We almost did it.
In fact, we got 98.18% of what we set out to get.
On March 13, some friends and I got together in my backyard observatory with my 14-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope to attempt the Messier Marathon, the goal of which is to observe all 110 Messier objects in a single night.
We made it to 108.
Messier objects are named for 18th-century French astronomer Charles Messier, who identified and catalogued fuzzy objects in the night sky (galaxies, nebulae and star clusters) so that other astronomers wouldn’t mistake them for comets. Messier listed 103 objects, and 20th-century astronomers added seven others, bringing the total to 110.
Finding all 110 Messier objects might not sound like a big deal, especially if you know where to look and have a good telescope. But to see them all, you have to pull an all-nighter, because Messier objects rise in the east and set in the west from just after sunset until just before sunrise. And it’s only possible to see them all in one night for one week every March when our sun sits in the constellation of Pisces – far enough away from the constellations where the majority of the Messier objects are located that its light does not interfere with the view.
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A word about magnitude and telescopes: The brightness of a celestial object is described by its magnitude, and the brighter the object, the lower the magnitude. So, Sirius, the brightest star, shines at magnitude of -1.46, and Betelgeuse, the 10th brightest star, shines at +.50. The dimmest objects visible to the naked eye are magnitude +6.5. Seventy-five of the 110 Messier objects are dimmer than that, so you need a good pair of binoculars or a telescope to see them all.
March 13 was a perfect night for the marathon, no moon, just a little cloud cover, but our quest started on a bright note – and not “bright” in a good way: As the sky grew dark, 10th-magnitude M74 (the Phantom Galaxy) was low in the west. Unfortunately, between my observatory in Myakka City and the horizon is the 50-square-mile Lakewood Ranch with its hotels, restaurants, stores, shops, more than 14,000 homes and a whole lot of light pollution, which completely washed out our target.
So, we started out 0 for 1.
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But then we plowed through the rest of the list, taking a break for a catnap from midnight to 1:15 a.m. Just before dawn, we had one left: the 7.7-magnitude globular cluster M30.
But our quest ended on another bright note – also not “bright” in a good way: M30 was washed out by the pre-dawn light.
That made us 108 for 110. Not a bad night’s work!
Here are some highlights of the evening:
M8, the Lagoon Nebula, in the constellation Sagittarius. This is an emission nebula, which is a cloud of gas that emits its own light. Shining at a magnitude 6.0, M8 is a stellar nursery, where stars are being born. These hot young stars are the source of the nebula’s glow.
In all of my previous attempts to view M8, I’ve never been able to see anything beyond its cluster of stars. I could never glimpse its faint clouds of ionizing radiation, so my expectations were low. But with clear skies and no bright moon to interfere, it became stunningly clear. Using an Oxygen III filter to further remove unwanted light, the faint striations and facets of the cloud became visible. Not only were the faint clouds visible, but they were also astonishingly obvious. When I see this nebula again, I doubt it will ever surpass this first memorable view.
M17, the Swan Nebula (aka Omega Nebula, Lobster Nebula, Horseshoe Nebula, and Checkmark Nebula), in Sagittarius. This is another 6.0-magnitude star-forming emission nebula. M17’s light comes from an open cluster of 35 newly formed stars.
Having seen the Swan Nebula before, I knew what to expect. It always looked beautiful, exactly like its name implied. It appeared to be a swan, complete with curving neck and tail as it glides across a galactic pond. But on this clear and dark night, and armed with the Oxygen III filter, the nebula revealed additional faint clouds that appeared like the ripples of the pond around the creature as it swims through the sky.
M20, the Trifid Nebula, also in Sagittarius. This magnitude 6.3 object is another stellar nursery, and it consists of four different elements: an open star cluster, an emission nebula, a reflection nebula (a gas cloud that reflects the light of other objects), and a dark nebula (a dust cloud so dense that it blocks light from objects behind it). The dark nebula divides M20 into three lobes, from which the Trifid Nebula gets its name.
Initially, I was concerned about our ability to see this faint nebula. I have only seen it in photos, and it has a unique and identifiable arrangement of dark clouds that lie directly across its glowing and colorful face. I was certain that we would get only the faintest of hints of its presence. Thankfully, I was proven wrong again. Immediately I could make out the unique pattern of the dark clouds against the faint glow of the nebula. My expletive-laden cheers of joy could be heard for miles in the dark country skies.
M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, near the tail of Ursa Major. This is one of my all-time favorite objects, an 8.4-magnitude face-on spiral galaxy, 23 million light years from Earth.
This is one of my favorite galaxies that I speak about daily in our planetarium shows, so I expected it to be good. But “above and beyond” seemed to be the theme of the evening, and this galaxy did not disappoint. At first we saw the things I expected: The glow from its central region was clear, as was the separate glow of the dwarf galaxy passing through its outer arms. The shock came from the faintly glowing spiral arms that were visible. I wanted to stare into the eyepiece until every cone cell in my eyes were saturated with as many photons from this distant object as possible. But I had other colleagues to share the view with and many more objects to view. It was very hard to turn my telescope away from M51.
M46, which has no other name, is a magnitude 6.1 object in the constellation Puppis. I’d never observed M46 before, and, because its description is “open star cluster,” I was prepared to be underwhelmed. But I was blown away. It was like going to a restaurant, ordering an oyster and getting a pearl: Within the cluster is a beautiful, and totally unexpected, planetary nebula. A planetary nebula has nothing to do with planets; instead, it’s an expanding shell of glowing gas ejected from a dying red giant star. For us, finding the planetary nebula is a perfect example of celestial serendipity.
Of course, you can go out several nights over the course of a few weeks and find all 110 of the Messier objects, so, why deprive yourself of sleep and stay up all night to do the Messier Marathon?
It’s kind of like when a reporter asked British explorer George Mallory in 1923 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest after two failed attempts, and Mallory replied: “Because it’s there.” There’s a challenge in doing the Messier Marathon that you don’t get when observing these objects over time. Maybe we can even echo John Kennedy’s 1962 speech at Rice University, when he said we do challenging things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
And there’s the fellowship of trying to accomplish something with like-minded people.
As a bonus, because we were up all night, we saw more than Messier Objects, including meteors and satellites; Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn rising one after another between 5:30 and 6:40 a.m.; and clouds in the east reflecting pre-dawn sunlight to create a very surreal image – possibly more surreal because we were all just about worn out and getting a little loopy.
We also saw something we couldn’t identify. At first, it looked like a slow-motion meteor, then it got really bright, and then it went out. We were all saying, “Oh, my God, I don’t know what that was.” I’m thinking it might have been satellite debris burning up in the atmosphere. But I just don’t know.
But are we disappointed that we didn’t get all 110 Messier objects?
Maybe a little, but think about this: The Hubble Space Telescope has been in orbit since 1990 and has photographed 96 Messier objects, so, we did better in one night than Hubble has done in more than 30 years.
That is quite an accomplishment!
Bishop volunteer Ed McDonough, who is also a representative for telescope maker Celestron, tells us that telescope sales have been out of this world during the pandemic. But if there’s one thing I know as a committed astronomy hobbyist: It helps to have someone teach you the ropes when you’re just getting started.
That’s why The Bishop is offering a hands-on telescope workshop this weekend. If you’ve been looking at your new telescope – or even the one that’s a little dusty – and wondering “How do I use this thing?” this workshop is just for you.
We’ll help you get comfortable setting up and using your own telescope so you get the most out of it – and avoid frustrating pitfalls. Then, when you head home, you’ll be well equipped to enjoy this endlessly fascinating hobby.
Of course, this is a BYOT program – Bring Your Own Telescope!
Where/When: 7-8:30 p.m. Sunday in The Bishop’s North Plaza, 201 10th St. W, Bradenton.
Cost: $45 per telescope for members of The Bishop’s Discovery Society (includes 5 participants per scope); $50 for all others (includes up to 5 participants per scope). Each ticket includes admission to the March 24 Stelliferous on Zoom.
Registration: Online at BishopScience.org/events.
Howard Hochhalter is manager of The Planetarium at The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature. Join him on Zoom each month for Stelliferous, a discussion of what’s happening in our night skies and in the world of astronomy, and visit The Bishop online at BishopScience.org for other astronomy events and programs.
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