|What is a Messier Marathon?|
It is not easy. Observing 110 star clusters, nebulae and galaxies in a single night requires planning, stamina and perhaps a narrow masochistic streak. The Messier Marathon is an all-night endurance race. The race is not against other observers but against the Sun. The distance to cover is 360 degrees of sky with more than 100 checkpoints along the way. It is a race that has been run by thousands of amateur astronomers since 1977. But few have completed the circuit. How did amateur astronomers ever get involved in such a thing?
Charles Messier was the greatest comet hunter of his time. Born in 1730, the tenth of twelve children, Messier was deeply influenced by the appearance of a bright comet in 1744. He left home at the age of 21, landing in Paris. Messier was hired by Nicholas Delisle, Astronomer of the Navy and director of an observatory at the Hotel de Cluny. Messier's duties were initially limited to making copies of documents and maps. Eventually, he became a skilled observer and was assigned the task of looking for a comet predicted to return to the skies above Europe in 1758. The prediction had been made decades earlier by English astronomer, Edmund Halley.
Messier succeeded in finding Halley's comet on the night of January 21, 1759. But Delisle would not allow his young assistant to announce the discovery. Months passed before news reached Paris that Johann Palitzsch, a German farmer, had spotted the comet from his fields on Christmas night, 1758. Charles Messier had just missed making the greatest comet discovery in history. But his career as an astronomer and comet hunter was just starting.
Messier discovered his first comet one year later in January 1760. Of the 14 comets discovered between 1760 and 1773, eight were credited to Messier. Charles Messier would be credited with the discovery or co-discovery of 13 comets over the course of his career. He advanced to be heralded as the greatest comet hunter of his generation.
Occasionally, he ran across objects that looked like comets but weren't. He published three catalogs describing and giving positions for 103 objects. These 103 star clusters, nebulae and galaxies comprise the traditional Messier catalog. Seven additional objects have been added over the years, bringing the modern total to 110; 109 if you exclude M102 as a duplicate observation of M101.
Conveniently, there is a gap in the catalog between 21:40 and 00:40 right ascension. Only M52, a circumpolar object for observers at mid-northern latitudes, falls within this window. As a result, all 110 objects in the Messier catalog can be observed from sunset to sunrise during late March. This is the Messier Marathon.
How does a person run a Messier Marathon? That is what this section of Cosmic Voyage is all about. Here, you'll find information to help you plan, prepare for and participate in one of the most challenging and rewarding observing programs in amateur astronomy. The links below will take you there. Clicking on the Obs List button will take you to my recommended observing order for the marathon. The Planning button links to a page with tips on how to plan the event. Preparing connects to my suggestions on how to prepare for a Messier Marathon. Finally, click on the Running button for advice on how to run the Messier Marathon.
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Revised: February 7, 2004 [WDF]