Your first telescope or binocular has just arrived and now you can’t wait to try it out. Trust me, I remember this feeling very well. The universe is calling and it want to be discovered by you. There are so many exciting objects to explore. So, what to aim your telescope at? I created a list of ten celestial objects that are great for beginners with binoculars or small telescopes. The targets described represent different kinds of objects that exist in the universe. All objects are easy to find, and their size makes them equally suited for refractors, reflectors, catadioptric telescopes or binoculars. With the exception of the last listing, the Dumbbell Nebula (M27), all objects can be observed even with full moon.
Top 10 Objects for Binoculars and Small Telescopes
- Jupiter – Planet
- Saturn – Planet
- Mizar & Alcor – Multiple Star System
- Albireo – Beautiful Double Star
- Orion Nebula, M42 – Nebula
- Andromeda Galaxy, M31 – Spiral Galaxy
- Hercules Cluster, M13 – Globular Cluster
- Double Cluster, NGC 869 & NGC 884 – Close Open Clusters
- Dumbbell Nebula, M 27 – Planetary Nebula
A short version of the Top 10 Night Sky Objects can be download as PDF and printed. It is a one pager and can serve as reference in the field. Links to constellation maps are offered for all stars and deep sky objects. I really recommend beginners using a planisphere; it makes it so much easier finding constellations and objects. There are many good apps availale, but due to the bright screens of smart phones, they will reduce and hinder night vision. Another alternative is SkyMaps. They offer great monthly two-pagers that shows all visible constellations and provides useful further information about current stargazing objects. These maps are free and can be downloaded as PDF.
The Moon is an ever fascinating object that can be observed almost throughout the year. Common presumption is that the moon can be seen best at full moon, but this is actually not the case. The best time is when it is a quarter or less. Sunlight comes now from the side and moon features cast long shadows which render the telescope view almost plastic. It is most exciting to observe along moon edges and the Terminator, the line where the dark and illuminated areas come together.
|The Moon came into existence when a Mars-size planet crashed into the early Earth. Fragments orbited the Earth and coalesced within just several weeks to become the Moon. The dark areas visible today at the moon are called Maria, from Latin “Sea”. They are meteorite craters that flooded with hot lava. Lava layers can be up to 10 km (6.2 miles) thick, higher than Mount Everest.
|Diameter: 3 476 km (27% of Earth)
Distance to Earth: 384 000 km (199,000 miles)
Mass: 7.350 x 10E19 tons (1.2% of Earth)
Density: 3.341 g/cm3 (61% of Earth)
Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system. It is a very bright and exciting object to observe. Four moons can be seen even with small telescopes or binoculars. If the conditions are good some cloud bands are also visible, and with larger telescopes it might be possible to see some cloud details and the great red spot.
TIP: It is fun to draw the position of the moons and follow them over a period of time.
Click here for more information about the position of planets.
|Jupiter is a gas giant with over 100 moons. The four largest are Io, Europe, Ganymede, Callisto. They are also called the Galilean moons. When Galileo saw the movement of the moons he could no longer accept a geocentric model of the universe.
|Diameter: 142 980 km (11.2 x Earth)
Mass: 1.899 x 10E24 tons (318 x Earth)
Density: 1.32 g/cm3 (24% of Earth)
Distance from Sun: 4.95 AU
Saturn is probably the most enigmatic of all planets. Its rings have given awe to many people who saw it the first time. Since Saturn is double as far from the Sun than Jupiter, it receives only a quarter of the light. While it has almost the size of Jupiter, Saturn’s larger distance results in a smaller, fainter view in the eyepiece. We tend trying to compensate by increasing magnification, but this multiplies air layer disturbances as well. Unless seeing conditions are perfect, a good compromise is a magnification between 100 and 150.
With a very small telescope or under not so good seeing conditions, Saturn’s rings might just be seen as “ears”. In fact, this is what Galileo saw when he first looked at Saturn with his telescope. He concluded that these “ears” must be two close moons on either side of Saturn, but two years later the “moons” were gone, and again two years later the “moons” re-appeared. We know today, that the “disappearance” was caused by looking at the ring edge on but it was very confusing for Galileo at that time.
Click here for more information about the position of planets.
|Saturn is a gas giant, and has over 62 moons, with Titan and Rhea as the largest ones. Saturn has a very low density. In fact, if we could build a bathtub large enough to hold Saturn, it would float on the surface.
|Diameter: 123 000 km (9.4 x Earth)
Mass: 0.569 x 10E24 tons (95 x Earth)
Density: 0.67 g/cm3 (24% of Earth)
Distance from Sun: 9.54 AU
Mizar & Alcor
The Big Dipper is probably the best known asterism for stargazers in the Northern hemisphere. Big Dipper consists of seven stars and belongs to the constellation Ursa Major, or Great Bear. It is easy to find and its serves as guidepost to Polaris. Find the brightest two stars at the outer bowl edge, Dubhe and Merak. Take 5 times their distance and you reach Polaris, the Northern Star.
Big Dipper holds some surprises that are revealed at closer observation. Point your telescope at the handle bend and what you see are not one but two stars. The brighter one is Mizar, the dimmer star is Alcor. They are also known as “Horse and Rider”. People with good eyesight can distinguish these two stars with bare eyes. If the seeing conditions are good, choose high magnification and take a closer look at Mizar. You will see that Mizar itself has another close companion star. The image above shows an actual photo of Mizar A, his close companion Mizar B and Alcor (click at the image to open a larger scale version).
Click here for a star map of Ursa Major.
|The Mizar – Alcor system consists of even more stars that are however too faint for small telescopes. Four stars belong to the local Mizar system and the Alcor system consists of two. New research has revealed that both systems are gravitationally linked, making Mizar & Alcor a true 6-star system.
|Constellation: Ursa Major, UMa
Magnitude (Mizar/Alcor): 2.2 /4.0
Distance: 83 light years
Mass (Mizar/Alcor): 7.7 /2 x Sun, Diameter: 4.1 / 1.8 x Sun
Luminosity: (Mizar/Alcor): 63 / 13 x Sun
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In the night sky: late Spring to Fall.
Albireo is the fifth brightest star in the constellation Cygnus (Swan). With naked eye it appears to be single star but a telescope resolves it as double star. Both stars offer a striking color contrast. The brighter star shines in yellow color, the smaller star in blue.
Image credit: Hunter Wilson.
When observing colorful stars, it can be beneficial to do this somewhat out of focus. Since the star disks become larger, colors become more prominent. The reason for this is that a larger number of color receptors in the eyes can collect color information . Play with your focuser and see what works best for you.
Click here for a star map of Cygnus.
|At this point it is unknown whether the stars are optical doubles or gravitational linked and orbiting each other.The brighter star itself has a very close companion, too close though to be resolved with a telescope.
|Constellation: Cygnus, CYG
Magnitude: A 3.2, B 5.8
Distance 390 / 390 light years
Mass: 5 / 3.2 x Sun
Diameter: 16 / 2.7 x Sun
Luminosity: 950 / 120 x Sun
Orion Nebula (M42)
In the night sky: Winter and Spring.
The Orion Nebula is part of the constellation Orion. This truly beautiful nebula can be found just below Orion’s belt as a part of Orion’s sword. It is one of the brightest nebulae and is visible to the naked eye.
Because M42 is over an arc minute wide use your lowest magnification to ensure it fits in the field of view. The four stars at its center are called “Trapezium”, they energize and ionize surrounding gasses which leads to this beautiful spectacle. Due to its brightness, the Trapezium stars draw the observers attention, but when scanning the area around them, you will see many smaller stars and layers of ionized gas.
Click here for a star map of Orion.
|Orion nebula is the closest region of massive star formation to the Earth. It hosts protoplanetary discs and brown dwarfs. New stars and planets are born there right now. The strong radiation emitted by the Trapezium stars is so powerful that young neighbor stars are pushed into the form of an egg.
|Constellation: Orion, ORI
Distance 1,344 light Years
Diameter: 24 light Years
Mass: 2,000 x Sun
Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
In the night sky: Summer, Fall and Winter.
The Andromeda Galaxy belongs to the constellation Andromeda. It is the farthest object that can be seen with bare eyes. It is so large that it will most certainly exceed the field of your telescope view (binoculars have sufficient viewing angle). Nevertheless it is a fascinating moment taking a peek at another galaxy for the first time. The core of Andromeda is very bright and the surrounding areas can be seen nicely.
There are many ways finding the Andromeda Galaxy in the night sky. My favorite is to extend the most pointy part of the Cassiopeia “W” three times.
|The Andromeda Galaxy is a spiral galaxy has an estimated 1 Trillion stars (Milky Way 200 – 400 Billion). Its center comprises a massive black hole. Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way are moving towards each other. They will merge in about 4.5 Billion years.
|Constellation: Andromeda, AND
Distance 2.54 Million light years
Mass: 1- 1.5 x Milky Way galaxy
Hercules Cluster (M13)
In the night sky: Spring, Summer and Fall.
As it’s name already reveals, the Hercules Global Cluster lies in the constellation Hercules. The Globular Cluster is almost as old as the known universe and offers beautiful view even for small telescopes.
Image Credit: ESA, NASA
It is a bit more challenging to find Hercules Globular Cluster. First we have to find “The Keystone”, four stars of the constellation Hercules that build a trapezoid. M13 lies on the line between Eta Herculis and Zeta Herculis. These are the two stars in “The Keystone” at the side of Arcturus. Move a little bit towards Eta on the Eta-Zeta line and you have found this beautiful globular cluster. If you have difficulties to find “The Keystone”, two bright stars, Vega and Arcturus help. Draw a line from Vega to Arcturus, “The Keystone” is located about one third the distance from Vega.
Click here for a star map of Hercules.
|Despite it’s age, Hercules Globular Cluster has not changed its form much. Pressure of star radiation pushing stars apart and gravity force pulling them together, resulting in an equilibrium. The stable conditions were thought to be beneficial for possible forming of life. In 1974 a radio message was sent to the Hercules Cluster with the large Arecibo radio telescope. The digital message included information about man, earth and the solar system.
|Constellation: Hercules, HER
Distance 25,100 light years
Diameter: 168 light years
Mass: 600,000 times Sun
Age: 14 Billion years
Double Cluster (NGC 869 & NGC884)
In the night sky: Fall, Winter, Early Spring.
In his classic Field Book of the Stars (1929), William Olcott called the Double Cluster: “One of the finest clusters for a small telescope. The field is simply sown with scintillating stars, and the contrasting colors are very beautiful”. Does this not make anyone thrilled to observe this fine object? What we see are in fact two independent open clusters. They are about 800 light years apart but due to their position in the sky, they fit both in the view of a small telescope.
The Double Cluster belongs to the constellation Perseus. It can be easily found with the help of the constellation Cassiopeia. Just follow the inner leg of the shallow half of the “W” (Cassiopeia Gamma – Delta) about two third of the way to the next bright star, and you will find the Double Cluster.
|The Greeks knew about the object as early as 130 BC, but the true nature of it was not discovered not before the telescope was invented.
The radiant of the Perseid meteor shower (Aug 12 & 13) is located in the neighborhood of the Double Cluster (SW).
|Constellation: Perseus, PER
Distance (NGC 869): 6,800 light years
Distance (NGC 884): 7,600 light years
Age (NGC 869): 5.6 Million years
Age (NGC 884): 3.2 Million years
Dumbbell Nebula (M27)
In the night sky: Fall, Winter, Spring
With a magnitude of 7.5 , the Dumbbell Nebula is the faintest object in our Top-10 list. It is however the second largest planetary nebula in the northern sky and can be found relatively easily. The Dumbbell Nebula is located in the constellation Vulpecula, Latin for “Little Fox”. Vulpecula is a very small constellation with faint stars, southwest of Albireo in the constellation Cygnus. My preferred way to find M27 is with the help of the constellation Sagitta, the “Arrow”, just south of it. Its stars are brighter so they are easier to make out. They are shaped like an arrow with feathers (or a triangle with tip). The Dumbbel Nebula, M27 is pretty exactly north of Sagitta’s tip star, Gamma Saggitae.
|M27 is a planetary nebula. This term was coined by early astronomers who thought these nebulae were planets. In fact, they have nothing to do with planets. Planetary nebulae are clouds of material, shed by a star. It glows because it is excited by radiation emitted by a nearby object.
|Constellation: Vulpecula, VUL
Distance 1,360 light years
Diameter: 1.44 light years
Dia: 0.055 Sun, Mass: 0.56 Sun
Age: only 9800 years