Beginner’s Guide to Backyard Astronomy – Beta Tester

Hello there, and thanks so much for volunteering to beta-test my first course: The Beginner's Guide to Backyard Astronomy.

I am really grateful to you for taking the time to share what you would like from the course and hope to be able to include what you have asked for.

As I said in my email to you, the draft course is coming along well but is not yet polished enough to share anything with you - but it will be by next week!

Instead, I have recorded a five-minute video (which you can watch below) showing you behind the scenes of the course development. It shows you where I am up to and I share with you my goals for what the course will deliver. I hope you enjoy this and look forward to giving you your own access to the first completed sections next week.


How to Set Up Sky Safari 5

How to set up Sky Safari 5 featured image

Introduction to Sky Safari 5

Sky Safari 5 is one of the best pieces of astronomy software on the market today. Available in three levels - basic, plus and professional - at a reasonable price, it gives backyard astronomers like us access to every object we could ever want to find.

I find it very easy to use and, since discovering it, it has become my 'must have' piece of equipment. I have it installed on my iPad so that I need no internet connection to use it and it always comes with me to the telescope when I'm outside now (it has a 'red light' mode to protect night vision, which you can see in the video below).

All of the video and screenshots on this page are taken directly from the iPad version of Sky Safari 5 Plus. Love the Night Sky will earn a small commission if you purchase Sky Safari through the links on this page, but the price you pay is not affected.

Personally, I use it for planning an evening's viewing - it stores all the objects I want to look at and in the order I want to look at them.

I also use it to help me find those objects when I'm at the eyepiece. You can zoom in or out of any detail you need to help with object location.

If you have the equipment (and are so inclined) Sky Safari 5 can be set to control your telescope, pointing it at any object you select with the software.​

However, for all the great things it brings, there is a learning curve to setting up and using Sky Safari. So, in this first Sky Safari 5 guide (there are more coming), I'll show you how to configure the many set-up options to your liking, so all you need to spend time doing is using the software for stargazing.​

At the very end of this article, I share three short videos showing you how to find objects to look at, once you have Sky Safari set up just the way you like it.​

(If you don't have time right now to read/watch this whole article, I can send you a crib sheet with all the settings I use. Just click here to grab yours now.)​

About this Guide to Setting up Sky Safari 5

I've tried to make this a comprehensive visual guide to setting up Sky Safari 5. It contains ten videos taken directly from my iPad, all of which are less than two minutes long. Eac one shows you a different part of how to set up Sky Safari 5.

For me, the iPad Plus version is the best one to use. It's a good balance of software depth (2.6million objects) and convenience, because I can use the iPad outside.

If you don't have Sky Safari 5 yet, you can grab a copy now by clicking the relevant button below. Please note, there is no Windows version available.​

Once you have installed the app, you have everything you need to continue on with this article...

Introducing Sky Safari's Sky Chart View

The screenshot below (which you can click to zoom) is taken directly from my own iPad running Sky Safari 5 Plus.

The chart view takes up almost all of the screen. The exceptions are the Status Bar across the top and the menu icons across the bottom. ​

Starting at the top left you can see the location (Kansas City in the image below), with precise latitude (39° 07' N) and longitude (094° 38').

Main screen of sky safari 5 showing status bar

Main screen of sky safari 5 showing status bar (click to zoom)

On the right hand side of the top line is the date and time of the screenshot, in this case it is Wed 02 August, 2017 at 0100. This is local time, i.e. the time in Kansas City.

The line below, with the blue text, shows details about the sky view itself. The left hand side shows the centre of the screen is 269.9° west and at an altitude of +86.9° above the horizon (it would show a negative number if we were seeing below the horizon).

The final figure in the status bar, at the right of the screen shows the area of sky we are looking at. In the case below, centred around Cygnus, the screen area is 47.8° wide and 59.0° deep. If we were to zoom in, these dimensions would shrink. For example, we could zoom into a patch of sky just a degree wide if we needed to.

First Things First: Setting Time and Location

Everything Sky Safari 5's chart screen shows you is configured based on two major pieces of information: where you're observing from and the date and time.

How to Set Your Location in Sky Safari

It's really simple to set your location, as I'll show you in the video below. If you are connected to the internet, you can let the app pick your current location. Otherwise, search for your nearest town and select that.

Generally speaking, you don't need to be too accurate on location setting. So long as you have a city relatively nearby to choose from (i.e. within 50 miles), the charts will be accurate for your actual view of the sky.

How to Set Sky Safari's Time

With your location set, the next most important thing to do is set the time. The time setting is always taken as the time at the location you have set, i.e. the local time.

Like many aspects of Sky Safari, there are a number of different options for time setting. However, I find that there are just two that I use all the time:

  1. A Future Observing Time: When I am planning an evening's observing, I set the Sky Safari clock to the date and time I expect to be outside, e.g. this coming Saturday at 10pm. This shows me the sky will look like at that time.
  2. Current Time: The 'now' setting is useful when I am standing at my telescope and am using Sky Safari to guide me around the sky​. Selecting 'now' (which you can see in the short video below) makes the chart screen reflect your sky at this moment.

With time and location set, you've done the two most basic (and important) settings!

Now when you look at the sky charts, they'll be accurate for the time and location you've selected.

Next, let's get into how to configure the sky chart screen to your liking.​

How Do You Like Your Sky?

One thing I can promise is this: no matter how you prefer to see the night sky when you are using this software, it can be configured that way!

In this section, I'll share some of the basic settings that will help you get the most from it.

Setting a Black or White Sky

Some of us prefer to have an 'inverse monochrome' sky when planning our observing sessions. In simple terms, that means black stars on a white background. Other astronomers, prefer the traditionally black sky with white stars. This is the monochrome setting.

The final option, and the one you'll see on all the videos on this page - because I use it - is the color setting. This gives shades of blue/purple and leaves stars in their more natural colors.

Inverse Monochrome and Monochrome screens on Sky Safari

Inverse Monochrome and Monochrome screens (click to zoom)

To set this, click on the 'settings' cog on the main screen. Select 'Appearance and Behavior' from the left hand menu, then make your choice from the options under 'Chart Color & Brightness' in the right hand menu. Click 'Done' when you're happy.

Sky Safari's Horizon Settings

You can use Sky Safari 5 with no horizon showing at all. This gives you a complete view of the whole sky, with no Earth getting in the way.

More common is setting a horizon to give you a sense of what is and is not visible at any given location and time.

In the video below, I show you how to choose and set a horizon. The clickable images beneath the video show you what each horizon style looks like so you can choose a favorite.

The next two images (both clickable for a bigger version) compare each of the horizon settings to each other.

Opaque, transparent and line horizons in Sky Safari

Opaque, transparent and line horizons (click to zoom)

I prefer the middle option of the three above - the translucent. It helps make sure that I never lose track of where the ground is, but I can always see what is about to rise or has just set.

no horizon and horizon panorama options

These are the 'no horizon' option and one of the 15 'Horizon Panorama' options (click to zoom)

If you are a bit hardcore, you can switch the horizon off altogether, as per the left option in the picture above.

For something more realistic of the horizon, i.e. it has gradients instead of a flat line, you can use one of 15 different images. The one on the right in the picture above is called Desert Road.

Refer back to video above for how to set these options, including how to choose one of Sky Safari's ​horizon panoramas.

Stellar Magnitude Settings in Sky Safari

Sky Safari 5 Plus, which is the version I use, has over 2.6million stars in its database, down to magnitude 12 - more than enough for most beginner and intermediate-sized scopes. It also has more than 31,000 deep space objects (DSOs) down to magnitude 15.

The Professional version of Sky Safari 5 has ​over 27 million stars to magnitude 15 and more than 740,000 DSOs to magnitude 18. This is aimed at larger telescope owners.

As great as it is to have so much data, it is obviously way too much to try and cram onto a single tablet screen.​

The way we deal with this is to set a maximum brightness for the objects you can see in the sky chart screen.​

In real life, when you are looking up at the night sky unaided, the brightest stars you are going to see with the naked eye are maybe magnitude 6... and that's with good seeing in a rural location.

If we make the Sky Safari screen representative of our view, it becomes very easy to navigate around it.

Thankfully, it's a cinch to adjust the magnitude of stars shown to control how densely packed your screen becomes. Watch the video clip below to see how it's done.​

The image below, which you can click on to enlarge, shows you the effect on Ursa Major of setting the stellar magnitude limit to 7 (top), 6 and 5 (bottom).

Ursa Major with Magnitude Limit set at 7 (top), 6 and 5 (bottom)

Ursa Major with Magnitude Limit set at 7 (top), 6 and 5 (bottom). Click to zoom

Star Names and Density Settings

You can also set the density of star names, so you can have every star named, none of them or a happy balance. In the still images of Ursa Major, above, the setting is 15%.

The video below shows you how to adjust the level on your copy of Sky Safari.

Constellations and the Milky Way

After watching the videos above, you should be getting a good feeling for how to make adjustments to Sky Safari's settings. Hopefully, it's getting close to configured just how you like it.

The last setting that has a dramatic impact on the chart screen's appearance is how you choose to show the constellations and Milky Way.​

In this final video on settings, you can watch me configure both using the different options available.

In the pictures below, you can compare the different constellation and Milky Way settings against each other. Click them for a larger version.

Constellation Settings​

How to set constellations in Sky Safari 5

From top left: Name Only, Traditional Lines, Mythical Figure, IAU Boundary (click to zoom)

Milky Way Styles

Milky Way display options in Sky Safari 5

Milky Way options, clockwise from top left: None, Framed Outline, Filled Area, Realistic image (click to zoom)

Milky Way Brightness / Intensity

Sky Safari Milky Way intensity settings

Different intensity settings for the Milky Way. From left to right: 75%, 50%, 25% (click to zoom)

Other Setup Choices in Sky Safari 5

There are many other configuration options, such as grids, poles, coordinates, zenith, nadir and meridian. If you have a particular preference then have a play with the settings or consult the online Sky Safari Manual for more detailed info.

To make it easy to copy the settings that I use, I've created a crib sheet which I can send to you right now, click here to grab it.

Finding Your First Objects with Sky Safari 5

Now everything is set up, it would be wrong for me to leave you without having shown you how to find your first objects with the app.

I will do a more detailed tutorial for using Sky Safari 5 in the future but, in this final series of three short videos, you can watch how I use it to find objects in the night sky.

Selecting Objects on the Main Screen

It's easy to choose any object you can see on the main screen. In the video below, you can see how to select and find out more information about objects, as well as center them in the window.

Best of Tonight Feature

One of Sky Safari's most helpful features is a 'best of tonight' list.

No matter what location and time you have set, a simple press of a button brings up a list of objects that are above your horizon at that moment.​

Searching for an Individual Object

Sometimes, we have our heart set on finding one particular object. Sky Safari's search function means you can pinpoint any one of its more than 2 million objects ('Plus' version) with ease.

My Settings Crib Sheet

And that brings to a close this video and picture guide on how to set up Sky Safari 5 on your iPad. I hope that amongst the 10 videos on this page you've found something new to get better use from the app.

If you don't have Sky Safari 5 yet, then just click the relevant button below to download it now.

If you'd like to save time and just use the settings that I do, then click here, leave me an email address and I'll send you an easy-to-follow crib sheet straight away.

Orion SpaceProbe 130ST Newtonian Reflector Telescope Review

Orion SpaceProbe 130St review
Orion SpaceProbe 130ST specifications

Click here for Orion's price

The Orion SpaceProbe 130ST Newtonian Reflector is an excellent telescope. It is well-suited for beginners or intermediate stargazers.

Although a complete beginner may find it to be a bit expensive, a serious-minded newbie will find much to love in this telescope.

Its aperture is 130mm (5.1 inches), one of the largest aperture sizes available for a beginner-level telescope. The telescope lets a decent amount of light in, allowing you to gaze at many deep space objects.

The ST in the product name stands for "short tube,” and this type of telescope is perfect for wide-field viewing of large objects. As this article on shows, the shorter tube gives a wider field of view, which is better for deep space objects like galaxies and nebulae.

Although more expensive than other beginner-level packages, the 130ST boasts a great mix of affordability and quality. This high-quality telescope is sold by Orion for about $300.

Below, you'll learn about the best qualities the SpaceProbe 130ST has to offer, as well as the sacrifices made to hit its beginner’s price point.

Orion SpaceProbe 130ST specifications

Click here for Orion's price

Telescope Type: Newtonian Reflector

Mount: Equatorial with slow motion controls

Current Price: Click here for current price

Focal Length: 650mm

Aperture: 70mm

Focal Ratio: f5.0

Maximum Theoretical Magnification: 260x 

Likely Useful Maximum Magnification: 180x 

Limiting Stellar Magnitude: 13.2 

Full specifications available by clicking here


  • Good balance of price and quality
  • Ideal for brighter deep space objects
  • Wide field of view
  • Easy to transport


  • Not the best instrustions
  • Low specification EQ mount
  • Will need another lens for higher magnification

Ideal For: Beginner astronomers keen to see deep space objects like galaxies, nebulae and clusters

Orion SpaceProbe 130ST - Overview

The SpaceProbe's 5.1" parabolic primary mirror is a good size for a beginner's telescope. Its primary mirror allows great views of the planets and moon, and its wide field of view is great for bright nebulas, galaxies and star clusters.

The telescope has a 'fast' f/5 focal ratio, which gives a strong wide-field performance. If you are a backyard astronomer into hunting galaxies and nebulae, this makes it a strong choice for you.

With the SpaceProbe 130ST, you will be able to use magnifications of up to 260x. This comes from a rule of thumb which says the top magnification is 2x the aperture in mm. In reality, the scope will likely struggle to let enough light in for such high magnification. Image definition will be lost and become blurry.

We like to work on a figure of 70% of the maximum to get a 'usable maximum' number. For this Orion, we're looking at 180x as top end useful magnification.

This telescope has a focal length of 650mm. So, to achieve 180x magnification, you'll need a 4mm eyepiece.

What's included with the telescope are two Sirius Plossl eyepieces. At 25mm and 10mm, they offer magnifications of 26x and 65x respectively. We'd recommend adding something smaller for larger magnification (a 6mm would give 108x).

You could, instead, buy a 2x Barlow lens (read our guide: What is a Barlow lens?). Use it with the provided eyepieces for 52x and 130x magnification levels.

The included lenses are perfect for taking advantage of the wide field of view with DSOs. But you will probably yearn for more magnification when looking at the moon and planets.

Trying to pick your first telescope but feeling overwhelmed..?

CLICK HERE for our free beginner's guide to choosing the right one.

Set-up and Portability of the Orion 130ST

Limitations were hard to come by with this product, but there are a few drawbacks.

The included setup instructions aren't as clear as they could have been. Orion claims that the telescope can be set up in about 30 minutes, but, if this is your first scope, don't be surprised if it takes an hour or more.

Luckily the video below shows you exactly how to assemble the Orion SpaceProbe telescope.

The other main drawback is that the included EQ-2 mount can be unreliable at times and may be just a bit too lightweight. This is a common issue in cheaper scope packages as manufacturers put the value into the mirror, not the mount.

Happily, there is plenty you can do to limit the downside of a vibrating mount, click here to find out how easy it is.

You also need to accept that, at this price point, the SpaceProbe 130ST is a beginner's scope. It is not as capable as higher end, larger models on the market... but that's no bad thing when you're starting out!

SpaceProbe 130ST Owners' Reviews

Before you make your final decision, we believe it's important you get current owners views of the SpaceProbe 130ST.

There are plenty of reviews on the web, and we've gathered some of the main highlights for you right here. They will give you a good idea of the general views that owners have.

Most reviews for this telescope are positive. Many reviewers commend it for being a high-quality choice at an affordable price.

Lots of reviewers also said that the SpaceProbe 130ST is a good mid-level telescope, that is ideal for beginners or intermediate stargazers. (Although we'd suggest an aperture of 6" or more for an intermediate scope).

Many reviewers make a point to say that the optics are good; that images are very clear.

This reviewer on Amazon praised the telescope for having seen galaxies, nebulae and planets with it.

"This telescope is incredible! Absolutely love it. The mount is sturdy and reliable and very easy to use. The optics are easy to adjust. I've been able to see the Orion nebula, Andromeda galaxy, Saturn's rings, Jupiter's moons and cloud belts and of course craters on the moon. This telescope is the best that I've seen out there in this price range."

Youtube user brucenunn37 also recommends the SpaceProbe 130ST.

In a review posted on his Youtube channel (see the video below), he recommends the telescope as an excellent choice for amateur astronomers who want a quality product at a reasonable price.

Negative reviews are much harder to find for this Orion telescope, but there were a few aspects of the equipment that reviewers pointed out.

The main issue mentioned by reviewers is a lack clear instructions. People claim that they were vague, poorly written, and hard to understand.

Dani on Amazon is a good example. They said,

"I like the product but it came with the absolute worst instructions on how to put it together."

There are more reviews to be found on the Cloudy Nights astronomy forum.

This user review on there says that the instructions were "fairly clear" but "could have used more and larger pictures."

That said, many users still claimed that assembly of the telescope was easy despite the poor instructions.

The other main issue for users is the EQ-2 mount.

Many users in this Cloudy Nights discussion weren't pleased with it; a lot of reviewers find the mount to be unsteady.

Yet, many others praised it and said that it was perfectly sturdy...

In our experience, you should plan for some vibration at this price point. However, you can remove a lot of it yourself with simple and free tactics. Follow our guide for all the details.

Generally though, comments criticising the scope itself are few and far between, which is very encouraging.

Verdict: Most owners praise the ease of use and image quality of Orion's 130ST telescope. Things to look out for are mount vibrations and poor instructions.


Overall, the SpaceProbe 130ST is a great beginner's telescope and well worth the money you’ll spend on it.

It will give you clear, quality images and is easy to use, even as a beginner. It's an ideal first scope for the galaxy and nebulae hunters amongst us!

The package includes a decent equatorial mount, two decent eyepieces and Starry Night software (although we prefer Sky Safari 5 Plus).

This Orion reflector is easily portable and quick to set up. This makes it a great urban choice since you can put it in the trunk with ease and drive it somewhere with darker skies.

Despite shortcomings with the mount and instructions, the SpaceProbe 130ST is a great telescope. It's perfect for the beginner who is looking to start growing their skills, and doesn't sacrifice quality for ease of use.

The Orion 09007 SpaceProbe 130ST Newtonian Reflector telescope is a worthy choice for the beginner backyard astronomer.

Links: Please note, some of the links in this article are affiliate links. You can find out more by clicking on 'affiliate links' in the footer.

The Virgo Galaxy Cluster – A Complete Guide for the Backyard Astronomer

Virgo cluster of galaxies featured image

The night sky is full of objects to see and wonder at, and we astronomers know that. No matter how long you've been stargazing, there's always something new to point your telescope at.

Take, for instance, the Virgo Cluster. It's one of the richest places in the night sky, in terms of the number of objects it contains (over 1200 galaxies according to the table on this page).

Virgo cluster of galaxies

The Virgo Cluster of Galaxies (source)

However, any​ meaningful observation of the cluster requires a good knowledge of it.

This guide helps you with that. In it, you'll learn everything you need to know to plan your own session of viewing many of the galaxies in this group... and discover some little-known elements of it to share with your astronomy club.

So let's begin!

Virgo Cluster Basics

The Virgo Cluster is a conspicuous object in the night sky. It's also the farthest object from our galaxy which has a physical connection with us.

It is a gigantic cluster of galaxies found in the constellation of Virgo. Another such cluster is the Local Group, which our own Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy are part of.

Our Local Group and the Virgo Cluster are a part of an even bigger object - The Virgo Supercluster.

virgo supercluster

Virgo Supercluster, with our Local Group centered (source)

This enormous object is bound together by the collective gravity of the constituent galaxies and spans an unimaginable 110million light years of space.

To help get your head around such a phenomenal structure, below is a 3D map showing the various subclusters in the Virgo Supercluster:

3D map of Virgo Supercluster

3D version of the Virgo Supercluster (source)

If your mind is not blown yet, it will be when you learn that the Virgo Supercluster is just one of 10 million superclusters in the observable universe!

Let's drill back down to the more manageable Virgo Cluster.

Although it is vast, it is also a very long way from here - around 53million light years, in fact. So, in our sky, the entire cluster fits in an area about 8 to 10 degrees wide.

It consists of spiral, dwarf and giant elliptical galaxies arranged in three 'subclumps' or smaller clusters:

M87 / Messier A

Virgo A has M87 at its center (source).


An unnamed cluster surrounds M86 (source).

M49 in Virgo

Virgo B has the brightest galaxy, M49 (source).

All three subclumps are slowly falling into each other under gravity and will eventually form one single cluster.

M49, M86 and M87 were first cataloged by Charles Messier (although he thought they were nebulae) along with 13 other galaxies. He made note of them in the 1770s and 1780s, so it's a safe bet that your telescope is better than his.

With that in mind, good seeing, a dark site, and a scope of around 6", it's not unreasonable to target seeing 20 or more of the galaxies in the Virgo Cluster.

You can buy our ready-made observing list of the brightest 30 galaxies for just $1.99 - compatible with Sky Safari 5.

With our target set, let's get into how we're going to achieve it. We'll begin with finding the Virgo Cluster in the night sky.

Ideal Equipment for Seeing the Virgo Cluster

The brightest element in the galaxy cluster is M49, with an apparent magnitude of 9.3. This is well beyond even the best eyesight and so you will need to make use of a telescope to enjoy any of the galaxies in the cluster.

As this thread from Cloudy Nights reports, a 6" aperture and dark skies is enough to see the best of the Virgo Cluster. With an 8" scope at your disposal, the 30-or-so galaxies brighter than magnitude 12.0 are within reach. ​

You can find the SkyWatcher light-bucket​ 8" Dob for under $500 on this page.

Or, if you prefer go-to capability - which certainly helps this seeing challenge - then the Celestron Nexstar 8SE is for you. Read our full review here.

You will get best results using an eyepiece with a wide field of view. Something like this Orion 20mm Plössl on Amazon has 52° apparent FOV and is a great price.

If you have more cash (this next one is 4x the price on Amazon of the Plössl) then Orion's 17mm Stratus eyepiece yields a 68° FOV and fits both 1.25" and 2" scopes.

Finally, for finding your way around, you can't go wrong with a red flashlight and Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas. This has a dedicated page for the cluster with good - but not overwhelming - levels of detail.

How to Find the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies

Finding galaxies in Virgo needs a simple application of the star-hopping technique, or a goto telescope programmed with the coordinates (which you can get for Sky Safari 5 here).

Additionally, it will be useful to have Stellarium or Sky Safari 5, which the following screenshots come from. You can also use the essential Pocket Sky Atlas, which has a page dedicated to the Virgo Galaxy Cluster.

Let's begin. First, you'll need to spot the Virgo constellation. Leo will be right beside it.

Locate these three stars: Auva and Vindemiatrix in Virgo and Denebola in Leo (circled in red, below). These are the loose boundary for the Virgo Cluster of galaxies and make the perfect starting reference point.

Where to find the Virgo Galaxy Cluster

Where to find the Virgo Galaxy Cluster - Screenshot from Sky Safari 5 Plus (click to enlarge)

Markarian's Chain

Before we (finally) get into looking for individual galaxies, there is one other observing challenge you should know about.

Markarian's Chain is a line of 8 galaxies - all gravitationally associated with each other - that string out in an arc. See the image below and note it includes M84 and M86.

Markarian's Chain in Virgo Cluster

Markarian's Chain. Right image shows NGC numbers. Sky Safari 5 screenshots. (Click to zoom)

A wider field of view will show you many of them at once; using higher magnifying power when you have them in sight will enhance details.

Markarian's chain also contains the Eyes Galaxies. These are NGC 4435 and 4438. Together, they are bright, round galaxies named after two Greek words for 'eye': Oppa Virginis and Omma Virginis.

The Eyes Galaxies in Markarian's Chain

The Eyes Galaxies, NGC 4438 (top) and NGC4435 (source)

This small chain of eight galaxies is a nice challenge for an evening's viewing and rewards with a glow of satisfaction when you 'bag' all of them.

The eight galaxies of Markarian’s chain are included as a stand-alone observation list with our Sky Safari 5 Virgo Cluster list.

Seeing Individual Galaxies in The Cluster

Before you start looking for the galaxies themselves, remember two important things about seeing them:

  1. More light is better, so bigger telescope apertures give better results than smaller ones. An 8" aperture will yield superior sights to a 6".
  2. Galaxies are easier to find in a wider field of view. Start with lower magnification and only increase it once you've located the object you are looking for

With that said, let's dive into the galaxies themselves...

As mentioned earlier, there are 16 Messier objects - all galaxies - in the Virgo Cluster.

Whilst they are plentiful, and some are quite bright, don't underestimate the challenge of spotting individual objects.

The challenge in seeing them comes from the fact they are mostly faint and they are close to each other. Through the eyepiece, they are not much more than grey, fuzzy patches (although a decent telescope filter can improve detail).

There are three routes to seeing the best this cluster has to offer:

  1. Figure it out for yourself using a star atlas and Stellarium
  2. The the guide in Kenneth Glyn Jones' book Messiers, Nebulae and Star Clusters. It is part reproduced below and can be freely downloaded from SEDs
  3. Grab our pre-programed observation list for $1.99. It covers the brightest 30 galaxies in the Virgo Cluster and is compatible with Sky Safari 5.

Extract from SEDs Guide to Observing the Virgo Cluster

Click the picture below to get a larger version.


The Virgo Cluster of Galaxies is an area of our sky rich in relatively bright galaxies.

In this article we've shared with you how easy it is to find the area, how vast it is and the unimaginable distances involved.

We've also shared the most important factor for any backyard astronomer: how to see it!

If you want our Sky Safari 5 observation list for yourself (for only $1.99) click here. If you don't own Sky Safari 5 yet and would like to find out more, click the relevant link below:


Nine Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy

The 9 Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy...

There are some harsh realities when you take up astronomy, this brief guide will share with you:

  • The TRUTHS you need to be aware of
  • How we get past them to receive the JOY of the night sky

Links: Please note, some of the links in this article are affiliate links. You can find out more by clicking on 'affiliate links' in the footer.

Best Telescope Filters for Deep Sky Objects

Best telescope filters for deep space objects

Have you struggled to see clear images of nebulae, galaxies, clusters, and distant stars with your telescope before?

It's not a surprise. Light pollution, poor seeing and the limitations of your telescope conspire to give distorted, blurry, or dim images of distant celestial objects...

Sooner or later, all backyard astronomers discover they need to buy a filter to improve their viewing.

If that's you, we're going to help you find the right telescope filter to help you out.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the best telescope filters on the market for deep sky objects. (If the moon is your thing, click here for our guide to lunar filters).

Best Telescope Filters - Quick Comparison



Our Rating

Ideal For...

Orion UltraBlock Narrowband Filter


Great all-rounder

Orion 2-Inch SkyGlow Broadband Filter


User-friendly filtering

Orion 1.25-Inch SkyGlow Broadband Filter


General use, smaller scopes

Astromania 2-inch UHC filter


Sharp image contrast

Celestron 1.25-inch UHC/ LPR filter


Longer viewing periods

Celestron Narrowband OIII Filter


Go-to users

At the end of this article, you'll find our more detailed reviews. You can also click on the links in the table above to check prices and customer reviews on Amazon.

Why Should I Use a Telescope Filter?

A coffee filter removes the grounds from the coffee so you can enjoy the full flavor of your cup without unwanted bits creeping in. In much the same way, a telescope filter removes unwanted light from your eyepiece so you enjoy the full deep sky object experience.

Telescope filters are the same size as your eyepiece (1.25” / 2”) and screw onto it. Their job is to stop light that makes an object look worse from reaching your eye. All that's left is the light from the object itself. This improves the object's contrast, making it ‘ping’ out of the eyepiece. In turn, your backyard astronomy experience is drastically improved.

There are three general classes of telescope filters which improve the viewing of deep sky objects (DSOs):

  • Light Pollution Filters​
  • Narrowband Filters
  • Line Emission Filters

Light Pollution Filters

Light pollution filters are broadband. This means they let most of the light entering your telescope reach your eyes.

What they remove are light wavelengths associated with street light pollution. They are most effective against sodium and mercury vapor light coming from older streetlights.

Sadly, the newer LED streetlights emit light across the whole visible spectrum, so light pollution filters are not effective against them.

Narrowband Filters

Narrowband filters are more discerning; only allowing a few wavelengths of light through.

The light from nebulae comes from the gases that form them. So, if you filter out the light of all other wavelengths, you're left with just the nebulae. This gives phenomenal contrast and improves the view.

These are more expensive filters because they are more refined.

Line Emission Filters

Finally, at the most expensive end, are the line nebula filters.

These, as the name suggests, only allow a single wavelength of light to pass through. Most typical are filters for OIII, H-Alpha and H-Beta (oxygen 3, hydrogen alpha, and hydrogen beta).

An OIII filter only allows two precise wavelengths of light through, both associated with OIII. ( In practical astronomy terms, these are nebulae with green, turquoise and cyan colors.

Hydrogen-Beta is a single wavelength of blue emitted by a hydrogen ion. (see the picture of lines below, showing H-alpha, etc).

Hydrogen Alpha is the red line in the picture and causes red/pink nebulae like the infamous Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula (source). Sadly, no filter will make it look as good as this Hubble image

How to Use Telescope Filters for Best Results

To get the best results from your telescope filter, remember these simple guidelines. [list?]

When you start using them, begin with lower power and take in the scenes of beauty that you won't have captured before.

Many filters improve viewing in light-polluted skies, but they have an even more dramatic impact in dark locations.

Filters work best when your eyes are dark adjusted, and you'll see better detail using averted vision.

These next six filters are our recommendation for some of the best telescope filters for deep sky objects that you can buy today.

Six Best Filters for Deep Sky Objects

The following six filters are ones that we believe offer the best options for beginners with light pollution and those wanting to improve their nebulae experience.

The final one (Celestron's Narrowband OIII filter) is for the serious amateur who already uses filters but wants a more 'grown-up', specialist filter.

Orion UltraBlock Narrowband Filter

Click Here for the Current Amazon Price

The largest challenges to viewing deep sky objects are light pollution and atmospheric refraction.

These both easily drown out distant targets. For this reason, Orion’s UltraBlock NarrowBand filter can be a boon to your astronomy.

The UltraBlock NarrowBand filter helps remove light pollution because it only allows light with the frequency of H-Beta and OIII to pass through. As a result, you'll see increased contrast in your telescope image. 

Many nebulae shine in these wavelengths, so only letting these frequencies of light pass to your eye means you should see nebulae much more easily.

This is a 1.25" filter and is, in our view, the best 'all round' filter.

If you can only afford one telescope filter, then this one is ideal. It will give you better contrast that with a light pollution filter and cost less than individual OIII and H-Beta filters.


  • Narrowband pass
  • Good contrast
  • Good pollution blocking
  • Designed for nebula viewing
  • Great 'all-rounder' filter


  • Bandpass may be too narrow for general use
  • Contrast improvement may lose dim objects in the background
  • Better filters on the market for specialist needs

Orion 2-Inch SkyGlow Broadband Filter

Orion 2-inch SkyGlow Broadband Filter

CLICK HERE for the current price

The Orion 2-Inch SkyGlow Filter is a cousin of the UltraBlock NarrowBand. The difference is that this is a broadband filter designed to block local light pollution to improve general deep sky object viewing.

You might think this makes the 2-Inch SkyGlow a worse filter, but that’s far from the case.

Though the 2-Inch SkyGlow doesn’t block as much local light as its more narrowband cousin, it’s much friendlier for general purpose use. As well as DSOs, you can use it to improve viewing of non-deep sky objects in moderately light-polluted skies.

You’ll find the 2-Inch SkyGlow filter very user-friendly. Narrowband filters often block out other objects from view but, because the SkyGlow is broadband, that won't happen with this filter.

If you need a light pollution filter, a deep sky object filter, and a planetary filter, you could get away with buying only the 2-Inch SkyGlow filter for now.


  • Combines well with other filters
  • Performs with non-deep sky objects as well as DSOs
  • Blocks some light pollution
  • Broadband bandpass
  • No image distortion


  • Won't block city-level light pollution
  • Not light efficient in all setups
  • Doesn't improve image contrast

Orion 1.25-Inch SkyGlow Broadband Filter

Orion 2-inch SkyGlow Broadband Filter

CLICK HERE for the current price

This Orion broadband eyepiece is the 1.25-Inch counterpart to the 2-Inch SkyGlow Broadband Filter. Use it to manage suburban levels of light pollution without blocking light from objects you’re interested in seeing.

The filter advertises itself as ideal for viewing nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters, all which it does well.

But, there's another advantage to this filter:

Because it's 1.25-inch, it’s probable that you’ll be using it with a less powerful telescope than its larger cousin. So Orion has made sure it works well with closer objects, too.

To be clear, this isn’t a lunar filter —distant objects are its specialty—but it’s a more forgiving filter for closer objects than one might suspect. In a pinch, you could use this filter for general purposes in a light polluted environment.


  • Blocks most light pollution
  • Performs with non-deep sky objects as well as DSOs
  • Combines with other filters
  • Useful for smaller scopes
  • Easy to use


  • Not as good at producing a deep sky image as dedicated filters
  • Not light efficient in all setups
  • Doesn't improve image contrast

Astromania 2-Inch UHC Filter

AstroMania 2inch UHC filter

CLICK HERE for current Amazon price

The Astromania Ultra High Contrast Filter is an intense option for astronomers interested in imaging nebulae.

The narrow filtering of the Astromania UHC increases the perceived darkness of space, which causes lighter objects like nebulae to stand out even if they’d be dim otherwise.

You can use this filter in a light-polluted environment, but it excels in areas of low light pollution. Here, the contrast between space and the background light is even greater, so this filter delivers awesome results.

Each Astromania UHC filter is individually measured and inscribed with the percentage of light it allows to pass from the hydrogen-beta and oxygen-3 emission spectra.

Whilst there’s little filter-to-filter variability, you can see at a glance your own filter’s performance. This can help you determine how much light you’ll be losing when combining it with other filters.

This filter is for serious nebula viewing. To get the best from it, have light discipline with your night vision: get well dark-adjusted and use averted vision.


  • Each filter individually measured
  • Superior image quality for nebula viewing
  • High contrast


  • More light sensitive than other filters
  • Not suitable for near-sky
  • Too specialized for beginners

Celestron 1.25-Inch UHC/LPR Filter

Celestron 1.25inch UHC/LPR filter

CLICK HERE for todays price

Celestron’s Ultra High Contrast Light Pollution Reduction Filter is another great option for dealing with suburban levels of light pollution. It increases the contrast of your telescope’s image so that you can view nebulae or galaxies with ease.

This filter has a feature which the other light pollution reducing filters don’t: a bandpass optimized for “natural” viewing.

By “natural” viewing, Celestron means it increases the sharpness of contrast between the darkness of space and the objects in your image without creating harshly distorted edges. This can happen with overly-narrow, aggressive bandpass filters.

This means Celestron’s UHC/LPR isn’t as discriminating against the light that falls outside of its bandpass. However, the set-off to that is this filter is going to be easier on your eyes.

Celestron’s choice to slightly broaden the bandpass is a nod a reality of backyard astronomy. Everyone's balance of light pollution, night vision and setup quality is different.

The wider bandpass is a well thought out technical concession in the name of user experience. You’ll appreciate the added eye comfort it provides during a long night spent peering at distant nebulae.


  • Provides an image that's easy to stay focussed on for a long time
  • Good light pollution reduction
  • Great for long periods of deep sky observing


  • Slightly wider bandpass means lower contrast
  • Does not increase darkness of space, increases clarity of objects

Celestron Narrowband OIII Filter

Celestron Narrowband OIII Filter

CLICK HERE for current price

Celestron’s Narrowband Oxygen III 1.25 inch filter is a nebula-dedicated filter with an ultra-narrow bandpass. As noted in its title, the bandpass is only oxygen-3 spectra.

Because it lets so little light through, this filter is best used in a dark sky location and with a larger aperture telescope. Anything below 6-8" aperture will not let enough light in to make full use of this filter.

It's narrow bandpass will make stars seem to disappear, leaving only certain planetary nebula, like the ring nebula, (and a few diffuse nebulae) visible.

M57, The Ring Nebula in Lyra

M57, The Ring Nebula (source)

To get the best from it, make sure your scope is in position before you screw it in place, as your reference stars will disappear from view when you do.

Also, be sure to use lower power to get going and only zoom in when you've found it and want to pull out more detail.

Whilst this limits the range of objects its useful for, it is tough to beat the images produced with this filter.


  • Specializes in OIII observation, giving increased clarity there
  • Good contrast in low light pollution
  • Great choice for the right kinds of DSO


  • Weak light pollution removal
  • Not helpful for near-sky objects


Your deep sky object filter needs will vary depending on where you live and how willing you are to travel to a darker area. For this reason, Orion’s 1.25 Inch UltraBlock NarrowBand Filter is right for most amateur astronomers interested in casual nebula viewing with the least hassle.

You’ll still have to be attentive to the filter’s bandpass when viewing things which aren’t nebulae, but you’ll get a large efficiency bonus by combining your bandpass filter and your light pollution reduction filter into the same unit.

As runner-up, Celestron's LHC LPR filter is also a great choice. It nods to user experience as an important feature to bring to the table, unlike any of the other filters we’ve mentioned here.

If you already have a general purpose filter and are looking for something more 'grown up', we recommend trying the Celestron Narrowband OIII. Just keep in mind that it works best in darker skies with a bigger scope.

The filter you choose for deep sky object viewing may seem like a major choice to make but don’t worry too much about picking the 'right' one.

All the filters we’ve mentioned here are great choices, but the most important choice for you to make is to be serious about viewing deep sky objects.

Product images sourced from​

12 Best Deep Space Objects for Backyard Astronomers – Part Two

best deep sky objects for beginners in fall and winter

Welcome to part 2 of our two-part series, where we share the best Deep space objects for beginners.

In part one, we covered spring and summer, this time we're looking at the best DSOs for the fall and winter seasons.

Most astronomers agree that winter and fall are the better part of the year for stargazing. Nights are longer, darker and begin earlier. We can stargaze straight from work and see fainter objects than is possible in summer.

Also, the skies are full of many more new and exciting objects for us to enjoy!

Below we share some advice on telescope filters, which will help you see more DSO details than you'll ever manage without. But, if you want to skip straight to the DSOs themselves, open the navigation box below and select fall or winter.

Best Filters for Deep Sky Objects

One of the best ways to view deep sky objects is to use filters.

As the name suggests, filters attach to your telescope and filter out most wavelengths of light. Pick the best telescope filter for a galaxy, for example, and what you are left with is a much clearer view of its shape and structure.

The best telescope filter for nebulae is different to that for galaxies because they emit light on of different wavelengths. So, the trick with choosing the best telescope filter for deep sky objects is picking the specific one for object you want to see.

There are three broad groups of telescope filters for deep sky objects:

  1. Broadband 'Light Pollution Reducing' (LPR) Filters
  2. Narrowband Nebula Filters
  3. Line Nebula Filters

Broadband Light Pollution Reducing Filters

As its name suggests, this is a more general filter designed to reduce the impact of artificial light on the qulity of your seeing.

They are effective against sodium and mercury vapor lamps and work by blocking (filtering) out light from those wavelengths.

The view you are left with is no brighter, but it is much 'cleaner'. The specific benefit is fainter objects - like galaxies and nebulae - now show up in better contrast. This is because the filter makes the background sky darker.

If you operate to a tight budget we recommend something like this Gosky filter from Amazon. If you have a bit more money to spend, then you could experience better results with this Orion filter instead.

Note: these filters are not effective against LED street lamps. LEDs emit light across the spectrum and it can't be filtered out by an LPR filter.

Narrowband Filters for Nebulae

Narrow band filters for telescopes bring nebulae to life by giving them high contrast against the background space.

These filters only let through certain wavelengths of light, such as OIII and H beta to pass through. These are wavelengths which emission nebulae 'shine' in and so they are left untouched by the filter but all other light is removed.

For best results, use these filters in skies which already offer you good seeing (they don't have much benefit under heavily light-polluted skies).

These are a more expensive filter, because they are harder to produce, but an option like this Celestron Narrowband OIII filter is a good choice.

Line Filters for Nebulae

The line filters are even more finely tuned as to the light they will let pass.

These are the best telescope filters for planetary nebulae and diffuse emission nebulae.

As you might expect by now, these are a higher price still and this model from Lumicon will set you back well over $200 on Amazon (but is only suitable for 10" scopes and above). Our advice is to start with a simple LPR filter.

As for the line and narrowband filters, see if you can give a few a try at your local astronomy club before making a purchase.​

Now, enough advice on filters, let's jump into those best DSOs for beginners in fall and winter...​

The Best Deep Sky Objects of Fall

These are three great DSOs to look out for from your backyard between October and December.

1. Albireo Double Star System

We admit it: this one is a little ambiguous for seasons. It is easily visible in summer but looks gorgeous against the inky blackness of a fall sky.

Albireo is a one-of-its-kind double star system. It comprises of two stars of very contrasting color: Alberio A is the brighter star and fiery yellow, whilst the dimmer Alberio B is sapphire blue.

The blue and yellow stars of Albireo (source)

Finding it is easy. Head over to Cygnus, the swan, on a clear autumn night. The head (or eye) of the swan is Albireo (see red box in Stellarium screenshot, below). It lies in the center of the triangle formed by Vega, Deneb and Altair. It appears to be a single, moderately bright star.

Where to find Albireo double star

Where to find Albireo double star (click to zoom)

It's best viewed at a low magnification to bring the stark contrasting colors to life.

Decent binoculars will split the pair, but a huge scope will reveal that the brighter star,

We don't yet know if the two stars orbit each other in a binary system, or are just an optical double (i.e. they look close together from Earth). We don't know because we've not yet detected enough motion since their discovery.

This is because the distance between them is quite large - 60 times the diameter of our sun, meaning an orbital period of at least 100,000 years!

2. The Crab Nebula (M1)

The Crab Nebula is the first object in the messier’s catalogue - M1.

Crab Nebula

The Crab Nebula (source)

It’s found in the constellation Taurus, close to the head of Orion. This image will help, click it to zoom:

Where to find the Crab Nebula

Where to find the Crab Nebula (click to zoom)

The Crab Nebula is the remnant of a supernova that was first observed on 4 July 1054 and was visible for about two years.

The core of the exploded star lies at the heart of the cloud as a pulsar. These are incredibly dense and rapidly rotating objects that emit high levels of radiation.

Astronomy quiz facts: The Crab Nebula is 11 light years across and growing larger by around 1 billion kilometers per day. That's further than the distance from the sun to Jupiter!

The Nebula produces 75,000 times more energy than the sun and emits radiation from the entire range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

The Crab nebula is visible from late autumn to early spring in the northern hemisphere. A standard telescope will show faint details.

3. The Andromeda Galaxy (M31)

Andromeda galaxy (M31) is one of the most sought after objects, especially by newbie astronomers. It is the most distant object visible to the naked eyes, at a distance of more than 2 million miles.

How to find M31 galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy (source)

Conversely, it’s our nearest galactic neighbour in intergalactic space. Both the Milky Way and Andromeda are part of a larger cluster - the Local Group.

But it doesn't stop there...

The Local Group is itself part of the even larger Virgo Cluster, which itself is a part of the Virgo Supercluster! Phew!

We have a complete guide on how to see the Andromeda Galaxy, here... but the brief version follows.

Finding the galaxy is quite simple. It’s visible throughout fall and winter. To locate it head over to Great Square of Pegasus. You can see it in the clickable Stellarium shot below.

How to find M31 using Stellarium

Stellarium screenshot of Andromeda Galaxy, Andromeda and Cassiopeia constellations (click to zoom)

It’s as simple as that. You can spot it with bare eyes in a dark sky with good seeing. A telescope will reveal the finer details and if seeing conditions are great, you might even see more structure within the galaxy. Try using averted vision to improve your chances.

The light you see is the combined starlight of trillions of stars, each one roughly as big as our sun. And all that is moving towards us at a speed of 250,000 miles per second.

Our advice: know the staggering numbers, but focus on the beauty of this galaxy.

Would you like a FREE moon calendar? One that covers every phase, rise and set each day? Just CLICK HERE to grab yours now.

The Best Deep Sky Objects of Winter

We finish this two-part article (first part here) with a look at the best deep sky objects for beginners from January thru March.

1. The Orion Nebula (M42)

The Orion Nebula, also known as M42, is one of the most visible and famous DSOs of the winter sky. If you've been stargazing for a while now, you have almost certainly seen it.

The Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula (source) You can buy this picture.

Easily seen with naked eyes, it surrounds the middle star of the three in Orion's sword. Its faint, pinkish glow gives it away.

Where to find The Orion Nebula, M42

Where to find The Orion Nebula, M42 (click to zoom)

Although visible with binoculars, your telescope will show off its true wonder, with the bonus that it offers two sky objects for the price of one!

The Orion nebula is an emission nebula, energised by four hot young stars called the Trapezium Cluster, owing to their trapezoid shape.

Trapezium Cluster in Orion Nebula

Trapezium Cluster Visible ad Infra-red (source)

A 6" scope and good seeing will reveal them to you but your odds of finding them increase with a larger aperture telescope.

This article from Sky & Telescope will help you find the Trapezium Cluster, and perhaps even stars D and E....​

As beautiful as these pictures are, don't forget that it (sadly) won't look as good through your eyepiece. But you can try enhancing your view of M42 using a filter like the ones recommended at the top of this page.

2. The Pleiades Cluster (M45)

Before reading anything else, take a look at this:


Pleiades (M45) (Source)

This is Pleiades cluster, commonly known as Seven Sisters or M45. It's an open cluster of more than 1000 stars held together by their combined gravity.

The brightest stars in the cluster represent the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters in Greek mythology, their parents, the nymph Pleione and the Titan Atlas.

The cluster itself is big - at almost 2 degrees in diameter - and bright enough to see in moderately light polluted skies as well.

The cluster is prominent in northern hemisphere winter skies, making it easy to find. You can find it west-northwest of Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus.

Where to find Pleiades

Where to find Pleiades (click to zoom)

The Pleiades is a gas-filled region of space, stuffed with protostars (think of them as toddler stars).

M45 also contains a significant number of brown dwarfs; they are believed to constitute up to 25 percent of all the stars in the cluster. But, don’t be too eager to spot one, they are dark, boring and unremarkable.

What is remarkable, however, is an object called Merope Nebula located within the cluster. It’s really small to be seen even with most amateur scopes: half an arcsecond in size. Yet, if you can find it with a big scope, this is what it looks like:

Merope Nebula in Pleiades

Merope Nebula in Pleiades (source)


There is a dedicated page to the Pleiades in Sky and Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas, which we strongly recommend every backyard astronomer should own.​

For more interesting facts about the Pleiades, here’s a useful article from

3. Perseus Double Cluster

The Perseus double cluster is not included in the Messier catalogue. But, this breathtaking pair of clusters, each containing hundreds of supergiant suns, is worth your viewing time.

Perseus Double Cluster

Perseus Double Cluster (source)

To locate it, head over to the W (or M) shaped constellation Cassiopeia and use the image below to guide you from the star called Navi, to Ruchbah (dotted line) then follow the same direction to the double cluster.

How to find the Perseus Double Cluster from Cassiopeia

How to find the Perseus Double Cluster from Cassiopeia

Simple, right?

A point to note is, the Double Cluster is harder to see when it’s close to the horizon. If you can’t spot it between Cassiopeia and Perseus, wait until later in the night (or year) to see it, when it’s higher in the sky.

These clusters are rather interesting - at a distance of about 7000 light-years, it’s a wonder we are able to see a cluster of only a few hundred stars.

The reason we can is these stars are very, very bright. About 50,000 times more luminous than our sun! They are also relatively young at 3 to 5 million years old.

The Pleiades cluster, for comparison, is 100 million years old.

A fun fact to note is: if the Perseus double cluster was as close as Pleiades is, it would cover a quarter of the night sky!

While observing this cluster, try to notice the myriad colors of stars: topaz, sapphire blue, white and red supergiants. Many supergiants are close to their end of life, and will end in a spectacular supernova! But we won't be there to see it.

Summary of Fall and Winter's Best DSOs

That's the end of our two-part guide to the Best DSOs for Beginners. But, if you want more good winter and fall DSOs (and there are thousands to pick from) give this article from a read.

Resources and Tips

If you’d like to have a personalised list on the best DSOs for you based on your location, time and other such parameters, we have a good news for you!

DSO-browser is an excellent online tool that takes your location, time, minimum elevation of DSOs (which would depend on factors like trees/buildings around you) and light pollution in your area and outputs the best DSOs for you. It's a very useful tool for every backyard astronomer - you can check it out here:

There's a full guide at the end of part one of this article on how to use it.

Other than that, we always recommend having a copy of Stellarium, the free skymap software. Many of the screenshots in this article were generated using it.

Nine Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy

The 9 Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy...

There are some harsh realities when you take up astronomy, this brief guide will share with you:

  • The TRUTHS you need to be aware of
  • How we get past them to receive the JOY of the night sky

Written by Adish War

Disclaimer: Some links in this article are affiliate links, which could earn us a small commission if you buy something after clicking on them. Click here to find out more.

12 Best Deep Space Objects for Backyard Astronomers – Part One

Best deep sky objects for beginners - part one

Deep Space Objects for Beginners

Deep space objects (DSO) are also full of wonder and awe. For backyard astronomers like us, they provide an excellent introduction into the cosmos.

But, the visibility of DSOs is heavily influenced by your latitude and seasons. Most DSOs are at their peak of visibility only for a month or so.

It’s frustrating to discover that the nebulae we planned to see tonight peaked out last month.

To avoid that happening to you, we have prepared this two-part series about the best deep space objects you can see by season. In this 'episode' we're looking at spring and summer, you can read about the best deep space objects of fall and winter here.

Have you discovered the Nine Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy?
CLICK HERE to find out what they are.

What Do Deep Space Objects Look Like in a Telescope?

But before we get into the objects themselves, let’s discuss what you can expect to see, and what you can’t.

One of the most common questions our email subscribers ask is "what does a galaxy look like in a small telescope?". One of the biggest reasons new scope owners quickly give up stargazing is false expectations of what they will see.

It’s completely understandable, though:

You see a cool photograph of a space object from NASA or in Sky & Telescope Magazine, like this one of the Crab Nebula from Wikipedia:

Crab Nebula

Excited, you start making preparations to see it in all its glory - with your own eyes.

Crab nebula in a telescope

Crab Nebula in a 10" Telescope (source)

The time arrives, you are sitting with eyes on the telescope, furiously hunting this stunning orb, but...

When you finally land on it, you see this white fuzzy blotch:

And that's with a 10" scope!

Why you wonder, does this happen?

The simple answer is that cameras (especially big expensive ones owned by NASA) gather much more light over more time than our tiny eyes can.

Often the pictures we see are combinations of pictures taken in different wavelengths. Sophisticated software knits them together to form beautiful, magazine-worthy pictures.

Our eyes and scopes can not compete with that. Our budgets and the laws of physics will not allow it!

This article shares how Hubble creates its beautiful pictures and this one shares more detail about how telescopes work and why your eyes don't.

The joy for a backyarder is in discovering the object itself. Taking the time to hunt for and locate a galaxy or nebula, especially if it's at the edge of your equipment's limit.

Finding, observing and wondering are what make astronomy addictive. Find each of the following objects and spend time with them in your eyepiece. The longer you observe them, the more detail your brain will notice.

Try averted vision to tease out more detail. Watch your object on more than one night. You'll be surprised at how much structure you can tease out when you see the same object many times.

Finally, read more about the object and study detailed pictures. Find smaller parts of the structure to hunt for, like a gas cloud in a nebula or an arm of a galaxy. With something specific to discover, your brain will work harder to see it.

Deep Space Objects are Different to Planets

This is the final point to keep in mind when seeking deep sky objects.

Your planet-viewing experience is not the same as DSO hunting. Planets are much brighter and easier to find than any DSO.

DSOs do not shine like stars, their light is diffuse, which makes them hard to find even in great conditions. Seeing conditions and light pollution wildly affect your experience.

Pocket Sky Atlas

With all that in mind, our list contains the brightest and easiest to find DSOs for amateurs. We hope you enjoy hunting them for yourself!

Some of the images in this article come from Stellarium, which is free software we recommend. However, no DSO hunt is complete without a copy Sky & Telescope's Pocket Atlas by your side. It's available at a great price from Amazon, click here.

Best Deep Sky Objects for Spring

These three objects are all simple to locate in the spring sky, between April and June.

1. Whirlpool Galaxy (M51)

The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) is a sight to behold.

M51, the whirlpool galaxy

M51, The Whirlpool Galaxy (source)

It's one of the most studied galaxies because of its unique feature- a galaxy feeding on a dwarf galaxy! Wikipedia describes it as “an interacting grand-design spiral galaxy with a Seyfert 2 active galactic nucleus”. Whoa!

The Whirlpool Galaxy was first discovered in 1773 by the infamous Charles Messier. He wasn't actually compiling a catalogue of objects to look at... he was charting the skies finding objects that might be confused with comets.

In a master stroke of irony, he wanted to avoid looking at the objects he catalogued!

M51 is a galaxy we can see face-on, which reveals finer details. The companion galaxy is NGC 5195, also called M51b, is in a merging process with the bigger M51a.

This is fairly easy to find. Locate the Big Dipper, and then see the screenshot below from Stellarium for how to find it. For best results, we always recommend the Sky & Telescope Pocket Atlas.

Finding M51 with the Big Dipper

M51 is in the red circle near Alkaid in the Big Dipper (click to zoom)

You can see M51 in binoculars, but the precious details are only revealed by a decent telescope.

And here’s a fun fact: The Whirlpool and its companion, M51b have already passed by or through each other once as they dance through a cosmic merger. The smaller galaxy has been severely disrupted by the encounter. The spiral arms of the larger galaxy are also distorted, although to a lesser extent.

The Whirlpool Galaxy's best visibility is in May.

2. The Leo Triplet

The Leo Triplet, or the M66 Group, is a group of interacting spiral galaxies located in the northern constellation Leo. The group consists of the galaxies Messier 65, Messier 66 and NGC 3628, AKA the Hamburger Galaxy!

The Leo Triplet

The galaxies of the Leo Triplet (source)

The trio is also fairly easy to locate. Navigate to Leo and you’ll find the trio, in a common field, near the star Chertan.

This screen shot, taken from Stellarium, will help. Click the image for a bigger version and look for the red circle.​

The Leo Triplet

Where to find the Leo Triplet (click to zoom)

There are also a few interesting objects nearby. For instance, you may want to try out the nearby M105 and M96.

3. The Virgo Cluster

The Virgo Cluster is one of the grandest deep space objects. Visible from March to July, you can see it throughout spring.

And you should make the effort to do so since it packs a few surprises!

Virgo cluster of galaxies

The Virgo Cluster of Galaxies (source)

In fact, there so much to get from the Virgo Cluster that we are writing an entire article on it! Click here to sign up for our weekly email and we'll notify you when it goes 'live'.

The cluster, located in the constellation Virgo (unsurprisingly), contains 16 Messier objects, so there’s a real lot to see here. The image below highlights the Messiers - click it to zoom.

Messier objects in the Virgo cluster

Where to find the Messier objects in the Virgo Cluster (click to zoom)

Locating the cluster is no issue. The area between Vindemiatrix and Denebola beside the constellation Leo, lies the Virgo Cluster, as a patch of fuzzy greyness.

Use Stellarium to take a tour or the Pocket Sky Atlas from Sky & Telescope.

The Best Deep Sky Objects for Summer

These three objects are all simple to locate in the summer sky, between July and September.

Even though summers are associated with shorter nights, that doesn't mean there aren't sights to behold. If you know your game, there are plenty of visual wonders to be savoured!

Given below is a list of a few DSO’s that are visible in peak summer months and offer enough detail to make for a good stargazing session:

1. The Dumbbell Nebula (M27)

M27, also known as the dumbbell nebula, is an easily identified object in the summer skies, especially visible in August.

M27, The Dumbbell Nebula

M27, The Dumbbell Nebula (source)

Finding M27 is simple. To begin, locate Altair and Deneb in the constellation Aquila and Cygnus (eagle and swan). M27 is about a third of the distance between Altair and Deneb, starting from Altair.

Where to find M27, the Dumbbell Nebula

Where to find the Dumbbell Nebula (click to zoom)

The Dumbbell Nebula is easy to find because the two birds are high overhead in the summer sky.

Through a backyard telescope, the nebula appears white, but its characteristic double-lobed shape is clearly visible.

2. The Trifid Nebula (M20)

Trifid Nebula or M20 is another DSO that is particularly well visible in August.

Trifid Nebula

M20, the Trifid Nebula (source)

Its name comes from its characteristic three partitioned structure.

Despite the name, it's actually a clump of three types of Nebulae and a Star formation merged into one. There is plenty to see here!

Binoculars will reveal the three dark ‘lanes’, but a telescope will let you see the finer details of this wonderful object.

M20 lies in the constellation Sagittarius. To find it, locate the teapot asterism in Sagittarius and find Kaus Borealis, the tip Star. Follow the line Northwest, towards lagoon nebula, you will see the binary system 7 Sagittarii. The Trifid Nebula lies about 2 degrees north.

Click the screenshot below (from Stellarium) for more detail.​

Where to find M20, the Triffid Nebula

Where to find M20, the Triffid Nebula (click to zoom)

If, when you find it, you wonder what the smaller cluster on the northeast is, it's M21. So that's another object for you!

3. M4 - Globular Cluster

M4 is a globular cluster in the constellation Scorpio, best visible in July. Even if you've never done stargazing before, you can still find the object.

M$ Globular Cluster

M4 Globular Cluster (source)

Start by looking out for Scorpio. Then, find Antares, also known as the heart of the scorpion, at its center.

M4 lies just at the right of antares. They both easily fit in the same field of view in a finder scope or binoculars.

Where to find M4, Globular Cluster

Where to find M4, Globular Cluster (click to zoom)

Globular clusters are groups of hundreds of thousands of stars. They populate an area of sky called the Galactic Halo, circling above and below the pancake-shape galactic disk of the Milky Way.

Best DSOs Spring and Summer - Summary

Those are the 6 best DSO’s for backyard astronomers visible in the spring and summer months.

However, if you're looking for a few more, you can try these:

These are super easy to find using Stellarium and the Pocket Sky Atlas.

Useful Resources for DSO Hunting

There are plenty of resources available that can enhance your DSO hunt.

To start with, DSO Browser is an online tool that can help you to a great extent in planning your DSO hunting sessions.

Based on your location and other parameters entered (like minimum altitude of the object), it gives you a list of DSO’s you can observe. It’s super useful!

Another useful resource is 111 Deep Sky Wonders for Light-Polluted Skies. By James Mullaney, this list is a brilliant resource for the city-bound backyard astronomer.

Nine Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy

The 9 Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy...

There are some harsh realities when you take up astronomy, this brief guide will share with you:

  • The TRUTHS you need to be aware of
  • How we get past them to receive the JOY of the night sky

Written by Adish War

Links: Please note, some of the links in this article are affiliate links. You can find out more by clicking on 'affiliate links' in the footer.

Product images sourced from​

111 Deep Sky Wonders for Light-Polluted Skies

Messier Marathon: What is it and How Do I Plan One?

How to complete a Messier Marathon

You know we backyard astronomers can have wonderful star parties, but did you know that we also do... marathons?

The Messier marathon is a favourite (and very hard) challenge amongst new and veteran astronomers.

It involves finding all 110 deep space objects (galaxies, nebulae, star clusters) on the Messier calendar. This is hard enough anyway, but the twist with a Messier marathon is it's completed in only one night.

Just planning for a Messier marathon is a challenge. Our guide will share everything you need to plan and execute your own backyard Messier Marathon or enter one organised by your astro club.

So, let’s dive in…

Have you discovered the Nine Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy?
CLICK HERE to find out what they are.

Messier Marathon Basics

Okay, let's begin with a brief background check.

Charles Messier lived and worked in France, which is in the northern hemisphere. So people living in the southern hemisphere are out of luck. There are a few Messiers visible south of the equator, but no marathon to be had... sorry.

Even in the northern hemisphere, things are not so straightforward. Latitude determines a lot about what you'll see - or miss out.

The northernmost Messier object (Messier 82 - the Exploding Cigar Galaxy) is at almost 70° declination. This means you have to be north of 20 degrees south latitude.

The southernmost (M7, the Ptolemy Cluster) is at -35° declination, so you have to be south of 55 degrees north latitude.

Although the language is a little confusing, the upshot is we can only see every Messier at latitudes between 20° south and 55° north.

Because that includes objects on the horizon (where they are essentially unobservable) 25° north is the best latitude for a Messier marathon. Here, at the right time of year, all the Messiers gain enough height over the horizon for good observation.

That makes areas from Key Largo, Florida an amazing marathon location. But, in reality, you can stretch to 35° north and still see all 110 objects in a night. This opens up most of the southern continental US for successful marathon viewing.

When is Best for a Messier Marathon?

The 'right time of year' is a short few weeks from mid-March to early April (either side of the spring equinox). Within that period, dark nights around the time of the new moon are best for a Messier marathon.

Even then, you'll need a good dark sky site. Many of the Messiers are faint and need favorable seeing conditions.

Remember, you'll have around 11 hours of darkness. To find all 110 objects means you only get 6 minutes to locate and observe each one. The darker your site, the easier this will be.

Resources for Messier Marathon Planning

The number of objects you’ll see is heavily dependent on your location and time, which also determines the order in which you’ll see those objects.

Online Messier Marathon Planner

Which is why you need this Larry McNish’s Messier Marathon Planner. It is the online resource for Messier marathon planning.

Initially, it may seem complicated, but with a little patience, you'll get what you need. First off, enter your location, marathon date and press 'submit', as per the diagram below.

Messier marathon software

How to fill in Larry McNish's Messier Marathon Planner

Secondly - you'll now see a spreadsheet of the best order to see all the Messier objects. The list will say which ones can't be seen from your location or on your date.

Messier marathon spreadsheet

Messier marathon spreadsheet

For a full key to all the terms used in the spreadsheet, click here.

Other Useful Messier Marathon Resources

Use the free software, Stellarium, in conjunction conjugation with the McNish planner, so you’ll know in advance when and where you will come across an object.

Marathon success is all about your speed of object locating. In the field, we recommend SkySafari 5 Pro on the iPad as a quick and easy way to locate your next object.

Sky Safari Pro 5

Many of us find that there's more enjoyment in a better understanding of what we can see. If that's true for you here's the Wikipedia list of all the 110 Messier Objects. It includes a table with a picture and more info. Each one also links to its own page for extra detail.

Getting Ready for Your Messier Hunt

Thankfully, this is the simple part. There are a few preparations to make, and this section quickly flies you through them.

Be sure to choose a dark and quiet location, away from the city lights. Preferably, use an elevated location, to widen your field of view by rising above tall trees and buildings.

Get there early, set up in the light and relax until dark. You'll be looking for your first objects soon after the sun sets, so don't lose precious hunting time fumbling with your scope in the dark.

This marathon will take an entire night, from dusk to dawn, so you’ll need some basic supplies for comfort.

If you have it, a good observing chair will go a long way in making the stargazing comfortable. Get a water bottle or Thermos, a night viewing torch, your iPad with SkySafari 5 pro installed or Pocket Sky Atlas and you are all set to explore! Oh, and don't forget food - you will need to eat as you search.

If you plan to take pictures of the objects through the telescope as you see them, use a timestamp to prove you did the marathon in a single night!

And here’s a sky-map from Wikipedia, showing the positions of messier objects and other fine details. If you wish, you can take a printed copy of it and have it by your side whilst you try to spot the objects in the sky.

Messier Star Chart

Messier Star Chart (Wikipedia)

As you can see, it even has the constellations, so navigation isn't a problem when you're under high-speed observing pressure.

Tips & Tricks to Improve Your Messier Hunt

1) Star-Hopping and angle measuring are techniques used to find small and less luminous objects in the night sky. They will come to your rescue when you get going with your marathon.

2) Don't expect too much. Astronomical objects always look better in photographs. A small telescope won't show much beyond a bunch of grey fuzzy patches. But, once you spot an object, you can immediately look up its actual picture on to see how it really looks.

3) But... you can also look out for some details, like M40's double star, and the M73 asterism - a pattern of unrelated stars. See if you can spot such differences; it adds to the adventure!

4) Your next best chance of completing the Messier marathon is the weekend of 17th/18th March 2018, when the moon will be new. Get it in your diary now!

Wrapping Up

You are ready to tackle this challenge now, but you should know it is really, really hard to achieve a perfect score.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you miss one or two (or even eight or nine) of the 100 objects. Be assured that even the experts struggle to achieve it.

If you tried early enough in the season, you could get a second bite at the cherry later in the March / April window. Otherwise, it's onwards to next year and planning for a better result.

Messier Marathon Further Reading

Messier Marathon Field Guide

(Click for Amazon price)

Written by Adish War

Nine Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy

The 9 Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy...

There are some harsh realities when you take up astronomy, this brief guide will share with you:

  • The TRUTHS you need to be aware of
  • How we get past them to receive the JOY of the night sky

Links: Please note, some of the links in this article are affiliate links. You can find out more by clicking on 'affiliate links' in the footer.

Product images sourced from​

Green Laser Pointers in Astronomy – the Fun and Safe Way

Using green laser pointers for astronomy

Laser pointers are very useful tools, long since used by professional astronomers. Due to miniaturisation and affordable technology, green laser pointers are now cheaply available for every backyard astronomer.

They are very handy for pointing faint objects in the night sky, especially for showing others what you're looking at. Used at a star party, there'll be fewer moments when you say “No, not that one, I’m talking about THAT one right there!”

But, as useful as laser pointers are for astronomy, they can land you in serious trouble if you’re not careful and don’t know the rules of using them.

In this article, we share everything you need to know for their safe and fun use.

Best Laser Pointers for Astronomy



Our Rating

Ideal For...

Shockproof Tactical



Qianzy Pen Laser



Z-Bolt Laser Pointer


Cold weather

Click on the links in the table to check prices and customer reviews on Amazon / Z-Bolt.

Laser Pointer Basics

Lasers are commonly used by many backyard astronomers.

The ones used specifically by astronomers are designed such that they can fit in the finderscope holder on your telescope tube. This makes such lasers ideal to use both as a pointer and a convenient finderscope.

When aligned with your telescope, a laser pointer used alongside a traditional finderscope produces great results. Before looking through the finderscope, you can see exactly where the telescope is pointing.

In fact, keep reading and you'll find another neat trick with lasers to see exactly where your telescope is looking.

Would you like a FREE moon calendar? One that covers every phase, rise and set each day? Just CLICK HERE to grab yours now.

Laser Color

Lasers come in all sorts of colors, but, the ones used for our purpose are green. This is because the human eye is most sensitive to colors from the green-yellow spectrum, so following them up in the night sky is a breeze.

Additionally, green lasers are brighter than red and blue for any given amount of power. This makes them ideal as small, powerful, handheld instruments running on a battery.

Laser Power and Brightness

The brightness of a laser is determined by its power output. The higher the power, the brighter the laser. Although this is only true for a fixed wavelength (color).

For instance, a green and red laser at the same power output will not have equal brightness. In this example, the green laser will be brighter.

Also, keep in mind that when it comes to power output, higher is not always better. Don't be tempted to buy a high powered laser: you won’t need it for backyard astronomy purposes.

And that’s a good thing!

For one, high powered lasers are more expensive. Secondly, a high power laser will cause your eyes to refocus every time you use it. This causes unnecessary discomfort and upsets your night vision.

The key is to buy a laser pointer bright enough for the laser beam to be clearly seen but not so bright that your vision suffers.

To help you decide, here is a little chart (originally on this site) on how much power you will need under different conditions:

Laser Color

Personal Use

Public Use


5 mW - 30 mW

15 mW - 100 mW


5 mW - 50 mW

50 mW - 150 mW


50 mW - 100 mW

100 mW - 300 mW

Using A Green Laser Pointer for Astronomy

Now that you know the basics, it’s time to actually start using your green laser pointer for astronomy!

Below, we explore the ways you can use a laser pointer for stargazing.​

As a pointer

For starters, the most obvious use of laser pointers is, well, pointing! You can show your friends around the night sky accurately with lasers, especially when you are addressing to a group of people.

Making sure you follow the safety advice below, and only use a laser pointer that is not 'always on'​ (i.e. one you have to be pressing for it to work).

Laser pointer at night

Laser pointer in use (source)

When you want to point out an object to a friend or fellow member of your astronomy club, make sure no aircraft can be seen or heard nearby, press your laser on and point the beam exactly where the object can be found.

As soon as the person can see where you are pointing, turn the laser off again.​

This is a quick and very effective way to give newbies a tour of the night sky and veterans a pointer to the sight you want them to find.​

As a finderscope

You can use your laser pointer as a finderscope. The finderscope holder on your telescope tube can hold the laser pointer, as in the picture below.

Green laser pointer in place of finderscope on telescope

Green laser pointer as a finderscope (source)

This is not in place of your finderscope but alongside it.

In combination, these two tools can work wonders for increasing the speed and accuracy with which you get the telescope objective on point!

Some backyard astronomers prefer using a laser to a finderscope. The main reason is lasers don’t need you to bend over and look through them every time you hunt an object down.

This is especially helpful when the scope is set at a low height, requiring you to stoop, sometimes for a few minutes at a time or if you have back problems.

Have you discovered the Nine Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy?
CLICK HERE to find out what they are.

Laws & Guidance on Laser Pointer Use 

A laser is a highly focused beam of light. It can travel a long distance without diverging too much. This makes it useful for pointing out stars on a dark night... and also potentially dangerous to people in the air.

There have been many cases of people pointing lasers into planes and helicopters, only to land themselves in trouble.

What you may not realise is that your point-sized laser beam can fill an entire cockpit in a stinging green light.

For example, at a distance of 500 ft, what looks like a laser dot can be a circle of high-intensity light about 6 ft wide.

Such a laser can temporarily blind the pilot and the crew, putting their lives in danger and those of all their passengers. It's equivalent to a camera flash in your eyes whilst driving a car on a pitch-black night. You can understand why the rules on using laser pointers are strict.

This excerpt from highlights the legal penalty and the incidents of lasering aircraft:

“Interfering with the operation of an aircraft is a crime punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In 2009, there were 1,489 laser events logged with the FAA—that is, pilots reporting that their cockpits were illuminated by the devices. The following year, that figure had nearly doubled to 2,836.”

The latest FAA data for 2016 shows there were 7442 incidents, which is over 20 per day.

Sky and Telescope's website has detailed advice on laser pointer safety, including:

  • Never shine a laser pointer toward any person, aircraft, or other vehicle.
  • Never look directly into the beam of any laser pointer
  • Do not allow children to use them unsupervised
  • Don't aim a laser skyward if you can see or hear any type of aircraft overhead
  • Don't use laser pointers within 2 miles (3 kilometers) of an airport
  • Pointers must have a 'caution' or 'danger' sticker on them. Don't buy without.
Danger sticker on laser pointer

Danger sticker (source)

Things to keep in mind when buying a laser pointer

Having read the precautions, here are a few things to keep in mind when buying a laser.

Lasers come in all sorts of fancy shapes and sizes. From small keychain lasers to large, lightsaber style torches, if you happen to be a Star Wars fan!

As a backyard astronomer, all you need is a medium sized green laser pointer. Laser pointers especially developed for astronomy are easy to find, and we've recommended three in the table below.

One final aspect that most people overlook when they buy a laser is its operating temperature.

If you live in a cold place where snow is common, you may find that the laser malfunctions in the chill of the night. Most common laser pointers malfunction when the internal temperature drops below freezing, so keep them out of the cold, or...

Buy one that's cold and frost resistant. These are easily available (but expensive) and we've recommended one in the table below. They can be used well below freezing point.

Three Green Laser Pointers for Astronomy



Our Rating

Ideal For...

Shockproof Tactical



Qianzy Pen Laser



Z-Bolt Laser Pointer


Cold weather

Click on the links in the table to check prices and customer reviews on Amazon / Z-Bolt.

Summing Up Astronomy Laser Pointers

Green laser pointers are a cheap, portable and really effective piece of astronomy equipment.

You have to use rthenm safely and they're not to everyone's taste, but...

If you are involved in outreach or regularly view the night sky with fellow astronomers, you will not regret having one in your collection.

Oh, and that last neat trick? Point the laser down the eyepiece of your telescope and watch as it shoots out the optical tube into the sky to show exactly where your telescope is pointing.

Written by Adish War

Nine Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy

The 9 Painful Truths of Backyard Astronomy...

There are some harsh realities when you take up astronomy, this brief guide will share with you:

  • The TRUTHS you need to be aware of
  • How we get past them to receive the JOY of the night sky

Links: Please note, some of the links in this article are affiliate links. You can find out more by clicking on 'affiliate links' in the footer.
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