Observing under a dark enough sky is a rare treat for most people nowadays, even those with telescopes.
Packing your telescope into a vehicle, especially if you have larger setups, can be quite the hassle; hence a lot of people don’t like the trouble of doing so.
Therefore, even the most passionate observers are stuck in the city, and are left with a dwindling catalog of objects that are worth checking out through telescopes while dealing with light pollution.
The following objects are listed based on experience from someone who has regularly showcased celestial sights from the inner city and the slightly darker but still bright urban/suburban transitional skies.
That should be a given! If you cannot spot the Moon through any layers of clouds, then you are not observing anything tonight! You have surely pointed your telescope at the moon by now, haven’t you?!
The five naked eye planets are visible as star like points of light, and each one showcases their own special unique details: Mercury and Venus’ phases; Mars’ polar ice caps and darker albedo features; Jupiter’s cloud bands, Great Red Spot, and moons; and the Rings of Saturn… all of them great and fun targets!
Uranus and Neptune CAN be observed even from the inner city if you know exactly where to look (or can use a computer telescope to look for you). Compared to the naked eye planets, they will appear very unimpressive: dimmer, much smaller, and the only detail they show from billions of miles away is their respective colors – cyan for Uranus and azure for Neptune. Once you’ve seen ’em, you never want to see ’em again for a while!
There’s always notable bright stars each season to check out. While they will always appear as distant points of light no matter how much you try zooming in, they will showcase their colors, and their prominence next to dimmer stars make interesting targets. Sometimes, if the high clouds are blocking the sky, then all you will have left are the bright stars!
Winter – Betelgeuse, Rigel, Aldebaran, Castor, Pollux, Sirius, Procyon, Capella
Spring – Alioth, Regulus, Arcturus, Spica
Summer – Antares, Shaula, Vega, Deneb, Altair
Autumn – Fomalhaut, Algol, Mirfak,
Besides the bright single stars, there are also some notable bright double stars that either show a true binary pairing of two companions, or a tight visual pairing of stars of different colors. These examples are among the most notable, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg in how many double stars you can spot even from the city!
Spring – Mizar, Algieba (Gamma Leonis)
Summer – Alberio, 61 Cygni, Double Double (Epsilon Lyrae)
Autumn – Almac, Achird (Eta Cassiopiae)
Winter – Castor, Rigel, Trapezium (Theta Orionis)
Deep Sky City Catalog
Inner City Sky – The worst possible night sky you can imagine! Only bright stars, plus the naked eye planets are visible, and very few star formations can be identified with ease even on the clearest nights! The brightest deep sky objects are mere shells of their true selves, and most are invisible, even through large telescopes.
Transitional Sky – In a more remote area where city centers are still close yet spread out and not continuously connected… still suffering from light pollution, but the constellations are much easier to identify. Some, but not all deep sky objects that were previously invisible are now able to be spotted through small telescopes.
Autumn – Winter Deep Sky
M45 – The Pleiades (Taurus)
The only messier object still visible to the naked eye from the cities. Through a telescope still displays more stars surrounding the bright naked eye stars that you cannot see with the naked eye.
NGC 457/ C13 – The Owl Cluster (Cassiopeia)
Even from the city, the brighter stars of this cluster can still be seen to form an owl with two eyes, a body, and pair of wings in flight. Some could also say it forms the shape of a dragonfly.
NGC 869 & 884/ C14 – The Double Cluster (Perseus)
These bright and tight open clusters are best viewed if you can see both of them next to each other, but focusing on each individual cluster can still give a splash of stars. You’ll see more stars through the telescope while looking at this object than all you can see with the naked eye from the city… that’s both very cool and very sad when you realize how bad light pollution affects your sky!
M42 – The Orion Nebula
As long as you don’t have any lights blaring at you, you can still see a small amount of gray fuzzy gas structure through a telescope under the city skies. Larger telescopes should be able to resolve the tight group of four stars in the middle known as the “Trapezium” while also showing hints of nebula structure. In reality you’re looking at the brightest section, a part that’s often overexposed in long exposure shots to show the rest of the nebula!
Open Clusters – M34 (Perseus) / M35 (Gemeni)/ M36. M37. & M38 (Auriga) / M41 (Canis Major) / M46 & M47 (Puppis) / C50 (Monoceros) / C64 (Canis Major)
All of the listed open star clusters are magnitude 6 or brighter. They are grouped together because they fulfill the same purpose – showcasing a group of stars that you can’t see with the naked eye… only they don’t necessarily have common names like the open clusters listed prior.
All of them cover the same amount of sky as the full moon or more, and are best viewed with the lowest magnification you can achieve through your scopes. Just don’t expect the group of stars to be super bright if you’re in an inner city sky – you’ll have better luck if you’re in a less bright transitional sky.
M31 – The Andromeda Galaxy
From a transitional sky, the bright core of the Andromeda Galaxy can be seen through even a small telescope. You can see it as an elongated gray smudge – but don’t expect any hints of structure, nor glimpsing its companion galaxies that you can see from dark locations.
From the inner city, however, a larger telescope will be needed, and even then it will appear as a very underwhelming dim gray smudge that barely contrasts against the light polluted sky and not easy to find! If you’re showcasing this to the public, it’ll take a LOT of explaining to help visitors understand why what they’re seeing looks so disappointing despite that smudge being the combined light of billions of stars 2 million light years away!
Spring – Summer Deep Sky
M7 – Ptolemy’s Cluster (Scorpius)
This bright open cluster covers a large portion of the sky, over twice the diameter of a full moon, and can even be spotted through binoculars from the inner city.
M6 – The Butterfly Cluster (Scorpius)
Not as large or as bright as M7, but the stars can be seen to form the shape of a butterfly.
M8 – Lagoon Nebula (Sagittarius)
From a transitional sky, it is possible to spot hints of a faint gray gas cloud even with a small telescope.
From the inner city, however, this nebula is practically invisible, and all that’s left is the open star cluster that the gas cloud surrounds.
M13 – Great Hercules Cluster
As long as it’s high enough and not shining through thick haze, this globular cluster can still look impressive through a telescope under a transitional sky – even allowing you to zoom in and resolve a splash of individual stars.
From the inner city on the other hand, it’s much tougher to make out the individual stars, and instead the cluster will look more like a “false comet” than a star cluster. The rest of the globular clusters will also suffer this same fate, and be best reserved for trips to the dark skies.
M22 in Saggitarius, and the Omega Centauri cluster are also theoretically big and bright enough to look as impressive as M13, but they are much lower in northern skies and have a much harder time shining through light pollution to the point where they’re practically invisible. .
M44 – “Praesepe” aka The Beehive Cluster (Cancer)
You won’t really have a good time trying to find any bright stars in the constellation itself, but the open star cluster will still be a decent splash of stars.
M11 – The Wild Duck Cluster (Scutum)
If you look closely, you can make out that the edge of the cluster appears to form a “V” shape, similar to a flock of wild ducks flying south for the winter.
Open Clusters M39 (Cygnus) and NGC 6231 / C76 (Scorpius)
Brocchi’s Cluster aka the “Coathanger Cluster” (Vulpecula)
This is one that somehow never got a Messier, Caldwell, or NGC designation, hence your computer scopes may not have it cataloged. However, if you use the following celestial coordinates: RA 19h25m24s / DEC 20°11’00”, then you can find this bright group of 10 stars that appear to form a coat hanger, hence the name.
And there you have it, folks. Despite being in a location where the deep sky gets washed out, you have over a few dozen celestial objects you can still see from cities! Yes, it’s a far cry from the potential thousands of objects you can see from non-light polluted skies, but you can find comfort in knowing that there are always bright single and double stars, plus a few deep sky objects you can always check out with every season!
Your only wildcard factors will be whether or not the Moon is visible while you’re out, and how many planets are in the sky on those respective nights. But if you have seen the Moon and planets enough times, perhaps there’s a deep sky object that’s been listed on this page that you haven’t tried to check out?
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