Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Messier Marathon

The time is spring when a young man's fancy turns to love, or in my case the annual Messier Torture Session er... I mean Marathon. I have bested this yearly quest a handful of times in my many years at the eyepiece. The Messier Marathon is a catalog of 110 or 109 plus a duplicate deep space objects(depending on who you are talking to)They range from double stars to galaxies.Throw in some gorgeous nebulae, globulars and some open clusters and you can see what I am talking about when I say wondrous stuff.

This particular catalog has a funny story in that Charles Messier was a Comet hunter and back in the 1700's that was a very good thing to be. In his endeavors to find these elusive frozen snowballs traveling to and fro he kept on being fooled by these objects that never seemed to move within the framework of the stars. Most were fuzzy looking balls or disks just like his target of choice but they were definitely not comets. Charles set pen to paper and started to catalog these objects so that he would not waist his time on them again. Little did he know that he was cataloging many of the most beautiful objects that can readily be seen from earth using a small telescope! The catalog was finished after his death. His notes were gone over and over until the final 110 objects were published. Now, we here in the 21st century use his catalog more than any other catalog when we are describing a night sky wonder to the general public.So much for the short history lesson.

Mid March till the beginning weeks of April are the best times to chase these items down in a single night if you live in the mid to northern lattitudes! So how do you do it? Number one consideration is to have a plan to hit them all. Now as for me? Yes I do have a plan but I have seen folks make a plan that just sucks the fun right out of the Messier madness.For this here if it is going to be fun then I am not all that hot on doing it. That said if you are amped up on Nodoze  or monster energy drink, love sleep deprivation and are easily frustrated by not finding your quarry right at first then this my friends is your lucky day. You will have gobs of fun.Now I know Some old-timers are going to drop their teeth when I say this but I really do not care if you use a GOTO scope or not when you are doing the Messier Marathon. I say anything that gets you out under the stars and looking at the wonders of the universe is OK with me Most old-timers in this thing we call astronomy did the Messier Marathon on a manual scope. They Star hopped using a star chart and a finder scope to track down those beautiful adornments of the night. So did I!  there is nothing better in the world than to get that chart out and line those stars in your finder and start scanning the sky then...Whooo Hoo Man when you find it! I then did a little sketch of it. That way you can verify what you have seen and it makes you a better observer.

There are many plans and sequences out there to follow but the one I use and always have used is the Astronomical league Messier Observers log and You can find it here.  This Logbook is great It has a sequence to follow and has room to do a sketch and fill in information about the object. Keep in mind You will be at this list from sundown till sunup. There will be times that you will be huffing and puffing trying to get all of the targets down in that area. Following that melee you will have a break for a few minutes to get something to eat and shoot the breeze with the other annual slaves to Messier's list. Then it's back to the eyepiece, (Jolt cola in hand) and off you go to nab another twenty of those elegant orbs of wonder.Those with a GOTO scopes might get a ribbing but here is the thing... The GOTO guys get more time on target than the searchers and that my friends is the name of the game. Now a word to those GOTO guys out there.  Please give the manual method a try. It will sharpen your skills and really make you appreciate that little brain hiding in your scope     Until next time...
Clear skies and great seeing too

Steve T

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