From the February 2024 issue

See these 50 super-sized celestial gems

These objects look best through small scopes — or none at all.
By | Published: January 15, 2024 | Last updated on January 19, 2024

The Milky Way contains some really, really big stuff: supergiant stars, unimaginably huge emission complexes, molecular clouds, star clusters, dark nebulae, and more. Beyond lie more galaxies and clusters of galaxies. The true cosmic scale of these objects has only become known during the last century or so. Peering at them through a telescope is an exhilarating experience.

Because of the scale of the universe, the components of even the closest galaxies are tough to see without big telescopes. But we can explore our own Milky Way’s astonishing objects. Some are not only visible but appear really large in the nighttime sky.

Selection parameters

I started by creating a list of my personal top 50 large and spectacular celestial wonders, considering only deep-sky objects that are at least twice as large as the Full Moon in visible light. In other words, nominees to my list must span at least a degree on the sky.

Also, the object should be bright enough so that it is possible to detect it visually under excellent conditions. That said, several of these are challenging to see through a telescope – but they’re great targets for piggyback imaging if you have a mount that can track the sky.

Thirty-two of the 50 objects are visible to the naked eye; 45 are visible or best seen through binoculars; eight are faint and are a challenge to see visually; and seven are so far south that unless you live south of Mexico City or in Hawaii, you won’t see them at all. With one exception, the Spaghetti Nebula (Simeis 147), you should be able to see all of these through binoculars or a 6-inch telescope.

DesignationDiameterConstellationRight AscensionDeclination
Milky Way360º>1
Gum Nebula36ºVela8h00min–43°00′
Serpens-Aquila Rift20ºSerpens/Aquila19h07min1°00′
Large Magellanic Cloud10.75ºDorado5h24min–69°45′
Barnard’s Loop10ºOrion5h28min–3°58′
Virgo Cluster10ºVirgo12h27min12°43′
Zodiacal light20º>1
Pipe Nebula8.3ºOphiuchus17h27min–26°56′
Vela supernova remnantVela8h35min–45°11′
Coma Star Cluster7.5ºComa Berenices12h22min25°51′
Coalsack NebulaCrux12h50min–62°30′
Rho Ophiuchi region6.5ºOphiuchus16h28min–24°33′
Large Sagittarius Star CloudSagittarius18h00min–29°00′
Northern CoalsackCygnus21h08min47°36′
Dark Horse NebulaOphiuchus17h21min–21°07′
M16 + M17 + Sh 2–54Serpens18h19min–14°06′
Melotte 206ºPerseus3h27min48º48′
Hyades Cluster5.5ºTaurus4h27min15°52′
Small Magellanic CloudTucana0h53min–72°50′
Taurus Molecular CloudTaurus4h41min25°52′
Scutum Star CloudScutum18h40min–7°00′
False CometScorpius16h54min–41°48′
Veil NebulaCygnus20h46min30°42′
Melotte 186Ophiuchus18h01min2°54′
M6 + M73.5ºScorpius17h54min–34°48′
RCW 132 Nebula3.5ºScorpius17h35min–32°35′
Gamma Cygni Nebula3.5ºCygnus20h17min41°57′
Andromeda Galaxy3.2ºAndromeda0h43min41°17′
Witch Head NebulaEridanus5h02m–7°54′
Simeis 147Taurus5h39min28°00′
M8/M20 vistaSagittarius18h04min–24°23′
Heart NebulaCassiopeia2h33min61°27′
Elephant Trunk Nebula2.5ºCepheus21h39min57°30′
California Nebula2.5ºPerseus4h03min36°25′
Soul Nebula2.5ºCassiopeia2h55min60°25′
Thor’s Helmet + SeagullMonoceros7h04min–10°27′
North America NebulaCygnus20h59min44°32′
Eta Carinae NebulaCarina10h45min–59°52′
NGC 78221.7ºCepheus0h04min68°37′
Southern Pleiades1.7ºCarina10h43min–64°24′
Beehive Cluster1.6ºCancer8h40min19°59′
Flaming Star Nebula1.5ºAuriga5h16min34°28′
Orion Nebula1.5ºOrion5h35min–5°23′
Rosette Nebula1.4ºMonoceros6h34min5°00′
NGC 7521.3ºAndromeda1h58min37°41′
Running Chicken Nebula1.3ºCentaurus11h37min–63°02′
Lambda Orionis Nebula1.2ºOrion5h35min9°56′