March 21st: Let the Messier Marathon Begin!

Charles Messier (1730 – 1817) painted by Nicolas Anseaume in 1771. Public domain image.

Messier’s List
You’ve probably heard of Charles Messier’s catalog of celestial deep-sky objects compiled for use by 18th-century comet hunters.  When these comet seekers stumbled upon an unknown, faint, fuzzy object in their small telescopes, 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. Astronomers and amateurs in the early 20th Century rediscovered it, added a few new objects, and made corrections.  There are now 110 “M” objects in the modern catalog. The value of the list in modern times is that it contains many “showpiece” objects, visible to small telescopes, from northern latitudes. 

Every sky chart labels 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 third of the way around the sky you’ll find the dimmest: M95 — a galaxy of magnitude 10 or 11 (depending on the source) in Leo. Objects include supernova remnants (M1), open and globular clusters, planetary nebulae, diffuse nebulae, H II regions, a Milky Way star cloud, an asterism, a double star, and galaxies (such as M110).

What must puzzle the current generation of amateur astronomers is that many of these objects, when sighted through small telescopes, would not give the impression of being comets. But Messier and his friends lived at a time when good glass blanks were hard to find and work into the proper shape. Objects looked blurry in their instruments. So, the stunning horde of sparkling jewels in a globular cluster was lost on Messier and friends: they often noted these objects as being “nebulae without stars.”

This is a section of a Messier Object sky map. Original sky map by Cmglee in the Public Domain.

Messier Marathon
If you have become familiar with the location and appearance of the Messier objects, you might find it a fun challenge to observe them all in a “Marathon” all-night observing session. When the Moon is New and the Sun is in the Pisces / Aquarius region, it is possible to see all the Messier objects in one night if your latitude is not too far north or south. How is this possible?

Referring to the partial sky map on the right, the path of the Sun is shown as orange dots (ecliptic path) and the Messier objects as numbered ovals. When the Sun is near any of the objects on the path, they are lost in daylight or twilight and not visible. But note the gap in objects on the ecliptic path when the Sun is near the Pisces / Aquarius border (orange dots crossing the 0° Declination line). Only M52 in Cassiopeia occupies that gap and it is far enough north from the solar glare to become visible quite soon after sunset.

The typical Marathon sequence is to wait for the days around the New Moon when the Sun is in the “Messier gap” and start by spotting the objects in deep twilight that are about to set in the west: M74, M77, M33, M31, and M32 (all on the left side of sky map). The observer continues to sweep up objects moving eastward until they reach the eastern horizon, where Messier objects continue to rise all night. As morning twilight begins, they scramble to identify M2, M72, M73, and M30 (right side of the sky map) before the Sun blots them out from the sky. The exact viewing order is latitude dependent and there is some debate — see the More Info section below for links to plan your own Messier Marathon.

Messier Marathon with One Eyepiece: 13mm Ethos!

We met Keith Venables at Astrofest in the UK last February. He told us of meeting Al Nagler at the 2011 Winter Star Party (Feb. 28 – Mar 6, 2011) and conducting a Messier Marathon with a single eyepiece: the Tele Vue13mm Ethos! You can download his PDF report: A Whole Night of Observing with Just One Eyepiece! It was his first Messier Marathon and this piece contains a lot of tips on how to go about it.

Messier Marathon 2023
This year the new Moon in March is on the 21st, just one day after the start of Northern Hemisphere Spring. That would make the evening of March 21st the best time to try for a Marathon with a few days before and after also being good. This makes the weekends of March 18th and March 25th the best times to host organized events.

Meet the Tele Vue Refractors!

Rich Field for Your Messier Marathon
From a dark site, our super portable Tele Vue-60 and Tele Vue-76 scopes can spot most if not all the Messier objects based on sky conditions and the observer’s experience. Every Tele Vue refractor, from the tiny 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 when locating Messier objects. If you don’t want to keep a low-power eyepiece in the holder, use our Qwik-Point Basic (mobile site) red-dot finder on the Tele Vue-60, or, for larger scopes, 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.

Heirloom Quality Build
What makes our scopes so uniquely “Tele Vue” is the hand-built nature of each instrument to achieve top-tier optical quality. Each scope is assembled from beginning to end by one person. There are no assembly lines or quotas in our manufacturing process. Optical and mechanical components are inspected, fitted, assembled, aligned, and scrutinized so the end result is a telescope that is as good as we can possibly make. This includes multi-coated objectives that are individually spaced and rotated into position within the telescope lens cell and hand-fitted focusers for silky-smooth, lash-free focusing that resists sagging. The finish includes hard powder-coated tubes and oxidation-resistant anodized aluminum. These finishing touches make our scopes 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.

Al Nagler calls the Tele Vue-85 a “Goldilocks” telescope. With an 85mm diameter, 600mm focal length, f/7, APO objective and 2″ capability, its combination of optical performance and airline portability is “just right.”

Tele Vue Small Doublet APO Refractors
For the Tele Vue-60, -76, and -85mm scopes, we met our goal to achieve apochromatic performance in as compact a package as possible. Since we could achieve the desired optical performance using a doublet design, including two more air-to-glass surfaces to create a triplet would have added additional weight in the wrong place, plus assembly and material costs with little performance benefit to the end-user.

This 101mm diameter objective, 540mm focal length, f/5.4, APO (4-elements in 2-groups, Nagler-Petzval) refractor has an OTA length of 25.5″ without diagonal.

Tele Vue Large Nagler-Petzval APO Refractors
The 4-element objective designs of the NP101is and NP127is consist of two widely spaced, air-spaced doublets. It is a misnomer to think of these designs as a “doublet objective with a built-in field flattener” as the rear group of the objective is in considerable power-space and corrects the uncorrected aberrations of the front group. This configuration, along with the chosen glasses, was necessary to achieve the desired aberration control at the exceedingly fast f/5.4 and f/5.2 focal ratios. Why so fast? In order to obtain as wide a true field both visually and for imaging, we chose as short a focal length as possible for which we could meet the desired correction of axial and lateral color, spherochromatism, astigmatism, coma, and field flatness. No triplet design regardless of configuration can meet all these criteria.

Did you observe, sketch, or image with Tele Vue gear? We’ll like your social media post on that if you tag it #televue and the gear used. Example:

#televue #tv85 #ethos #MessierMarathon

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More Info