Top 7 Night Sky Objects For Stargazing

Night Sky 7
Image Credit: Michał Mancewicz

What are the easiest deep sky objects to see? Here is a list of 7 night sky objects that are great for beginners, and which have delighted stargazers for centuries. On account of their size, these celestial wonders can be viewed either with the naked eye or with a pair of binoculars or a telescope.

The Moon

The Moon is believed to have formed around 4.5 billion years ago and has an average distance from Earth of 384,400 km (238,900 miles). The Moon has a diameter of 3,476 km (2,000 miles), and the Moon’s surface we see from Earth has roughly the same area as the whole of Africa.

When we look at the Moon, we see a light greyish color known as maria (singular mare) comprising around 16% of the lunar surface. These are enormous craters caused by asteroid or comet impacts which filled up with volcanic magma and later cooled to form dark, basaltic areas. Their rims form mountain ranges. By contrast, the lighter regions indicate higher ground and are known as terrae or highlands. While a full moon may look impressive, when the sunlight comes from the side the resulting quarter moon or less will cast long shadows which highlight its features more clearly.

The Planets

Certain planets can easily be seen by the naked eye, namely Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, and have thus been known to astronomers since ancient times.

Mercury is the most difficult to see as it is relatively small and located close to the Sun, whereas Venus appears as a spectacularly bright, white light around sunrise and sunset.  However, the use of a good quality 4.5″ telescope will reveal more intricate details of these other worlds, such as Jupiter‘s four Galilean moons and its Great Red Spot. Likewise, Saturn‘s yellow color and beautiful ring system can be observed with a telescope or, under good conditions, Mars’s white polar caps and even its atmospheric clouds.

Milky Way Galaxy

Our home galaxy the Milky Way is a disk made up of around 200 billion stars, and because the Earth is situated towards its outer edge, we are able to look inwards and see a beautiful band of stars complete with a galactic center stretching across the dark sky.

Anyone who has seen the Milky Way cannot help but be moved by this stargazing spectacle containing 9/10 of all visible stars in our night sky. However, the Milky Way requires remote areas far away from city light pollution to be seen with the optimum viewing time in summer.

This is because in summer the Sun travels through the constellations Gemini and Cancer, which are on the opposite side of the sky to the Milky Way’s galactic center located towards Sagittarius and Capricorn. Constellations seen along the Milky Way include Cassiopeia, Perseus, Auriga, Gemini, Cygnus, Lyra, Aquila, Sagittarius, Ophiuchus, and Scorpius.

Meteor Showers

Meteor Showers present some of the most stunning sights for skywatchers and are caused by cosmic debris, known as meteoroids, entering Earth’s atmosphere. These debris trails are often left by a particular comet, and as the Earth’s orbit passes through its path the particles enter our atmosphere, and a meteor shower occurs.

Meteor showers are usually named after the star constellation in which they appear to emanate, such as the Perseids from the constellation Perseus or the Leonids from the constellation Leo. Every year, stargazers are treated to a number of regularly occurring meteor showers, the most impressive of which can produce more than 1,000 meteors each hour. The most famous meteor showers of the year include the Perseids, Orionids, Leonids, and Geminids.

Orion Nebula (M42)

The Orion Nebula (M42) is located 1,344 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Orion and found below the mythological hunter’s belt in the three stars which represent his sword. However, in 1610 it was discovered that the middle “star” was, in fact, a massive cloud of dust and gas known as a nebula, a stellar nursery in which stars are actively forming.

Although it appears fuzzy to the naked eye, the use of binoculars or a small telescope will easily reveal M42’s basic structure. Interestingly, the Orion Nebula is 24 light-years across and appears larger than the Moon. However, you will only be able to make out its brightest middle part, along with its central core stars known as the Trapezium.

Andromeda Galaxy (M31)

The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is a spiral galaxy like our own Milky Way but, with over a trillion stars, has at least double the number of stars as our own galaxy estimated at 400 billion. It is located 2.5 million light-years away in the constellation of Andromeda, making it our closest major galaxy, and is also the most distant object you can observe with your naked eye.

The Andromeda galaxy can be located by using the deeper V in the W of Cassiopeia as a general pointer. Even to the naked eye, it is visible as a large, hazy patch of light in the night sky, but with a pair of binoculars, you can clearly see the galaxy’s elliptical, elongated shape.

The Pleiades (M45)

This beautiful star cluster is located 440 light-years from Earth and is also known as the ‘Seven Sisters’ on account of the number of its most visible stars. However, there are actually around 500 mostly young blue stars in this beautiful cluster of stars. The Pleiades star cluster is easily found by drawing a line from Orion’s belt, past Aldebaran in Taurus to this magnificent collection of young blue stars aged just 100 million years old.

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