This Weekend: Messier Marathon 2021!

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 at low northern latitudes over the course of a night in mid-to-late March. Hence, the phrase “Messier Marathon” was invented to describe the attempt at locating and verifying observance  of each object on the list over the course of a single night.

The first page of a typical Messier Marathon check sheet under red light. Messier objects in the background taken with Tele Vue-60is by James Burnell. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Sheltering in Space
Last year, on March 11, we published our “2020 Messier Marathon!” post on this blog. We noted the best dates to observe based on latitude and lunar phase, and discussed the type of gear to use for the event. We pointed out that the Saguaro Astronomy Club, in Arizona, was one of the oldest organized Marathons and they offered awards in various categories for completing the list. It turned out to be our last blog post during “normal” times that year: COVID-19 social-distancing and lock-down orders, which we had only heard about, suddenly swept through our region. The Saguaro Messier Marathon and many star parties were ultimately canceled that year and it continues into this year.

M33 The Photon Sucker (Triangulum Galaxy) by Astro Bin user Tom Peter. Copyright Tom Peter. Used by permission. Tele Vue-NP127is and Tele Vue-85 combined exposures. This is one of the first few objects in the traditional Messier Marathon list. Of course, in your scope, without the benefit of 15-hrs of exposure, this will look like a blurry little black & white smudge!

The Messier Marathon did and will go on again, “run” by solitary observers “sheltering in space.” In fact, due to COVID-19 there may be MORE Marathoners than ever as the hobby of amateur astronomy has taken off during these socially distant times. See this recent report from CBC Canada that features our dealer All-Star Telescope in Alberta: Amateur astronomy lifts off during the pandemic.

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2020 Messier Marathon!

Lovely Messier objects clockwise from top left:
•M45 (Pleiades Star Cluster) with TeleVue-NP127fli + FLI ProLine 16803 CCD camera © Gordon Haynes. • M31 (Andromeda galaxy) & M32 (dwarf galaxy is left of center) with Tele Vue TV-NP127is + Apogee U9000 camera © Adam Block and Tim Puckett (more). • M42 (Orion Nebula) & M43 (De Mairan’s Nebula) with Tele Vue-85 + Tele Vue 0.8x Reducer/ Flattener + Canon T3 camera © Mike Broussard (more). • M13 (Hercules Globular) with Tele Vue-NP127fli + FLI MicroLine 694 camera © Wolfgang Promper (more).
The Messier Marathon is a northern latitude event that takes place on a night in March or early-April. This is a time when all 110 Messier objects are visible from the northern hemisphere. (See our 2018 blog post on how this list came about). Singularly and in groups, amateur astronomers stay up all night in a “marathon” session to try to view them all! To be a successful “marathoner,” you need to pick the right evening, have clear weather, good site selection, and a manually driven observing setup capable of wide fields of view. 

Of the Moon and Messier Marathon

Composite image of Messier Marathon Checklist over Messier Object images. Messier objects by Michael A. PhillipsCC BY 4.0, Link

Beginning 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. The catalog has been updated over time, as recently as the mid-20th century, to 110 objects in total.  

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March 17th: Let the Messier Marathon Begin!

M45 – Pleiades Star Cluster © Edward Nash with Tele Vue TV-76 and SXV-H9 camera using LRGB filters.

By the 1970s amateurs had noticed that all 110 Messier objects could be observed at low northern latitudes over the course of a night in mid-to-late March.

You’ve probably heard of Charles Messier’s catalog of celestial deep-sky objects for 18th century comet hunters.  When they stumbled upon an unknown 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. 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.

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.

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