What is a Messier Marathon?
Fanatical observers love a challenge and the Messier Marathon is quite popular. It is based on a list of objects “discovered” or compiled by Charles Messier in the 1700’s. While Messier worked hard to discover comets, he compiled this list so that he could avoid mistaking the objects for new comets. Today, amateur astronomers challenge their abilities by finding all the objects on the list in one night.
The Marathon is generally held during March, on the weekend that is closest to the equinox. During this evening (I believe the exact date is March 23) it is theoretically possible to see all of the objects that Charles Messier listed. One obvious problem with this is that the Moon is going to interfere with the night in question. It so happens that the Moon is in a favorable position once every three years. 1996 is one of those favorable years! During the years that the Moon becomes a factor, the date of your Marathon will probably be altered. There is another night to see many of the Messier objects that is close to fall equinox, but a different object order must be used. From the Southern hemisphere, a Messier marathon will not be possible. Perhaps someday a southern observer will compile a “hit” list that will serve to take place of the Messier list.
It is imperative that your observing site have good horizons in all directions. If your view is blocked from the horizon to the East, you will not find the early morning objects at the end of the list. It would be beneficial if your site has some facilities, including a place to warm up..
During the marathon most observers will need heavy, cold weather observing clothes. The most important item for keeping warm, which is often overlooked by those who do not observe in cold weather, is a hat. Much body heat is lost through the head, where blood vessels are close to the surface. Wearing a hat can keep your hands and feet from freezing! Layering is the secret to keeping warm. Wear long underwear under your pants, try using overalls such as are used for skiing or snowmobiling.
Plan to set up before the sun goes down. Your observing site should be available before sunset. If you must set up all your equipment, try to arrive one hour before sunset. Have all charts & observing aids handy from the start. Make sure you have a place to sit during the night because your body will complain if you do not. Also have some hot liquids to drink (coffee is not really recommended because the caffeine in it tends to narrow the blood vessels, causing one to feel even colder) and something to eat will help you make it through the night.
As soon as it is possible to see the guide stars for the first objects, begin looking for the first objects. As darkness begins to prevail over twilight, the first objects must be hunted quickly. Do not linger over them, as they will be difficult to find and see at best. The first hour of observing will score you the objects early on the list and you must work rapidly. Once the first early objects are located, you may then begin to work at a slower pace. The first part of the session will end in the Virgo cluster of galaxies. They will challenge even the hardiest of observers. After the Virgo cluster is complete, some time around 1 AM, you may then take the one nice long break of the night. You should start back on the search by 2:30 AM, in order to find all the objects left on the list. If you get hung up on any of the remaining objects, remember that they are rising. Don’t waste time becoming stranded on one of these, continue with the next objects and come back to the one that tripped you up later.
Practice makes Perfect
This advice will help you through all aspects of the Messier Marathon. Unless you use a computer-controlled telescope, it is doubtful that you will succeed to see all 110 objects the first year you try it. Although an experienced observer can do the marathon on the first try, most of us will probably need more than one Marathon to make it happen. In addition, you can practice for the Marathon all year long! The Virgo cluster of galaxies is probably going to be the stumbling block for many observers. The galaxies are well placed for observing just before marathon time--if you can stay up after mid-night to see them, practice for a few weeks ahead of time. If they trip you up on your marathon, spend the next weeks getting familiar with them. This way, when the Marathon comes around again, you will be ready for them! If you would like to finish the Marathon, but find yourself lost in the Virgo cluster, you should probably just poke around up there and resolve to spend some time learning to identify them. If you are blessed with setting circles and know how to use them, there’s no reason why the cluster should defeat you. If possible, practice looking for those objects that appear first and last on the list of objects--M30, M72, M73, M74, M77, M76. These objects will be elusive and may not actually be visible from your site.
Happy Hunting from Astra!!
Beam me back, Astra!