These two images of Messier 8, otherwise known as the Lagoon Nebula, show two different views of the object. On the left, we see a visible-light image that shows the gas and dust clouds while the near-infrared image on the right shows us the stars behind the clouds. This object is a definite must-see during the Messier Marathon. Credit: NASA, ESA and STScI

In Pursuit of the Deep Sky: ‘Run’ the Year-Round Messier Marathon

Do you think you can see them all in one night?

The time from mid-March to early April is the best time to “run” the Messier marathon. Lovers of astronomy every year try to make observations of all objects from the famous catalog, compiled at the end of the 18th century by astronomer Charles Messier.

Fortunately, the 110 objects of the catalog are not distributed evenly in the sky which would make it impossible to see all but still, the visibility depends on many factors. In the end, even if you do not see them all, this astronomical event is like in sports: the main thing is participation.

Why did Charles Messier create his famous Messier Catalog?

Charles Messier did not set himself the goal of discovering new stellar cradles or distant galactic systems. At thirteen years old, he witnessed the appearance of the beautiful comet C / 1743 X1 (Klinkenberg-Seso), or the Great Six-Tailed Comet of 1744, which awakened his passion for astronomy. 

Having become an experienced observer and being appointed to the post of the chief astronomer of the observatory of the Navy in Paris, he did not change his main hobby in life – the study and discovery of new comets. During his lifetime, Messier discovered more than a dozen comets, having received the nickname le furet des cometes (“comet catcher”) from King Louis XV, who was interested in the work of an astronomer.

Object M 1, or the Crab Nebula. Mosaic of 24 images taken by Hubble. The colors show the distribution of chemical elements. Blue is oxygen, green is single ionized sulfur, and red is double ionized oxygen. This was the first object Charles Messier spotted and a definite must-see during the Messier Marathon. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)
Object M 1, or the Crab Nebula. Mosaic of 24 images taken by Hubble. The colors show the distribution of chemical elements. Blue is oxygen, green is single ionized sulfur, and red is double ionized oxygen. This was the first object Charles Messier spotted and a definite must-see during the Messier Marathon. Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

In August 1758, Messier confused comet C / 1758 K1, which he was then observing, with a nebula in the constellation Taurus. When the error was revealed, the astronomer decided to compile a catalog of objects similar to comets, but not them, so that they would not interfere with the search. The work on the catalog took ten years, while Messier was assisted by his collaborator Pierre Meschen.

The first object was the same object that “interfered” with the astronomer – the Crab Nebula, the famous supernova remnant that erupted in 1054. By the twentieth century, the Messier catalog in its final version consisted of 110 objects of various types.

Globular cluster M62, located 22 thousand light-years from Earth in the constellation Ophiuchus and containing about 150 thousand stars. The image combines Hubble’s ultraviolet and optical observations. Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, and S. Anderson (University of Washington) and J. Chaname (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)

Unlike the fairly simple telescopes that Charles Messier used during his observations, modern astronomical instruments have tremendous capabilities. For example, the Hubble Space Telescope has been used to observe almost each of the 110 objects from the Messier catalog. The telescope can photograph both the entire object and a separate area of ​​it, which is of interest to astronomers. 

Observations, in addition, are carried out not only in the optical but also in the infrared and ultraviolet ranges, which allows you to learn more about the processes that govern the life of galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. 

Thanks to the images obtained by Hubble, astronomers were able to learn more about galaxies – systems consisting of billions of stars, gas, dust, and other objects. The processes governing the formation of such objects and their further evolution were identified, scientists were able to see the details of their structure, how galaxies interact with each other or merge together, and determine the distance to individual galaxies or their clusters.

Object M 95, a barred spiral galaxy located 33 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Leo. The image combines Hubble's observations in the near infrared, optical and ultraviolet ranges. Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, and D. Calzetti (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) and R. Chandar (University of Toledo)
Object M95, a barred spiral galaxy located 33 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Leo. The image combines Hubble’s observations in the near-infrared, optical and ultraviolet ranges. Credit: NASA, ESA, STScI, and D. Calzetti (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) and R. Chandar (University of Toledo)

What is the Messier Marathon and how can you join it?

The Messier Marathon was invented by a group of astronomers sometime in the 1970s. Since then, it has grown to be an annual astronomical event with thousands of participants from around the world.

Many people have completed the marathon throughout the years but unfortunately, this is not always possible. People in the Northern hemisphere have the best chance of seeing all 110 objects and to do so, you need to choose a location at low northern latitudes. For stargazers in the Southern Hemisphere, unfortunately, not all celestial objects are visible but still, this shouldn’t stop you from going out and observing most.

The Messier Marathon began earlier in March but don’t worry – you still have more than half a month to join until early April.

The Magnificent Ring Nebula M57. Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI / AURA) -ESA / Hubble Collaboration
The Magnificent Ring Nebula M57. Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI / AURA) -ESA / Hubble Collaboration

The beautiful thing about the Messier Marathon is that anyone can join, with or without astronomical equipment. Of course, to see any of the objects, you will still need a suitable location but generally, there are several that can be observed without professional equipment.

For example, you can observe the famous Pleiades Star Cluster, namely M45. The Orion Nebula (M42) is another good option if you do not have the equipment. To do so, you can download a unique star map on your phone, and with a few clicks on the screen, you can get the exact location of each of the 110 objects in the night sky.

If you have a telescope, you are pretty much set for some amazing sights. Observations are also possible with binoculars but a magnification of 20x or more is highly recommended.


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Sources:

Bakich, M. (2020, March 11). How to observe a messier marathon.
Klesman, A. (2021, March 11). Observing: It’s time for the 2021 Messier marathon.
Starwalk. (2021, March 20). Join the MESSIER Marathon 2021!

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. My experience as a freelance writer began in 2018 but I have been part of the Curiosmos family since mid-2020. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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