See Messier 20, the Trifid Nebula

The Trifid is another famous binocular object, visible in the direction toward the galaxy’s center. Its name means “divided into three lobes.” If you view this nebula through a telescope, you’ll see why.

A large, 3-lobed cloud in starry space, pale blue in center to dark yellow at edges.

Trifid Nebula via the Hubble Space Telescope

The Trifid Nebula (Messier 20 or M20) is one of the many binocular treasures in the direction of the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Its name means divided into three lobes, although you’ll likely need a telescope to see why. On a dark, moonless night – from a rural location – you can star-hop upward from the spout of the Teapot in Sagittarius to another famous nebula, the Lagoon, also known as Messier 8. In the same binocular field, look for the smaller and fainter Trifid Nebula as a fuzzy patch above the Lagoon.

To locate this nebula, first find the famous Teapot asterism in the western half of Sagittarius. The Teapot is just a star pattern, not an entire constellation. Nonetheless, most people have an easier time envisioning the Teapot than the Centaur that Sagittarius is supposed to represent. How can you find it? First, be sure you’re looking on a dark night, from a rural location.

Then, look for southward in the evening from Earth’s Northern Hemisphere. If you’re in Earth’s Southern Hemisphere, look northward, closer to overhead, and turn the charts below upside-down. Want a more exact location for the Teapot in Sagittarius? We hear good things about Stellarium, which will let you set a date and time from your exact location on the globe.

Chart showing location of M8 and M20 with respect to the Teapot in the constellation Sagittarius.

You’ll find M20 in a dark sky near the spout of the Teapot in Sagittarius. Notice the 3 westernmost (right-hand) stars of the Teapot spout … then get ready to star-hop! Use binoculars and go about twice the spout’s distance upward until a bright hazy object glares at you in your binoculars. That’s the Lagoon Nebula (Messier 8), which is actually visible to the unaided eye on a dark, moonless night. Once you locate the Lagoon Nebula, look for the smaller Trifid Nebula as a hazy object some 2 degrees above the Lagoon. For reference, keep in mind that a binocular field commonly spans 5 to 6 degrees of sky. Here’s more about the Teapot.

Chart showing one of the most star-rich regions of the Milky Way galaxy, toward the galaxy's center, in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius.  Chart via astronomy.com

Chart showing one of the most star-rich regions of the Milky Way galaxy, toward the galaxy’s center, in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. If you look closely, you can pick out M20 on this chart. Chart via astronomy.com.

Whether the close-knit nebulosity of the Trifid and the Lagoon represents a chance alignment or an actual kinship between the two nebulae is open to question. Both the Trifid and Lagoon are thought to reside about 5,000 light-years away, suggesting the possibility of a common origin. But these distances are not known with precision, and may be subject to revision.

Both the Trifid and Lagoon are vast cocoons of interstellar dust and gas. These are stellar nurseries, actively giving birth to new stars. The Trifid and Lagoon Nebulae are a counterpart to another star-forming region on the opposite side of the sky: the Great Orion Nebula.

The Trifid Nebula (M20) is at RA: 18h 02.6s; Dec: -23o 02′

Bottom line: The Trifid is a famous binocular object located in the direction of the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Its name means “divided into three lobes.”

Read more: Find the Teapot, and look toward the galaxy’s center

Read more: M8 is the Lagoon Nebula

Read more: Exploring the Trifid Nebula

Bruce McClure