s not possible to view all 110 from the UK, in late March it is possible to view the majority in a single night – this is called a Messier Marathon. However, this is a task for the more experienced observer, so our challenge here is more modest. I have selected twenty objects from the Messier catalogue, some of which are easy but still satisfying to view, and some which are a bit more difficult. These are arranged roughly from West to East, so that you can start in the evening and work your way through.

In the pictures below, while many are colour, you will not really be able to see colour in any of these objects. 

Click on the charts and images to get a bigger view.

M31 – The Andromeda Galaxy
Our nearest neighbour galaxy at about 2.5 million light years away. Andromeda is setting in the west after sunset, so you’ll need to get this one early evening. It is bright enough to see naked eye in a dark sky, or use binoculars – the telescopic view tends to be disappointing.

M31 Chart
Messier 31 – Iain Cartwright
M45 – The Pleiades
This open cluster can be seen with the naked eye, and how many you can see is a good eyesight test. You may be able to see up to seven. In binoculars they make a pattern like a little ‘plough’.

M45 Chart
M45 – David Davies
M1 – The Crab Nebula
This nebula is a supernova remnant, lying in the constellation Taurus. It is a bit fainter than our first two targets and you will need a telescope to see it.

M1 Chart
M1 – Paul Brierley
M42 – The Great Orion Nebula
This nebula is a region of star formation, part of the sword of the Hunter. It can be seen with the naked eye or binoculars, and a telescope will give a really good view.

M42 chart
M42 – Nick James
M44 – The Beehive Cluster
Another open cluster, this time in the constellation Cancer. Binoculars are good here. 

M44 chart
M44 – Iain Cartwright
M65, M66 – The Leo Triplet
M65 and M66 are two of the galaxies that make up the Leo Triplet. You will need a telescope to see them.

M65 M66 chart
M65 and M66 – Bob Sayer
M3 is a globular cluster – these look just like a ball of stars. Whilst visible in binoculars, a telescope will give a better view.

M3 chart
M3 – Iain Cartwright
M81, M82 – Bodes Nebulae
These two galaxies are physically connected. One a nice spiral, and the other an irregular – sometimes called the ‘cigar’. A telescope will be needed for these.

M81 & M82 chart
M81 (lower) and M82 (upper) – Chris Longthorn
This is a face on spiral galaxy. It is rather large on the sky and can be difficult to detect due to its low surface brightness. Binoculars are a good choice for finding it.

M101 chart
M101 – Ian Sharp
M57 – The Ring Nebula
You’ll need to stay up late or get up early for this one, rising in the east. A planetary nebula, it looks like a ring of smoke. Even a small telescope will show it well.

M57 chart
M57 – Paul Brierley

Star charts created using the free software Stellarium.

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