The Messier Marathon


Above: a selection of the Messier Objects that I have imaged over the last few years.

    Charles Messier was a Frenchman who had a passion for hunting down Comets during the 18th and 19th Century. However, he had a problem. Whilst hunting for, or tracking newly discovered, comets he would come across other fuzzy and diffuse 'nebulae' that in his eyes could distract him from the more important task at hand. Some of these nebulae were already known about but there was no definitive list of their positions or any idea of what they may be. In 1764 he decided to make a record of all these 'non comets' which would eventually grow to include 110 objects - with one duplicate.

    Jump to the 20th Century and amateur astronomers realized that the positions of the Messier Objects left a gap around the time of the Vernal Equinox and that it would be possible to actually observe all of them in one night. Although most serious amateur astronomers dismissed the idea of doing a 'marathon' the idea has caught on with many attempting it around the time of the first two weeks from the Vernal Equinox. I (Paul) originally fell into the same camp of 'an absurd idea' crew but all that changed with my first planned visit to COAA in the Algarve region of Portugal back in 1991. I had used my trusty BBC 'B' Computer to produce and print out a set of sky charts with just the basic stars and constellations on them. Thus prior to travelling out I had decided to plot all the Messier objects that would potentially be visible from the lattitude of COAA and to my surprise I estimated that during the course of a night almost 100 would be visible. Now the visit to COAA (with my close friend Nick Norman - later to become my best man!) happened to be late April into the first few days of May - hence my surprise at how many Messier objects would be visible and that piqued my curiosity. After the introductions were over at COAA we discussed our observing plans over dinner and I suggested that I would like to try to view as many Messiers as possible and it was realized that no one had done a marathon from COAA. So (I forget the actual date but it had to be around May 3rd-5th 1991) armed with the COAA 4" refractor I spent an entire night observing. The shock was that by the time I lost the last object in the brightening twilight I had actually bagged 105 - just 4 short of the full marathon! That did it! I just HAD to return and keep having a go until I had done the full marathon and got them all.
    I was fired up and duly returned during March 1992. This time helped by both Nick and another friend Jim Ince with lots of advice and help from Bev at COAA we had a couple of goes but for most of the time we were really unlucky with the weather. Eventually Jim and I had a final go before my (delayed - that's another story!)) flight home and we bagged 99 together and as I located M2 to make it 100 the clouds scurried in and Jim didn't see it. Stuck for another year but when I returned with Nick and my then girlfriend Lorraine (yep now the wife) in late March 1993 I was determined to get them! We had one attempt thwarted by a bank of fog rolling in just after we had got 105 objects and I felt as though I was not meant to get them. What was worse, I went down with a bad cold and for two days was laid low. Fortunately when I had recovered Bev informed me that night would probably be the best chance as weather fronts were moving in for the rest of the holiday so Bev, Nick and I were joined by fellow guests Mark Blanford and his teacher George Gilbart Smith. I ended up being the only one to stay out all night but had the objects confirmed by the others as they spent varying amounts of time helping. Bev joined me and Mark for the final stage and with his help and the 12" Newtonian equatorial we finally bagged M30, the last object and it was over - I had got all 109 actual objects (110 actually as I had looked at M101 twice!).

    The sheer fun in preparing the charts, planning the best way and which objects to get in order, being able to locate them with just basic charts and often with just memory makes the Messier Marathon a great challenge for any observer to undertake and I heartily recommend all observers to do one - it certainly hones the observing skills.

    For those who can subscribe or buy off the shelf the BBC Sky at Night Magazine then a more detailed explanation of how to do the marathon can be found in the March 2006 edition written by me.

    In conjunction with the magazine here is a special certificate I have produced for all who wish to download the pdf file and print out (print on glossy paper for best results) when you have completed the marathon. Right click on the link and save as or save link as and this will copy the file to your hard drive or simply click on the link for them to open up in your pdf reader. There are in fact two certificates in that pdf file and the first is for a 'proper' marathon with 109 objects, for those who still wish to include the Draco Galaxy as M102 I have provided a second certificate showing 110 objects observed. To help plan a marathon I have also put online a pdf file of my basic record sheets for you to use. The sheets are a guide only as some of the later objects can be viewed in a slightly different order but the critical objects are at the start and end of the marathon and there is little leeway in changing their order.

So have a go at the Messier Marathon, download the certificate and record sheets and have fun!

Here is a view of my certificate for the first sucessful marathon on the night of March 21/22 1993
  Messier Marathon certificate


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