Happy Birthday Hubble! Top Five Spring Telescope Targets
The iconic Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was launched 23 years ago on 24 April 1990, and ever since has been returning breathtaking images of the cosmos as well as world-changing science. It is, without a doubt, one of the most successful scientific instruments ever built.
To celebrate its 23rd birthday here is a list of five stunning celestial objects visible over the next couple of months that you can find for yourself using a small earth-based telescope. Most of these objects will look like nothing more than diffuse grey smudges in the field of view of your eyepiece, but I’ve illustrated this post with some HST images of the same objects, to show you what they really look like. Despite the fact that your telescope can’t ever show anything as stunning as an HST image, there’s something even more wonderful about seeing these objects in real time, for yourself, not mediated via a computer screen.
Rising around 2030 local time at the end of April, and 1800 local time at the end of May, Saturn is visible in the evening skies throughout the Spring and into Summer. At the moment Saturn’s rings are tilted very favourably towards us, presenting a striking view. Through a very small telescope – or binoculars on a tripod – Saturn might appear as nothing more than a oval, or at best a circular disk with handles, but most modest telescope should show the disk of the planet and the rings, and even Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
2. Sombrero Galaxy, M104
The stunning Sombrero Galaxy in the constellation Virgo gets to its highest above the horizon around 2330 in late April, and 2130 in late May. It’s one of the brighter galaxies in the sky, and so even a medium sized telescope should show up the dark dust lane obscuring the view of the central bulge of the galaxy. This dust lane is actually a ring that surrounds the galaxy, and is probably where most of the star-forming takes place, as it is composed of atomic hydrogen and dust.
3. Ring Nebula, M57
Located in the constellation of Lyra in the Summer Triangle, the Ring Nebula (Messier number 57) is a striking object in medium or large telescopes. It rises from low in the NE mid evening to almost directly overhead by the time dawn begins to brighten the sky. The Ring Nebula is a great example of a planetary nebula, so-called as it looks like the disk of a planet when seen through modest telescopes. However this name is completely misleading, as the gas in this nebula was puffed off by a red giant star just before it died and collapsed into a white dwarf, a fate that awaits the Sun in 5 billion years or so.
4. The Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, M13
This spherical collection of around 300,000 stars is one of the best examples of a globular cluster in the sky. It’s high in the SE sky during the evenings of April and May, and continues to be visible into the Summer. M13 is at the very limit of naked eye visibility, and small telescopes show it off beautifully. In fact, this is one object where a smaller earth-based telescope gives you a better overall view of the object than the mighty HST. Hubble has such a high magnification that its field of view is very small. This is fine when you’re looking for tiny faint galaxies millions of light years away, but a nearby globular cluster presents problems; it’s simply too big to fit into the field of view. Nevertheless, this spectacular HST image shows the heart of M13, and the stunning array of stars that make up this beautiful object.
5. The Eagle Nebula, M16
OK, OK, so maybe this is more strictly speaking a late summer object, but it is visible pre-dawn in late May, low in the south, in the constellation of Serpens. Despite the unsocial hours it keeps at this time of the year, it still has to be included in any top-5 list of Hubble objects. The iconic “Pillars of Creation” image, taken by HST in 1995, is one of the most widely viewed of all Hubble images. It shows giant pillars of gas within the Eagle Nebula within which new stars are being born. However it’s a pretty tricky nebula to see through a telescope. There’s a star cluster within it that you’ll make out even in light polluted skies but to see it best you’ll need to head to a dark stargazing site and be patient.
For maps and tips about how to find these objects, and hundreds more like them using binoculars or a telescope check out my book, Stargazing for Dummies.
UPDATE: I just realised; there are people alive today with degrees in astrophysics who weren’t yet born when the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990!