With the settled weather, and clear skies, thoughts at this time of year turn to the forthcoming Messier Marathon season. This year, 2019, the best observing times will be from 3rd – 9th March.
If you aren’t familiar with what a Messier Marathon is, here’s a simple definition:
A Messier marathon is an attempt, usually organized by amateur astronomers, to find as many Messier objects as possible during one night. The Messier catalogue was compiled by French astronomer Charles Messier during the late 18th century and consists of 110 relatively bright deep-sky objects (galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters).Wikipedia – Messier Marathon
Charles Messier – the frustrated Comet Hunter
In 1757, French Astronomer Charles Messier began searching for a comet whose return was predicted by Edmond Halley. However, a mistake in the calculations of his employer led to Messier searching in the wrong patch of sky and subsequently discovering a fuzzy patch in the constellation of Taurus. Repeated observations revealed that the patch didn’t move in relation to the background stars, and so was not a comet. The nebula became the first entry in his catalog, Messier 1 or M1, also known as the Crab Nebula.
The second object in his catalog, M2, was a nebula previously discovered by an Italian astronomer. With the identification of a third nebula, a globular cluster, Messier bent himself to the task of scouring the heavens for these potentially confusing objects. He later said that he undertook his search “so that astronomers would no more confuse these same nebulae with comets just beginning to appear.” And so the Messier Catalogue was born.
Ironically, this famous list that contains some of the most beautiful objects in the sky was originally intended to be a list of objects to avoid.
History of the Messier Marathon
The Messier Marathon was invented independently by several North American (including Tom Hoffelder, Tom Reiland and Don Machholz) and perhaps one Spanish amateur astronomers and groups, in the 1970s. It was probably first invented during the night of March 23/24, 1985 when Gerry Rattley from Dugas, Arizona, ordered an observing list by time and hunted down all 110 Messier Objects in one night. While he was the first to achieve this goal, it was only about one hour later that Rick Hull duplicated this success from Anza, California. This challenge is however possible only under exceptionally good observing conditions, and at a preferred location.
The most complete Messier Marathon website, is one started by Hartmut Frommert in 1995 and can be viewed with the link below.
Why should I tackle the Messier Marathon?
As a UK amateur astronomer, becoming familiar with the night sky, the constellations and the various nebulae and galaxies that are observable from the UK, is an amazing, thought-provoking and exhilarating experience.
It can also be a great way to bring members of your local astronomy club together for a night of observing.
This marathon has not been a simple task in the beginning of its inception, but thanks to GOTO, computerised telescopes, the ability to observe many celestial objects is within reach of even those unfamiliar with the night sky. Purists among Messier Marathon observers would prefer that the conditions for observation were similar to that of Charles Messier, with a manually operated telescope, less than 4″ in diameter, but I would leave this part of the challenge to those, intimately familiar with the night sky, reading sky charts, with optimum observing conditions.
It could take decades of frustration through cloudy skies to observe all of the Messier Catalogue objects, so being able to plan and observe all Messier objects in one night, is an aid to improving your skills in observation. Your knowledge of the night sky and what the brighter galaxies, nebulae and star clusters look like will all be helped through this marathon.
There is a timeslot of a few weeks every year, within March and October, when one can get the best opportunity to observe and this can usually allow for weather fronts to pass, the lunar cycle to wane, and for a window of opportunity to appear.
Observing the Messier Marathon in the UK
The best time of the year to observe the most Messier objects is in March or October when around 100 objects should be observable on one night, depending on your latitude and the lunar cycle.
A very simple Windows app is still available (And still works on Windows 10) where you can enter your Latitude and Longitude to come up with the best days of the year for a Messier Marathon but it doesn’t account for the lunar cycle. MessMara.zip
A simple website that lists the next 100 years of optimum observing conditions for a Messier Marathon is linked below.
There are a number of books and websites available to help you plan for a Messier Marathon, a few selected are below.
Messier Marathon Finder Charts and Log Book
Stephen Tonkin has created an excellent Messier Marathon Observing Logbook and Finder Charts that you can print out and use here.