7 galaxies to observe in the night sky

Have you ever wanted to observe a galaxy through your telescope but don't know where to start? Our guide to 7 beautiful nearby galaxies will show you how.

M81 and M82, by Alvaro Ibanez Perez

Galaxies are concentrations of millions or billions of stars, gravitationally bound together along with gas clouds and pockets of dust. There are probably over 100 billion of them in the Universe, but what galaxies can you see in the night sky with a telescope?

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Some of the largest nearby galaxies appear in the night sky as faint smudges of light, but it was only in the early 20th century that astronomer Edwin Hubble proved that they actually exist well beyond the Milky Way.

Before then, they were thought to be spiral-shaped nebulae on the outskirts of our own Galaxy.

Hubble also established that galaxies vary in shape and size (for more on this, read the latest analysis of Hubble’s Tuning Fork).

Two-thirds have distinctive spiral patterns, while the rest range from neat ellipticals to irregular blobs. They can be dwarves containing millions of stars or giants harbouring trillions (find out more in our guide to galaxies).

Left: elliptical galaxy NGC 4621. Right: Spiral galaxy NGC 1015. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, P. Cote / ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Riess (STScl/JHU)
Left: elliptical galaxy NGC 4621. Right: Spiral galaxy NGC 1015. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, P. Cote / ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Riess (STScl/JHU)

It is possible to see a range of galaxies in the night sky, and we’ve picked out 7 of the most beautiful, including info on how to find them and what you might expect to see.

Many of the objects below are Messier objects. You’ll find these and more in our complete guide to the Messier Catalogue.

See if you can spot a nearby galaxy through your telescope tonight.

7 of the best galaxies to see in the night sky

1

The Andromeda Galaxy, M31

The Andromeda Galaxy, by Charles Thody.
Credit: Charles Thody.

Constellation Andromeda

RA 00h 42m 42s dec. +41° 16’ 00”

The magnificent Andromeda Galaxy is the nearest large galaxy to the Milky Way, and it is possible to see it with the naked eye. Under dark, Moon-free skies, you should be able to find this spiral galaxy as a faint misty patch a short distance from the band of the Milky Way without optical aids.

Using binoculars, you’ll find it with little or no difficulty. It will be oval in appearance – although you won’t be able to make out any of the individual stars within it. Through a 6-inch telescope the galaxy appears as a larger, elongated oval shape with a core that shows up as a slightly brighter area.

2

The Whirlpool Galaxy, M51

M51 The Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici by Pat Rodgers.
Credit: Pat Rodgers.

Constellation Canes Venatici

RA 13h 30m 00s dec. +47° 16’ 00”

The Whirlpool Galaxy is a magnificent face-on spiral located in Canes Venatici. It can be found not far from mag. +1.9 Alkaid (Eta (η) Ursae Majoris). You’ll need a large telescope to see its spiral arms clearly.

3

The Triangulum Galaxy, M33

Simon Todd, Haywards Heath, 28 November 2016 Simon says: “I chose M33 as a target because I have always had challenges in the past when attempting to image it. It’s not as bright as some of the other galaxies but there’s a lot of detail in there; you just have to get a decent number of exposures.” Equipment: Atik 383L+ CCD camera, Sky-Watcher Quattro-8CF imaging Newtonian, Sky-Watcher EQ8 Pro SynScan mount
Credit: Simon Todd

Constellation Triangulum

RA 01h 33m 54s dec. +30° 39’ 00”

M33 can just be seen with the naked eye under pristine dark skies, but light pollution means binoculars at least. It sits between mag. +2.2 Hamal (Alpha (α) Arietis) and mag. +2.1 Mirach (Beta (β) Andromedae).

4

The Sombrero Galaxy, M104

M104 The Sombrero Galaxy by Dan Crowson
Credit: Dan Crowson

Constellation Virgo

RA 12h 40m 00s dec. −11° 37’ 23”

Located just within Virgo, this spiral galaxy is easy to see in any scope. A 6-inch instrument shows an elongated glow, but its defining characteristic is a dark dust lane that cuts across the south of the central halo.

5

M81 and M82

Dean Hucklesby, Surrey, 15 February 2019 Equipment: Altair Astro Hypercam 183C camera, William Optics Gran Turismo GT81 apo refractor, Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro mount.
Credit: Dean Hucklesby

Constellation Ursa Major

RA 09h 55m 33s dec. +69° 03’ 55”

These galaxies in Ursa Major, M81 or Bode’s Galaxy (co-ordinates above) and M82 the Cigar Galaxy, are close to each other in the sky, so we’re treating them as one sight here. With a small telescope and a low magnification eyepiece, you’ll be able to see them in the same field of view.

6

The Leo Triplet

Leo triplet. Credit Alison Bossaert
Credit Alison Bossaert

Constellation Leo

RA 11h 18m 55s dec. +13° 05’ 32”

The Leo Triplet is comprised of the spiral galaxies M65 (co-ordinates above), M66 and NGC 3628, and lies about halfway between mag. +3.3 Chertan (Theta (θ)Leonis) and mag. +6.6 Iota (ι) Leonis. Larger telescopes will show them clearly. Another group, M95 and M96, is nearby.

7

The Pinwheel Galaxy M101

M101 - The Pinwheel Galaxy by Keith Bramley
Credit: Keith Bramley

Constellation Ursa Major

RA 14h 03m 12s dec. +54° 20’ 57”

This face-on spiral galaxy is comparable in size to the Milky Way, and while it can be spotted in binoculars its magnitude of +7.9 means you’ll need dark skies and a 6-inch telescope to see its spiral arms.

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What are your favourite galaxies to observe in the night sky? Let us know by getting in touch via contactus@skyatnightmagazine.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.