M20 is the famous Trifid Nebula, a bright colourful emission and reflection nebula that's located in the constellation of Sagittarius. At magnitude +6.3, it's visible with binoculars. This remarkable object not only contains an emission and reflection nebula but also a dark nebula and an embedded open star cluster. When photographed or imaged, it looks spectacular with the emission nebula appearing red, the reflection nebula blue and mixed in between numerous dark lanes. The dark lanes appear to cut through the nebula splitting it into three prominent sections hence the popular name Trifid; meaning 'divided into three lobes'.
Charles Messier discovered both M20 and M21 on June 5, 1764. He referred to M20 as an envelope of nebulosity. The surrounding area of sky is the richest part of the Milky Way; here you are looking towards the direction of galactic centre hence the abundance of stars, open clusters, globular clusters and nebulae. This wonderful region is perfect to scan with binoculars or small telescopes, especially at low magnifications.
To locate the Trifid, first focus on the bright familiar teapot asterism of Sagittarius. The top three stars of the teapot are Kaus Borealis (λ Sgr - mag. +2.8), Kaus Media (δ Sgr - mag. +2.7) and φ Sgr (mag. +3.2). Imagine a line connecting φ Sgr to Kaus Borealis and then extending it for just over 6 degrees to arrive at M20. The Trifid is best seen from southern and equatorial regions during the months of June, July and August.
At magnitude +6.3, M20 is a fine sight in 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars appearing as fuzzy circular diffuse shape that's just smaller than the diameter of the full Moon. A small 80mm (3.1-inch) telescope hints at dark lanes spreading from the center of the nebula especially when viewed under dark skies. With a 150mm (6-inch) or 200mm (8-inch) scope the Trifid becomes an exciting object. Its irregular shape is visible along with the trisecting dark lanes, exquisite twists/turns and under good conditions it's possible to notice hints of colour. Of course, to really appreciate the full colour beauty of this object an image or photograph is required.
M20 is located 5,200 light-years from Earth and has a spatial diameter of 42 light-years. The dark nebula that gives the Trifid its appearance was cataloged by E. E. Barnard as Barnard 85 (B85) and in 2005 the Spitzer Space Telescope discovered 30 embryonic stars and 120 newborn stars that had not been seen in visible light images.
M20 Data Table
|Object Type||Emission and Reflection Nebula|
|RA (J2000)||18h 02m 21s|
|DEC (J2000)||-23d 01m 38s|
|Apparent Size (arcmins)||28 x 28|
|Radius (light years)||21|
|Other Name||Collinder 360|