Sky Events

2022 Messier Marathon

By the 1970’s amateur astronomers had noticed that all 110 Messier objects (a list of notable objects in the northern skies visible in small scopes) could be observed in northern latitudes within a night in March. Hence, the phrase “Messier Marathon” was invented to describe the attempt at locating and verifying the observation of each object on the list over the course of a single night.

Top: the first few objects on the traditional Messier Marathon list include M33 (Tele Vue TV85 + Tele Vue-NP127is. ©Tom Peter) and three in one field: M31, M32, &amp; M110 (Tele Vue-85 + 0.8x Reducer/Flattener. ©Mahendra Mahadeo).<br>Bottom: the Marathon ends with the exhausted observer hopping through a dozen globular clusters including M2 (Tele Vue-NP127is. ©Jim Burnell) and M15 (Tele Vue-NP127. ©Jim Burnell).<br>Of course visually, without the benefit of time exposure, all these will look like black &amp; white smudges.
This is a section of a Messier Object sky map. The path of the Sun is shown as orange dots. The gap in objects on either side of the Vernal Equinox (RA: 0h and Dec: 0°) is when the Messier Marathon is possible. Original sky map by Cmglee in the Public Domain.

Messier’s List
Fledgling amateur astronomers soon encounter the term “Messier objects.” They learn that this is a list of objects outside our Solar System that are visible through small telescopes. This list was originally compiled by Charles Messier in the 18th century from his observations and those of contributors. It was for the benefit of comet hunters: when they stumbled upon a faint fuzzy object, they’d consult this list to see if it was a known object. It was first published in 1774 and expanded with help from fellow observers in that century. Professional and amateur astronomers in the early 20th Century rediscovered it, added a few new objects, and made corrections. There are now 110 objects in the modern catalog. Sky charts often label the location of these objects with the letter “M” and a number. For instance, the brightest Messier is M45 — the famous naked-eye Pleiades open star cluster. 

A quirk of the list, when ordered by celestial coordinates in Right Ascension, is that only one Messier object (in far northern Cassiopeia) is found in the Pisces / Aquarius region between RA 21:40 and 0:40. When the Sun is in this area of the sky, the bulk of the Messier objects will be in the night sky and a few in twilight. 

Galileo’s sketches of the moon from “Sidereus Nuncius” (1610). Animation created from public domain images obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Messier Marathon Circumstances
There are two astronomical alignments necessary for commencing the Messier Marathon: the Moon is “New” (near the Sun and not visible in the night sky), and the Sun is in the Pisces / Aquarius “gap.” 

Geography is another limiting factor. Your latitude will determine how many Messier objects are visible from your site. Under the best of circumstances, the southernmost object, M7 (open cluster), is only 10º above the horizon at 45º North latitude — so that serves as a rough northern limit.

Messier Marathon Observing Window by date and latitude by Tom Polakis.

Tom Polakis’ Messier Marathon Observing Window chart is a more sophisticated examination of the visibility of Messier objects by latitude. For instance, it takes into account the effect of contrast killing twilight after sunset and dawn before sunrise, the further north your latitude. Heading south, you are penalized by the nights getting shorter. His results are fascinating:  you can do the Marathon 5º north of the equator, but have an observing window only three nights long. The Marathon window at 35º north is around the time of the Vernal Equinox (Spring), late in the Month, and is 10-days long. At 40º north, the windows is only open for the last three days of March. 

This year offers two great opportunities to run the Marathon as the Moon is new on March 2nd and 31st. This means that all latitudes in Tom’s chart will have ideal conditions to compete over a few days on either side of those dates.

The final considerations are an unobstructed location and equipment for doing wide-field observation. If the weather is a problem, you usually have a number of days to choose from on the Observing Window Chart. 

Starting the Messier Marathon! Image of checklist under red flashlight.

Running the Messier Marathon
Viewing Sequence
The typical Marathon sequence is to spot the objects that are about to set in the west, starting with M74 and M77, and working east (increasing Right Ascension) to M30 which rises ahead of the Sun.

The  All Arizona Messier Marathon checklist from the Saguaro Astronomy Club (located 33° North latitude) is a typical list.  Bill Ferris offers an alternate Messier Marathon Search Sequence he claims is good from 30° — 40° North Latitude. For a customized list by location and horizon conditions, see the interactive Messier Marathon Planner by Larry McNish that is hosted on the Calgary Centre RASC website.  

Observing Gear
You are allowed to use more than one instrument to accomplish your observing marathon. All gear should allow you to have wide fields of view to quickly “sweep up” an object with the help of a location chart. Hand-held binoculars and small telescopes with at least 50mm of aperture will allow you to see about half the list. For the dimmer objects, a scope with at least 3-inch / 76-mm objective is recommended — though bigger apertures will help tease out the faintest objects and those in twilight.

There is no rule against using night vision devices on your scope, such as the Tactical Night Vision PVS-14 L3 Gen3 Un-Filmed White Phosphor unit sold directly by Tele Vue (mobile site). This gives an advantage to using one of our short focal length refractors as now you have effectively 3x the aperture while retaining the native rich-field capability to let you easily verify any Messier object — all in a super portable package. It also has the advantage of locating targets in twilight and moonlit skies! 

Western Monoceos & Eastern Orion in Hydrogen-Alpha Light 1x Night Vision drawing by flickr user Richard Orr. All rights reserved. Used by permission. “After seeing how well the Tele-Vue/TNVC Night Vision monocular coupled with a 6-nm Hydrogen-alpha filter did with the star clouds of Cygnus even from my light-polluted suburban backyard with a moon in the sky, I was itching to see one of my nemesis objects — Barnard’s Loop in Orion. I had seen it plenty of times in photographs, computer screens and in star atlases, but I had never seen it in person.”
Tele Vue Refractors
Every Tele Vue refractor, from the Tele Vue-60 to the 5″ Tele Vue-NP127is, can give at least a 4° field with our low power eyepieces. This eliminates the need for magnifying finders. Instead, use our unit-power StarBeam (mobile site) with flip-mirror to comfortably aim the scope in the vicinity of the Messier object you are searching for.  

From the powder-coated tubes and anodized aluminum finishes to the silky-smooth, lash-free focusing, these scopes are rugged and easily transported to dark-sky locations. Tele Vue telescopes are engineered and built to be your life-long observing companions; and someday, your kids’ as well.  All Tele Vue telescopes come with a 5-year Limited Warranty.

All Ready to View with his Tele Vue-NP101is by Twitter user Simon Brown. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Tilton on the Hill, Leicester, UK.

Observing Technique
The event is supposed to be an observing challenge. For a solo run you’ll challenge yourself based on your ability. For a complete beginner, that hasn’t seen all the Messier objects before, it is fine to use a “goto” mount (purest will faint!) to find the targets: Just gaze long enough to ensure you see an object that matches the description in a field guide. (See a description of how Messier objects appear in a typical 10″ Dobsonian on Mark Kilner’s Deep-Sky Log.)

Experienced observers will be more challenged to star-hop to the targets using a completely manual setup. Whatever rule you set for yourself, just stick to it for the duration of the evening. In the end, all Marathons have the same final rule: have fun!

Tele Vue Eyepieces
The Tele Vue 32mm Plössl and 24mm Panoptic eyepieces allow you to experience the largest true field in 1¼” focusers and the 55mm Plössl and 41mm Panoptic do the same for 2″ focusers. The 31mm Nagler and 21mm Ethos eyepieces can be used to view at higher powers, yielding darker sky backgrounds, but with only slightly smaller true fields of view than the Plössl or Panoptic eyepieces mentioned above. Try our Eyepiece Calculator (mobile version) to find the right eyepieces for your Messier Marathon and beyond.


Marathon’s End
If morning twilight brightens and you find yourself short of several globular clusters on the list, it will still be a memorial night.  Try to beat your score in the following years until you reach all 110 objects!

Tele Vue Mounts
Since portability and ease-of-use are design goals for all Tele Vue telescopes, we developed alt-azimuth mounts that share these same goals. That makes our manually driven telescope mounts (mobile version) excellent for use during a Messier Marathon.
Our aluminum Tele-Pod mount is a super portable complement to our smaller scopes and features glove-friendly locking clamps. Our wooden Gibraltar HD and Advanced Panoramic mounts, in addition to looking great, naturally absorb energy for quick vibration dampening.
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