How to see the Milky Way

Where the Milky Way is located in the sky, how to observe it with the naked eye, and how to spot its best features.

Durdle Door in Dorset, UK A nightscape capture of the Milky Way is a great opportunity to try your processing skills. Credit: Schroptschop / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Have you ever wanted to look up and see the Milky Way arching across the sky, just like in all those amazing astrophotos? From around September onwards, if you are stargazing even a short distance away from the worst light-polluted areas, you can see the galaxy we live in, the Milky Way.

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We see our cosmic home as a milky cascade made up of the billions of stars it contains. From our point of view, most of the stars in this stream are all just too far away – and hence faint – for any one star to be noticed by itself.

However, their light blends together to give us the wondrous river of light that stretches across the sky.

More Milky Way guides:

You can get an idea of what our Galaxy would look like from the outside by picturing a Catherine wheel firework. As it spins, it forms a spiralling disc of light.

Now, freeze the action with a camera and the resulting image would be similar to looking straight down onto our Galaxy from some great distance.

Each arm in the spiral, and there’s still some debate as to whether there are four or five, is made up of some of the 200-400 billion stars – plus all the dust and gas – that our Galaxy contains, and one of those is our Sun.

All of this is very big indeed. To begin with, our Galaxy’s diameter is around 100,000 lightyears. Each spiral arm has a thickness of up to 2,000 lightyears.

The Sun itself sits about 25,000 lightyears out from the centre in a minor appendage called the Orion-Cygnus Arm.

Milky Way. Credit: iStock

Why does the Milky Way look like a curved band?

It’s because of our position inside the Galaxy that we see the stars of the other arms as a band arcing across the sky. Since we’re well away from the centre of the Galaxy, the arc isn’t evenly spread around the sky.

If we look in the direction of the constellations Orion and Monoceros, we are looking out of our Galaxy’s plane into empty space. For us in the UK, therefore, the dark nights of late winter and early spring are the not the best time to see the Milky Way.

However, in the opposite direction, towards Sagittarius and Scorpius we are looking directly into the teeming centre of our Galaxy.

More dust, more gas and more stars create a river of light here, making it bigger and brighter. The evenings of autumn are the best time to view this celestial stream.

How do we know all of this? Well, it’s thanks to improvements in observing techniques over the ages.

As telescopes became more powerful over the later 18th century, we began piecing together the similarities between what were thought to be distant ‘nebulae’ and our own starry disc.

And once we could peer into the skies with radio and infrared telescopes, we saw through the Galactic dust and gas that blocked our eyes to reveal the structure beyond.

12 sights to spot in the Milky Way

With the naked eye:

1

The galactic arc

The Milky Way over Exmoor. Credit: Keith Trueman
The Milky Way over Exmoor. Credit: Keith Trueman

Best seen: Autumn.

Even though the Milky Way can be seen from mildly light-polluted areas, it will only be visible here as a brighter wash across the night sky. To truly view its amazing structure and detail in high contrast, look at it from a really dark location.

2

Sagittarius

Sagittarius as it will appear from New York State, just before 02:00 mid June, looking towards the south. You can use this constellation to help you find Nunki. Credit: Stellarium
Credit: Stellarium

Best seen: August and September.

It may be quite low to the horizon from the UK, but if you can find a reasonably dark location for yourself, then this constellation can still reveal our Galaxy at its brightest and best since we’re looking right into its central area.

3

Cygnus

Look high up in the night sky from midnight onwards throughout the mid-summer months and you should be able to spot Sadr and Cygnus. Credit: Stellarium
Credit: Stellarium

Best seen: September to November.

A lovely Milky Way section runs the length of this constellation. Here you’ll see the dust and gas within our Galaxy obscuring the bright stars beyond. This means that there is much to look out for – dark rifts and brighter patches galore.

4

Perseus and Cassiopeia

The distinctive ‘W’ shape of Cassiopeia. Credit: Michael Breite/Stefan Heutz/Wolfgang Ries/ccdguide.com
The distinctive ‘W’ shape of Cassiopeia. Credit: Michael Breite/Stefan Heutz/Wolfgang Ries/ccdguide.com

Best seen: September and October.

Another fine, diverse area of the Milky Way, made more glorious by the bright Double Cluster in Perseus. You can’t ask for much more than these two glorious concentrations of stars that are both visible to the naked eye.

With binoculars:

5

Double Cluster in Perseus

08 - The Double Cluster Christopher Harvey, Loughborough, 18 November 2019 Equipment: Altair GPCAM3 290C colour camera, Explore Scientific ED 102mm apo refractor, Sky-Watcher EQ5 Pro mount
Credit: Christopher Harvey, Loughborough, 18 November 2019

Best seen: October to February.

These two galactic star clusters form a perfectly sized object for binocular viewing, and what a truly stunning target it is: two concentrated clumps of stars sitting within the melee of Galactic star clouds that surround it.

6

M8, The Lagoon Nebula

M8 Lagoon Nebula © Ivan Eder
Credit: Ivan Eder

Best seen: July and August.

This easily noticeable accumulation of dust and gas can be seen as a brighter patch in 10×50 binoculars, even sitting where it does within the fascinating constellation of Sagittarius – a busy and star-rich area of the Milky Way.

7

M35 in Gemini

M35 & NGC 2158 Open Clusters by Mark Griffith
M35 & NGC 2158 Open Clusters. Credit: Mark Griffith

Best seen: January to March.

A star cluster that can just about be seen with unaided eyes under clear skies. So it’s a very good target for binoculars, which should reveal about a dozen out of the total of 200 stars in its elongated shape.

8

NGC 7000, North America Nebula

The North America Nebula Paul Gordon, Rochford, 22 July 2019. Equipment: Canon EOS 60Da DSLR camera, Borg 77EDII refractor, Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Pro SynScan mount.
Credit: Paul Gordon

Best seen: September to December.

It takes a bit of practice to see this, mainly as it’s a large object. But the surrounding area in the constellation of Cygnus has so many features for binoculars – like the cluster M39 and the double star Omicron1 Cygni – that it’s worth the effort.

With a small telescope:

9

M27, The Dumbbell Nebula

Dumbbell nebula by Owen Lowery
Credit: Owen Lowery

Best seen: September to November.

This wonderful planetary nebula, looking like a glowing misty oval, is well worth a look; nearby stars and the marvellous backdrop of the Milky Way complete the view. It sits prettily in the constellation Vulpecula.

10

Beta Cygni, Albireo

Albireo in Cygnus by Houssem Ksontini
Credit: Houssem Ksontini

Best seen: September to November.

It would be  hard to find a better double star in the sky. The colours are golden (Albireo A) and blue (Albireo B) and it sits in a lovely galactic field of faint stars. The two components are easily separated with a small scope.

11

M17, The Omega Nebula

M17 by David Trotter
M17 by David Trotter

Best seen: August and September.

This glowing nebula sits among the starfields of the constellation of Sagittarius, and has a curved shape that can be likened to the Greek capital letter omega (Ω) – hence its name. It’s also known as the Swan Nebula.

12

M16, the Eagle Nebula

The Eagle Nebula by Mariusz Szymaszek
Credit: Mariusz Szymaszek

Best seen: August and September.

This cluster of around 100 stars in the constellation of Serpens is embedded in a fine cloud of gas, the Eagle Nebula, which has become one of the Hubble Space Telescope’s most iconic images – the Pillars of Creation.

What are your favourite Milky Way sights? Have you managed to capture a good Milky Way nightscape?

Let us know by emailing contactus@skyatnightmagazine.com or getting in touch via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.