With the month of March comes the only time of year to accomplish one of the greatest feats in observational astronomy: complete a Messier Marathon, which is viewing all of the Messier Objects in a single night. Specifically, the best time to do it is in mid to late March, which is right around the corner. So, now is a good time to start preparing.
First, some background.
More so than now (we have much better optics today), finding a comet was a real big deal in the early part of the telescope era and into the early part of the 18th century. For some countries, having a long list of comet discoveries was a direct measure of a nation's scientific achievement. Needless to say, the more comets discovered by a country's astronomers, the better. For the French, Charles Messier was their star comet finder, with 13 comets to his credit, an amazing total considering the primitive state of telescopes at the time.
However, as good of a comet hunter as he was, Charles Messier was not perfect. Throughout his years of observing, Messier found himself constantly coming across objects that looked like comets but stayed stationary in the sky overtime, which told him that these objects, whatever they were, were not comets. In time, Messier got so annoyed with these comet look-alikes that he started making a list of them, eventually cataloging over 100 objects that have since been dubbed as 'Messier objects', even though Messier himself did not always find them first.
Back to the present.
No one knows who started the idea of the Messier marathon, but the names Tom Hoffelder, Don Machholz, and Tom Reiland are often considered to be the fathers of the Messier Marathon idea. On the night of March 23-24, 1985, Gerry Rattley was the first man to accomplish the feat of tracking down all of the Messier Objects in a single night. Since then, completing a Messier Marathon has become the proverbial Mt. Everest of observational astronomy in that anyone can try (many great observers will never discover something new), but only a few will succeed in accomplishing the feat.
So, how about giving it a try?
Well, the first thing one needs to have is good observing conditions, namely a transparent, Moon-free night where it is clear all night as the Marathon will run from just past sunset to just before sunrise. Next consideration: dark skies. Some of the Messier Objects are very dim, as in 12th magnitude dim. A big scope can help offset light pollution to a degree. Another thing to consider is location, you need good horizons in all directions as some of the objects just after dusk and before dawn will be very, very low. Her, having a plan can help, too. Last, bring some god star charts, a red light, and a checklist to keep track of what you have seen.
Obviously, the Cleveland area is not a prime location for trying a Messier Marathon thanks to light pollution and the often cloudy skies this time of year. However, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock (or one near you) can help with the sky conditions. As for light, the good news is that, traveling away from the city into more rural counties, there is dark sky available, so this may be time to give a country-dwelling friend a call.
Want to do some sky watching in the Cleveland area? As the last part of the puzzle, be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecast and, for hour-by-hour cloud predictions, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock if you plan to head out and look at the stars this coming week. Live somewhere else? Find a clock and see if it will be clear near you.
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