The Messier Marathon Challenge – what you need to know

Charles Messier

Charles Messier Marathon man!

Charles Messier was a French Astronomer who worked at the Marine Observatory at the Hotel de Cluny in Paris. His main objective was the discovery of comets. His work led to him compiling a catalogue of deep sky objects known today as the ‘Messier Catalogue of nebulae and star clusters’. Messier married at the age of 40, his wife and son died during childbirth two years later. He never remarried and committed the rest of his life to astronomy, passing away on April 12 1817 at the age of 86. By the end of his life, Charles Messier had discovered 13 comets and compiled a catalogue of 110 objects in the night sky. This catalogue is still used by astronomers, across the globe today. All these objects can be seen through large binoculars or small telescopes. Charles Messier also has a crater on the Moon named after him.

Messier moon crater

What is a Messier Marathon?

A Messier marathon is an attempt to find, if not all, as many Messier objects as possible in one night. The number of Messier objects visible in any one night varies depending on:-

  • the location of the observer
  • the moon phase
  • the length of day and night time
  • the season.

It is achievable, given the right location, conditions and skill to see all 110 Messier Objects in one night. The best time of year to attempt a Messier marathon is from mid to late March to early April. The exact time will be dependent on the moon phases, as a bright moon can block the view of some of the fainter objects.

Usually, anyone attempting a Messier marathon will start just as the sun sets and will then observe through the whole night until just before sunrise in order to see all 110 objects. The observations generally start with bright objects low in the western sky enabling you to view them before they dip below the horizon and out of view. Then you work eastward across the sky. By sunrise, you should just be able to see the last few bright objects low on the eastern horizon, just before the morning sky becomes too bright.

The marathon evening is, without doubt, a test of the willpower and stamina of you as an observer but is also dependent on weather conditions and your physical fitness. Particularly the more crowded regions of the night sky (for example the Virgo Cluster and the Milky Way’s galactic centre) can prove to be the biggest challenge.

 Messier Marathon plan

Plan of action for your Messier Marathon (for full page version click here) Image by Jim Cornmell 

The Messier challenge

Messier Marathon Challenges are run each year at New Moon around the end of March and beginning of April by clubs, societies, groups and individuals all across the Northern Hemisphere.The purists amongst the astronomers suggest that a “true Messier marathon” has to be done under similar conditions as Messier himself had at the time. Therefore, only small telescopes up to 4” can be used and computerised “goto” systems can NOT be used to find the objects. This is the biggest challenge as it is totally dependent on you the observer and your knowledge and ability to read a sky chart and recognise constellations and the relevant positions of the objects. This is also a test of eyesight and conditions at the observing site. Low East and West horizons are ideal as is very low light pollution.

2017 was probably more poignant as it was the 200th commemoration of Charles Messier’s death on 12 April 1817. I wonder if he had any idea, back then, just how significant his discoveries would be to the world of astronomy today. Local clubs and societies may be organising a Messier Marathon so it may be worth getting in touch with them to see if you can go along, if not for the whole night, for a short spell to see how it is done.

If you are keen to get involved more officially with the Messier Marathon, you can register with UKSEDs and record your findings here along with the conditions, your equipment and location.

Messier Marathons at Astrofarm

You can read our report from the 2017 Messier Marathon Challenge here and we have special Astrofarm Messier Marathon events from Friday 29th of February to Monday the 4th of March 2019 when you can spend the night learning about and taking part in the marathon – Email Sue for more details or to book for the weekend.