Sketching the Messier Marathon

March and April provide us with an opportunity to test our observing skills by locating as many of the 110 Messier objects as possible from dusk to dawn near new Moon. This challenge is called a Messier Marathon.

Charles Messier (1730-1817) was a French astronomer and comet hunter. While observing in the constellation Taurus in 1754, he noted a comet-like nebula and decided to create a catalog to help other astronomers distinguish the difference between comets and other objects. The nebula in Taurus marked the first object in his list, M1 (the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant). By 1771, he compiled a catalog of 45 objects presented to the French Academy of Sciences that was published in 1774. In subsequent years, Messier added additional objects to the list. The catalog is simply a compilation of targets, not necessarily objects that Messier himself discovered.

Today’s Messier list is actually four catalogs combined that, after errors were accounted for, consisted of 103 objects. Seven more deep sky objects observed by Messier (but not included in his original catalogs) were added in the 1900s, bringing the total to 110 Messier objects in the catalog. If you’re wondering why it’s said that the Messier catalog really has only 109 objects, it was discovered that  M102 is a duplicate of spiral galaxy M101 in the constellation Ursa Major. An elliptical galaxy in Draco, NGC 5866, was disputed to be M102 but cannot be verified due to plotting discrepancies. Because of this, NGC 5866 is sometimes used by amateur astronomers as a substitute for M102.

In the 1960s, according to The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide by Harvard Pennington, a group of Spanish observers began working with the idea of a Messier marathon. By the mid-1970s, two American observers, Tom Reiland and Tom Hoffelder, started the marathon as we know it today – an informal competition for a single observer to locate as many Messier objects as possible from dusk to dawn. Around the same time, Don Machholz from California, conducted his own marathon, unaware of Reiland and Hoffelder’s efforts. Gerry Rattley is said to be the first to observe all 110 objects on March 23-24, 1985 in Arizona. The marathon really took off in the 1980s and continues to be a great way to hone your observing skills regardless of your experience. SEDS- The Messier Marathon is a tremendously valuable resource packed full of information to help you have a successful night as well as results from past marathons.

To take this challenge a step further, there are spinoffs for the Messier Marathon. For instance, some observers conduct the marathon using binoculars, others even try their hand at imaging each object. A few years ago, fellow sketcher and co-author, Jeremy Perez (Belt of Venus) challenged himself by sketching the marathon in 2009. He was able to sketch a whopping 104 of the 110 objects in one night! Make sure to check out his 2009 All Arizona Messier Marathon report. He’s been such an inspiration to me that this year, I’ve decided to attempt sketching the marathon as well.

There are a few tips that he shared with me:

  • time management is essential – allow only 5-10 minutes per object, if unable to locate and sketch the target, move on to the next one
  • use smaller sketch-circle templates – creating smaller sketches saves time
  • render only a few of the prominent field stars and then a rough sketch of the target itself – you can always revisit the objects on a later date for a more-detailed observation/sketch
  • organize your star charts, sketch kit, templates, snacks and drinks, and lists in such a way to optimize time management
  • run practice marathons prior to the actual event

If you’d like to sketch the Messier Marathon, Jeremy put together a page of useful information that you’ll want to take advantage of. It includes templates, marathon reports and drawings, and resource links – Sketching the Messier Marathon

For additional information, I hope you’ll check out the Astro Sketching column in the March 2013 Issue of Astronomy Magazine – The Messier Marathon. Please feel free to share your marathon experience here! I’d love to hear about it.


~ by Erika Rix on March 5, 2013.

2 Responses to “Sketching the Messier Marathon”

  1. […] Sketching the Messier Marathon […]

  2. […] in running the Messier Marathon or even sketching it, please have a look at last week’s blog on sketching the marathon.” You’ll find links to Jeremy’s site plus a few others that are packed full of valuable […]

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