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'.

The much larger and brighter Lagoon Nebula (M8) is located two degrees south of M20 with tightly packed open cluster M21 positioned 0.75 degrees northeast of M20.

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.

M20 The Trifid Nebula (ESO)

Finder Chart for M20 (also shown M6->M8, M18, M21->M24, M28, M54, M55, M69 and M70)

Finder Chart for M20 (also shown M6->M8, M18, M21->M24, M28, M54, M55, M69 and M70) - pdf format

Finder Chart for M9 (also shown M4, M8, M19->M21, M23, M80 and M107)

Finder Chart for M9 (also shown M4, M8, M19->M21, M23, M80 and M107) - pdf format

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

NameTrifid Nebula
Object TypeEmission and Reflection Nebula
Distance (kly)5.2
Apparent Mag.6.3
RA (J2000)18h 02m 21s
DEC (J2000)-23d 01m 38s
Apparent Size (arcmins)28 x 28
Radius (light years)21
Other NameCollinder 360

Sky Highlights - January 2017

Mars passes just 1 arc minute south of Neptune on January 1, 2017

Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova now visible with small telescopes

Meteor Shower
Quadrantids meteor shower peaks on January 3, 2017

Minor Planet
Vesta now visible with binoculars and small telescopes. Reaches opposition on January 17, 2017

The Planets
This Month's Guide

Algol Minima
Algol eclipse dates and times for January 2017

Northern Hemisphere
Southwest:- Venus (mag. -4.4 to -4.7), Mars (mag. +0.9 to +1.1), Neptune (mag. +8.0)
South:- Uranus (mag. +5.8)
West:- Uranus
East:- Jupiter (mag. -1.9 to -2.1)
South:- Jupiter (mag. -1.8)
Southeast:- Saturn (mag. +0.6), Mercury (mag. -0.2 second half of month)

Southern Hemisphere
West:- Venus, Mars, Neptune
Northwest:- Uranus
East:- Jupiter
Northeast:- Jupiter
East:- Saturn, Mercury (second half of month)

Deep Sky
Naked eye / binoculars:-
Messier 45 - M45 - The Pleiades (Open Cluster)
The Hyades - Open Cluster
NGC 869 and NGC 884 - The Double Cluster - Open Clusters
Messier 31 - M31 - Andromeda Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy)
Messier 42 - M42 - The Great Orion Nebula (Emission/Reflection)

Small telescopes:-
NGC 457 - Owl Cluster - Open Cluster
Messier 103 - M103 - Open Cluster
Messier 36 - M36 - Open Cluster
Messier 37 - M37 - Open Cluster
Messier 38 – M38 - Open Cluster

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