In and around the bright Winter Hexagon (outlined) are 11 deep sky objects bright enough to see in just a pair of binoculars. The blue circle guide is about 5 degrees across, the field of view of a typical pair of binoculars. The map covers the entire southern sky from horizon to overhead. Created with Stellarium
Not long ago we visited the Winter Hexagon and all the bright stars concentrated in the southern sky this season. This great abundance of jewels is the real reason why the stars seem to be so much brighter compared to the other seasons. That’s not all. Tucked in and around the Hexagon is one of the greatest concentrations of bright deep sky objects visible anywhere in the sky.
Deep sky objects are everything that’s up there besides the stars and solar system offerings – all the galaxies, star clusters and nebulae in the universe. Hunting up the brighter ones in your binoculars will give you a deeper appreciation for the richness and diversity of our Milky Way and a taste of what lies beyond. It’s like going to the next level in a video game only you’re looking at real things. Much better.
My pair of 8x40 binoculars. Photo: Bob King
And yes, I do mean binoculars. From a moderately dark sky, you should be able to see all 11 of the “M” objects I’ve plotted on the map above. Just to be sure, I did a reality check Friday night with an inexpensive pair of Nikon Action Touch 8×40 binoculars, which are very middle-of-the-road as far as light gathering power and magnification. With no moon to brighten the sky and moderate light pollution in the south, I didn’t have to strain to see any of them. Several, like M42, M45, M41 and M37 were even visible with the naked eye.
“M” stands for Messier as in Charles Messier, an 18th century French astronomer who compiled a catalog of 110 fuzzy and starry patches he stumbled across while hunting for comets. Because he only used a small 4-inch telescope, Messier discovered most of the sky’s brightest and prettiest deep sky objects. His comets have been mostly forgotten, but the Messier catalog has become the night sky’s hit parade.
Like many beginning astronomers, I became acquainted with the Messier objects after first looking at the moon and bright planets. A few were too faint to see from my suburban Chicago home, so I’d bring the telescope along when our family would vacation in northern Wisconsin and make good use of the dark sky. By the late 1960s, I’d seen them all.
Photos of four of our Messier objects taken through the telescope. Open clusters are loose groups of bright, young stars formed from gas and dust in the Milky Way's spiral arms. The blue disk in M46 is the planetary nebula NGC 2438, visible in a telescope.
In astronomy, once you’ve seen something once doesn’t mean you’re done. You return to see that cluster or galaxy again and again just as you would a favorite photograph, painting or book. Should you buy a larger telescope, you’ll eagerly point it at each Messier once more to see what new details might be revealed. I’ve been in the hobby for nearly fifty years and still look at the Orion Nebula (M42) nearly every clear winter night.
The Orion Nebula or M42 is just below Orion's Belt (top) in the middle of his "sword". In this time exposure it looks pink but through binoculars the nebula appears as a misty patch dotted with several stars. Photo: Bob King
Of the 11 deep sky objects plotted, all are found within the Milky Way galaxy. 10 are open clusters — assemblages of young stars born from clouds of gas and dust called nebulae and held together in bunches by their mutual gravitational attraction. The remaining object is the Orion Nebula, is a cavernous gas-dust cloud 1350 light years from Earth and 24 light years across located directly below his famous “three-stars-in-a-row” belt.
Within its folds and swirls, new stars and planetary systems are congealing as I write this. In the remote future, the dust will be gone, leaving a rich cluster of stars much like the other Messier objects on our list.
By far the easiest Messier object is M45, better known as the Seven Sisters Star Cluster or the Pleiades. That you can find with your naked eye, but don’t pass up the chance to see it in binoculars. You’ll be amazed at how many more stars are hiding there just below the naked eye limit.
This photo, taken Friday night, shows the constellation Canis Major the Greater Dog with three Messier clusters. The dog's head is the triangle at upper left; his feet stick out to the right side of and below Sirius. Photo: Bob King
The map shows the star clusters as fuzzy spots, and that’s just what they look like at first glance. If you take care to focus your binoculars sharply, you’ll have no problem seeing individual stars in several of them. The easiest to resolve into tiny pinpoints are M41, M44 (also called the Beehive Cluster), M47 and M35. M46 and M50 are fainter and may take a little (but just a little) more effort to see. M41 is a particular favorite of mine, because it looks so sparkly and rich compared to its more “spread out” appearance in the telescope.
In this illustration of the Milky Way galaxy based on recent findings, many of the bright clumps represent open star clusters in its spiral arms. This image is copyright Mark A. Garlick and has been used with permission. Please do not use this image in any way whatsoever without first contacting the artist - thanks! www.space-art.co.uk / www.markgarlick.com
From a dark sky, you’ll even see the faint band of the winter Milky Way streaming down from near Capella at the top of the sky through Gemini and eastern Orion and past Sirius. Many of the clusters are situated within our galaxy’s spiral arms. If we could zoom away from our galaxy and look back, they would stand out as bright clumps like lights strung around a Christmas tree. We live in a grand place – put on your coat and come tour the mansion overhead.