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Join the Messier Marathon practical guide

March 20, 2019 - DSOs
Join the Messier Marathon practical guide
Star party
Summer Star Party© Andrei Nica

Hello young apprentice! Spring is here and this means for an amateur astronomer that he can enjoy observing all the objects of the Messier Catalogue in a single night (110 items).  How is this possible or why it should be done now? Because of the rather long period of dark sky of March and April (12-11 hours). After sunset all the winter objects are still quite up in the sky. They gradually set and others rise up from the east. The Leo – Coma – Virgo areas are filled with galaxies noticed by Messier also. And later in the morning the summer constellations show up nicely, closing the circle.   

But who was Charles Messier? A french astronomer born in 1730 with a passion for discovering comets. In this quest, he noticed at some time that certain fuzzy objects – usually thought to be comets (visibly moving on the night sky between stars and constellations) were staying in the same position all the time. The night sky was still largely uncharted then so he decided to systematically map and catalogue them – creating his own list of objects that won’t interfere any more with his comet-chasing passion. This list that grew up to 110 astronomical objects (added until his death)  became very popular to all the amateur astronomers in the world to this day. The catalogue consists of a diverse range of deep sky objects, ranging from star clusters and nebulae to galaxies.

French astronomer Charles Messier
Charles Messier © Public Domain

You may wonder why he confused these items with comets or why he didn’t find more objects like this? The answer is related to the technological capabilities of the epoch. The quality of the optics was much lower than today (both in terms of mirrors/lens and regarding eyepieces) and the whole setup with mounts and accessories more cumbersome.

Many of the objects from this list can be observed with just a pair of binoculars (a 10x50mm for example) – about 40 of them – depending on the quality of the sky from your observation site. The rest of them require at least a 130mm reflector to comfortably check on the list. As in multiple other domains but especially in visual Astronomy bigger is always better – any increase in the instrument’s aperture will significantly enhance the experience, revealing finer details.

Don’t forget that astronomy (and especially visual astronomy) is a social activity. Find some friends to hang out with, search local astronomical clubs or groups and go out together. You can exchange ideas, look through different instruments and eyepieces (at different magnifications with larger or smaller fields of view)

Chart with focus on Coma - Virgo Leo areas
Chart with focus on Coma – Virgo Leo areas – © Heavens Above

The best period to perform the Messier Marathon is a weekend near the New Moon in March or April. Check out the weather forecasts to choose the best period suits you. Here you can find and print the list of objects. This can be filled in at your observing site after identifying each Messier object. If you are just at the beginning and with limited experience finding deep sky objects on the sky you probably won’t be able to observe all of them this year. But I guarantee you it will be an amazing experience. The next year you’ll find more and more objects, eventually being able to observe all of them in a single night.

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