Find a distant galaxy

With no bright planets easily visible in the evening sky at the moment, we need to turn to fainter objects. This is a great time to try your hand at observing galaxies millions of light years away.

Galaxies M81 (right) and M82 in Ursa Major. Photographed with 80 mm ED telescope and Canon 40D camera from St Lawrence Bay, Essex, UK. Thirty separate frames were combined, with a total exposure time of 23 minutes. Photo: Robin Scagell

The spring skies are full of galaxies – but all of them are distant and faint. So set yourself a challenge. If your skies are fairly dark, you can even find some of them with typical binoculars, such as 10 x 50 models. It’s not as hard as you might think. Don’t set your expectations too high – you won’t see them as well as in photos, and they appear as fuzzy blobs rather than sparkling spirals. But there’s a real sense of achievement at finding them.

Easiest to find are the galaxies M81 and M82 in Ursa Major – close to the familiar seven stars of The Plough or Big Dipper, which feature on the SPA’s logo. They are virtually overhead at the moment. It may be a bit of a neck-stretcher to use binoculars on them, so this is where a deck chair or sun lounger comes in handy. Not to hard with a well-mounted telescope, of course.

To find the galaxies, take a diagonal line across the bowl of the Plough, as shown in the diagram. At a slightly greater distance farther on than the diagonal you’ll come across a pair of stars, one fainter then the other. If your diagonal is not quite right you’ll find a triangle of stars of similar brightness (shown with a cross on the map below). The two galaxies are just a short way from this pair of stars. M81 is the easier to find, being larger, but M82 is more spindle shaped and is about the same brightness. These galaxies are about 12 million light years away. They are the brightest galaxies in a group, similar to our own Local Group which includes the Andromeda Galaxy and M33, the Pinwheel Galaxy. Below the photo you can see a drawing made from typical, but not good, UK skies using binoculars, compared with a photograph. Can you do better?


Finder chart for M81 and M82
How to find M81 and M82 by taking a diagonal through The Plough


M81 and M82 through binoculars
Left: M81 and M82 as seen through 12 x 45 binoculars from High Wycombe, Bucks. Right: photo taken with 135 mm lens and 20 min exposure from St Lawrence, Essex. Both images: Robin Scagell