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Messier Marathon - Part I: Walk Don't Run
Messier Marathon - Part I: Walk Don't Run

Messier Marathon is a term describing the attempt to find as many of the Messier objects as possible in a single night. A marathon held on Saturday, March 17, 2007 promises the prospect of observing all 110 objects in one night. It’s a great exercise in speed observing and fun for both experienced and novice observers.

The Sun is about to set and even as shadows grow longer in the late afternoon you pack your scope, mount, accessories case, and star charts into whatever it is you’re driving these days. Meanwhile, you fill a thermo-bottle with your favorite hot beverage, another with some cool, clear water, and grab a bagful of munchies to reinforce you through the night.

And what a night it’ll be...

First there will be some driving to attend to. You’ve already got a spot picked out well away from city lights and with a good clear view of the horizon east, west, and south. You’ll need a spot like that because you’re about to participate in your first - possibly first annual - Messier Marathon!

This particular marathon however won’t wear out your sneakers or cause your thighs to burn. But it will test your endurance and challenge your ability to navigate a very complicated course...

Book-ended by near impossible sky-position early in the evening and late in the morning, you’ll have to find 110 astronomical studies over the course of one very long journey into a single night. Impossible? No. Difficult? Yes! And perhaps that’s one very good reason to even try...

Can you run this particular marathon any time you like? Sure! But there are only a few days in the month of March each year when you’re likely to have a chance of catching all 110 of those "high flying" objects in the course of a single night. And that only happens within a day of whatever new moon falls closest to the spring equinox each year.

So even as the Sun glides behind the neighbor’s low fence, you slide in behind the steering wheel and begin to assess your chances. On one end of the night is that large, faint low surface-brightness galaxy in Pisces – M74 - descending low to the west just above the treetops as rosy-fingered dusk releases the evening sky. On the other end is compact globular cluster M30 ascending even lower to the south-southeast - running its own race against a rising Sun. Then of course there’s that sprawling, low contrast Triangulum galaxy – M33. Why, even normally easy-to-find M110 near the Great Andromeda Galaxy could elude you setting as low as it will be to the northwest well before the sky gets really dark.

But you are prepared. You’ve spent every night possible since you bought that Orion Starblast 4.5 EQ, or 12" XT learning your way around the night sky. In fact this whole last week, the weather saw you out a couple hours each night covering Charles Messiers’ official list of deep sky galaxies, clusters, and nebulae. You know exactly what order to find them in (see table below) and how to tell them apart - especially all that galactic fluff in the Coma-Virgo group trailing Leo’s hindquarters across the sky.

Yep – you’re ready - but you never know how you’ll respond when the pressure’s really on. On average, you’ll have to make a fresh find every six minutes. And with that one to two hour break late in the evening, things will actually be more fast-paced than the average suggests!

So, you ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?" Charles Messier spent half a lifetime discovering these things and you’re going to rediscover them all for yourself in a single ten and a half-hour period! But a Messier Marathon only comes around once a year - and this year you’re ready. Found every Messier at least three times already - should be no trouble finding them again – right?

Except, now you’re about to separate theory from practice... Many of your earlier finds were under the best possible conditions. You were well rested, fresh even! Meanwhile most ascended from the east at the time, not falling out of the sky to the west with all those constellations turned upside down!

So after entering the gate to that grassy knoll you and your astro-buds picked out, you watch the last of the Sun sink below the horizon to the west. Greeted by friends, there’s already buzz about sky and local conditions. Is the horizon low enough? Are we too far north to see M30 clear the trees? Will the weather hold throughout the night? Is the sky going to darken early enough to find the toughies before they disappear into the murk west and southwest?

Then there are some tactical questions. Will you be using a computer (goto) to point your telescope? And what about setting circles? Or are you going to star hop? Everyone agrees that goto and digital setting circles offer many navigational advantages, but the real challenge is to find your own way around. For purists, star hopping is the essence of a true Messier Marathon!

And that leads to more questions. - Do you prefer a true finderscope or a simple unit powered reflex finder? Why both, of course! - One to orient the scope, and the other to minimize sweeping the sky using the main tube.

Then there’s room for speculation: How much will aperture help? What’s the smallest scope that will show all the Messiers in a single night? One of your friend’s mentions that all “M-class” deep sky studies can be seen in astronomical binoculars – but you point out that it will take at least a four inch refractor to find them all in a single night – when a few are low to the horizon and obscured by atmospheric dust and gas.

Even as talk builds to a crescendo, you’re plugging away - aligning that equatorial mount, or making sure the rocker of that dob is level as possible. And let’s not forget to make sure those finders are properly aligned! With everything telescopic taken care of, you lay out those accessories, binoculars, charts, and that navigational check off list. Then there are the creature comforts to attend to: Food, drink, lawn chair, blanket...

A little less than an hour passes while you amiably chat up friends, and set up everything needed. Then without the report of a gun or even the toot of a whistle, you’re off… Although no clock is ticking, or hamstrings aching, the Sun has already set the pace toward morning. The long night ahead is shorter than you think...

With everything in place, you swing the scope toward Polaris. At low power (60x) you can just make out the Pole Star’s faint 9th magnitude companion. Then it’s off to Castor in Gemini - nice clean 3 arc second separation! Unaided, you scan the western sky for those two 2nd magnitude stars in Aries - Hamal and Sheratan - pointing the way to 4th magnitude Eta Piscium. Can you see Eta yeta? Great! Centering on Eta, you sweep three full moons (1.5 degrees) east and slightly north to locate M74. Shifting your eye around the true one degree field thrown up by that 60x Stratus wide-field eyepiece, you make out a faint sheen of light disappearing as soon as you try to pin it down by looking straight at it.

Not sure? Well try brighter, more condensed Seyfert Galaxy M77 first! Found it? There’s one for confidence, and its back to M74 as the sky fades a tad darker… Does it qualify as a "find" if you can only see a galaxy by tapping the side of the scope with your finger? Or do you have to hold it using direct or averted vision?

It’s all up to you! This may be Messiers night - but it’s your sky, your scope, and your call...

Time

Direction

Studies

Comment

Month

7:10

W

M74 & 77

Tough Finds!

November

7:25

NW

M31, 32 & 110

Low Sky

October

7:30

NNW

M103, 76, 33, (74)

Late Dusk

November

7:50

SSW

M79, 42, 43 & 78

Skydark at last!

February

8:05

S

M47, 46, 93

Culminating

March

8:20

NW

M34

A Bit Low

December

8:30

SSW

M41 & 50

Decent Sky

February

8:40

W

M45, 1, 38, 36, 37 & 35

Decent Sky

January

9:15

Up

M48, 67 & 44

Sky’s Middle Third

February

9:30

NNE

M81, 82, 108, 97, 109, 40 & 106

Middle Third

March

10:00

Up

M96, 95, 105, 65, 66

Culminating

March

10:30

E

M98, 99, 100, 85, 84, 86, 87, 89, 88, 91, 90, 58, 59, 60

Galaxies Galore!

April

11:30

SSE

M53, 64, 104, 68, 61 & 49

Decently Placed

May

12:30

Up

M101, 94, 63, 51 & 3

Middle Third

April

1:15

S

M83

Culminating

May

1:30

SSE

M5

Entering Middle Third

June

1:45

E

M13 & 92

Entering Middle Third

June

2:00

SE

M10, 12, 107, 14, 9, 19 & 62

Ascending

June

2:50

ENE

M56 & 57

Ascending

June

3:00

E

M71, 27, 29 & 39

Ascending

June

3:20

ESE

M11 & 26

Ascending

June

3:30

S

M80 & 4

Culminating

June

3:40

SE

M8, 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 18, 17, 16, 28 & 22

Treeline!

July

4:20

SSE

M7 & 6

Treeline!

July

4:30

ESE

M69, 70, 54, 55 & 75

Treeline!

July

4:50

ESE

M72, 73, 2, 15 & 30

Treeline!

September

5:15

NE

M52

Dawn!

September

The only reason to challenge yourself like this is to see how much fun you can make of a demanding situation...

Remember walk, don’t run.

Details
Date Taken: 06/02/2011
Author: Jeff Barbour
Category: Archives

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