When looking in the sky, there are several easy and well known spiral galaxies that are visible from the Pacific Northwest and other Northern Hemisphere observing locations. A spiral galaxy is a class of galaxy originally described by Edwin Hubble in his 1936 and are named by their spiral structures that extend from the center into the galactic disc.
At least one of these objects can be seen throughout most of the months of the year, but not necessarily every month of the year can they be so easily seen.
Although it a Spiral Galaxy, the Milky Way will not be in this list as the Earth is part of the Milky Way and an observer cannot view the entire Milky Way, as compared to the other objects on this list. But here are the top 5 easiest astronomical objects to observe and find in the nights sky with telescopes and binoculars of any size.
- Andromeda Galaxy
When Visible: July to January, with the best viewing is October, November and December
How To Find It: The Andromeda Galaxy is relatively easy to find in the sky as it is one of the brightest Messier objects. It lies in the vicinity of two prominent asterisms in the northern sky: the Great Square of Pegasus and Cassiopeia’s W. The only objects listed in Messier’s catalogue that are brighter than M31 are the Pleiades (M45) and the Ptolemy Cluster (M7).
How It Looks: In 10×50 binoculars, the galaxy appears as an oval shaped cloud with a bright nucleus. Binoculars and small telescopes reveal only the galaxy’s bright core, but larger instruments show its full size, which is six times larger than the apparent diameter of the full Moon.
Fun Fact: Otherwise known as M31, Andromeda is a staple of the winter nights sky and is the largest galaxy in the local group.
- Pinwheel Galaxy
When Visible: April to September, with ideal viewing time being in April
How To Find It: It is located just above the handle of the Big Dipper. It forms a triangle with Alkaid and the double star Mizar/Alcor. It can be found 5.5 degrees northeast of Alkaid and at the same angular separation from Mizar.
How It Looks: In 10×50 binoculars under exceptionally good conditions, but only appears as a large, faint patch of light. Small telescopes only reveal the galaxy’s brighter central region, while the spiral structure appears as patchy nebulosity in 4-inch instruments. 8-inch telescopes show the galaxy’s dense core surrounded by a fainter halo dotted with patches of nebulosity and hinting at the spiral structure.
Fun Fact: The galaxy is quite large, but has a low surface brightness and requires exceptionally clear, moonless skies to be seen, even in medium-sized telescopes.
- Sunflower Galaxy
When Visible: December to June, with ideal viewing being in the months of February, March, and April
How To Find It: It is located about two thirds of the way from Alkaid, the bright star that marks the end of the Big Dipper‘s handle, to Cor Caroli, the brightest star in Canes Venatici.
How It Looks: The Sunflower Galaxy can be seen in binoculars, but it only appears as a small, hazy patch of light or an out-of-focus star. Small telescopes reveal it to be a galaxy, but do not show the details of its structure. Medium and larger telescopes reveal the galaxy’s bright core and an oval patch of nebulosity around it. The spiral arms can only be seen in 8-inch and larger telescopes, while the dust lanes appear only in larger instruments.
Fun Fact: The Sunflower Galaxy got its name from its yellow core and the shape of its arms resembling a sunflower.
- Triangulum Galaxy
When Visible: September to November, with ideal viewing being in October
How To Find It: Start with the Great Square of Pegasus, formed by Alpheratz, Scheat, Algenib and Markab, and trace the three bright stars of Andromeda in the direction of Cassiopeia‘s W shape. Mirach is the middle star along the line. A line drawn from Mirach to Mothallah, the star that marks the apex of the triangle in the constellation Triangulum, leads directly to the Triangulum Galaxy. M33 is located just over halfway along the line.
How It Looks:
Fun Fact: It is third-largest member of the Local Group of galaxies, behind the Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way and is one of the most distant permanent objects that can be viewed with the naked eye.
- Whirlpool Galaxy
When Visible: January to June, ideal times being March, April, and May
How To Find It: Messier 51 is one of the easiest Messier objects to find, as it lies in the vicinity of the Big Dipper asterism. The galaxy is positioned only 3.5 degrees southwest of Alkaid, Eta Ursae Majoris, the star that marks the end of the Dipper’s handle, or the tip of the Great Bear‘s tail. An imaginary line drawn from Alkaid in the direction of Cor Caroli, the brightest star in Canes Venatici, leads directly to M51.
How It Looks: It appears as a patch of light in 10×50 binoculars, while small telescopes show a more diffuse patch of light with a bright central region. The galaxy’s bright core appears more defined in 8-inch instruments, which also reveal the galaxy’s large halo and a hint of the dark dust lanes and spiral arms. M51’s smaller companion galaxy, NGC 5195, is also visible, but the bridge connecting the two can only be detected in larger instruments. 12-inch and larger telescopes reveal a number of spiral bands and vast H II regions, as well as the band of light that connects the Whirlpool Galaxy to its smaller neighbour.
Fun Fact: The Whirlpool Galaxy is a star formation region, so it is of interest to scientists.
- Sombrero Galaxy
When Visible: February to May, but ideally seen in May
How To Find It: The Sombrero Galaxy is located 11.5 degrees west of Spica, the brightest star in Virgo, and 5.5 degrees east of magnitude 4.31 star Eta Corvi in Corvus constellation. Spica is easy to locate using the stars of the Big Dipper. The line formed by the three stars of the Dipper’s handle extended outward first leads to the bright Arcturus in the constellation Boötes and then to Spica. The Sombrero Galaxy lies just next to the border with Corvus.
How It Looks: It is visible in binoculars and small telescopes, but only appears as a small patch of light. 4-inch telescopes may hint at the galaxy’s dark dust lane under exceptionally good conditions, but the dust lane usually requires a 10-inch or 12-inch telescope. The galaxy’s bulge and disk are visible in 8-inch and larger telescopes.
Fun Fact: Sombrero galaxy’s rich system of globular clusters, estimated to be nearly 2,000 in number — 10 times more than the number of globular clusters in our Milky Way galaxy
For other astronomical objects to observe, make sure to check out the Top 5’s and other articles on CosmosPNW to help with your journey. To stay up to date with CosmosPNW, make sure to follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
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