The Messier Marathon

Charles Messier (1730 – 1817) was one of the most prolific comet hunters of his time. Over his career, he used a 100 mm telescope and discovered 13 new comets, and co-discovered seven more. During many observing sessions, he would come across objects that were not comets such as nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies which he plotted on his star charts. With the collaboration of Pierre Mechain, the first version of the Messier catalogue contained only 45 entries. Other revisions saw more entries for a total of 110 objects we see today. From this list, 76 objects are bright enough (some challenging) to be seen in a pair of 10 X 50 binoculars from a dark sight on a moonless night.

This is an ideal way for astronomers to get their feet wet when searching for these deep-sky objects with either binoculars or a telescope. Throughout the year, some Messier objects are too close to the sun’s glare to be seen. However, there is a special time of year when our daytime star does not run interference. That date is around the spring equinox in March. This is the theoretical period one can find and observe all entries on the list if you are up for the challenge. Known as the Messier Marathon, this all-night session begins at sunset with M77, a spiral galaxy in the constellation Cetus and ends with the globular cluster M30 located in Capricornus as you battle dawn in the east. Unfortunately, the full Worm Moon occurs on March 18. With that said, new moons of March 2 or April 1 will be your best opportunities to see most of if not all objects. There are currently four comets ranging from magnitude 9.7 to 11.6 for your viewing and imaging pleasure. There are also fainter ones down the list.

At the beginning of the month will see brilliant Venus and Mars below, in the early morning sky. Saturn and Mercury are still hidden in the solar glare. Jupiter will be in conjunction with the sun on the 5th and will be glimpsed at the end of the month low in the eastern sky, cutting through the dawn glare. A great digital moment occurs in the morning of March 28  as the 17% waning crescent moon joins Venus, Saturn, and Mars. Venus will be at its greatest elongation of 47 degrees from the sun on March 20 and appear 50% illuminated in a telescope.

Sunday, March 13 will see the time switch over to Daylight Saving Time where applicable. Here is where you advance the clocks by one hour. A week later on the 20th, the spring equinox occurs at 15:33 universal time. This is when we see the sun rises due east and set due west. As the weeks move on, daytime hours will exceed nighttime hours. Also for two weeks starting the 20th, look for the faint zodiacal light in the west after sunset from a dark location. This is a subtle cone of interstellar dust in our solar system that appears to point to the Pleiades Cluster.  

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

eNews date: 
Tuesday, March 1, 2022