Charles Messier's 20 years of observing in one long night
For the seasoned astronomer, this will be old news but for the newer converts to this night time hobby (and daytime and cloudy days and nights) this is a chance to show off some of your skill at identifying and finding all the objects in the Messier catalog.
Charles Messier was an 18th century astronomer who was a self-proclaimed comet hunter. He discovered 13 comets but more importantly, he made a list of fixed objects in the night sky that could have been mistaken for comets but weren't. These objects, 103 that he listed and another 7 that were attributed to him in the 20th century, are relatively bright and many are "showpieces" in the night sky. Many of the objects we observe during our public viewing are among the ones Messier listed. Can you remember seeing m32, m57, m81/82, m42 and m11? I'll list the "common names" at the bottom of this blog.
A Messier Marathon is an opportunity to view all 110 objects in one (long) evening of viewing. Amateur astronomers challenge themselves in all sorts of ways during these marathons - some locating all the objects from memory, others locating them all in binoculars or very small telescopes, beginners/novices locating them with star charts and star hopping to them, some just using the "go-to" on their scopes to locate them easily (considered cheating by the purists and not eligible for an Astronomical League awards, I believe). It doesn't really matter HOW you do this marathon because completing it has a sort of "bragging rights" attributed to it.
All the Messier objects are visible in the low to mid-northern latitudes from mid-March to early April. In our area, the end of March to the beginning of April is the best time to do one of these marathons, preferably close to the night of a New Moon.
The Messier Marathon is literally an all night activity, beginning after the sun goes down and continuing until just before the sun rises. There's about a two hour break after midnight where viewers can have a nap or talk with other attendees. The last few hours of darkness is full of star hopping and searching with the final object (m30) extremely difficult to find because sunrise is imminent. It is suggested you follow a formal list when first doing the Messier Marathon as tried and true observations have sequenced the logical and easiest order to find the Messier objects.
We don't have a Messier Marathon at the Oregon Observatory at Sunriver, probably because no one has tried to organized one. The Rose City Astronomers have an annual marathon at Kah-Nee-Tah every year as does the Boise Astronomical Society at Bruneau Dunes State Park. I'm sure other astronomy clubs in the region have them as well.
A Messier Marathon takes some knowledge, dedication, and camaraderie. The rewards are great, however, since you get to tour the entire night sky and see many, MANY excellent objects including galaxies, and star clusters both open and globular, nebula . It's a great jumping off point, too, to getting deeper into the night sky.
Here's a wonderful resource if you want more information: http://messier.seds.org/xtra/marathon/marathon.html
"M" objects listed above identified:
m32 Andromeda Galaxy
m57 The Ring Nebula (cheerio in the sky)
m81/82 Two Galaxies one face on and one edge on in one eyepiece view
m42 Great Orion Nebula
m11 Wild Duck Cluster