Ready to up your stargazing street cred? There’s no better way than to try and run a Messier Marathon. If you’ve heard of this concept and want to learn more, we’re here to help. This guide will introduce you to the Messier Marathon and provide you tips on how to ‘run’ your own Messier Marathon this year (or in the future).
What are Messier Objects?
The Messier objects are a collection of deep space objects catalogued by French astronomer Charles Messier in his Catalogue des Nébuleuses et des Amas d’Étoiles (“Catalogue of Nebulae and Star Clusters”), originally published in 1771.
The first Messier catalog had only 45 objects (M1-M45); by 1781 the catalog had expanded to 103 objects. The final Messier object, M110, was confirmed and added in 1967, but the official publication date is considered to be 1781.
The Messier objects themselves vary: in the catalog you’ll find galaxies in a variety of forms, different kinds of nebulas, open star clusters, and globular star clusters. There are also a few unique objects: one supernova remnant (M1), one star cloud (M24, our own galaxy), and one double star (M40).
Messier objects are numbered based on their discovery and validation rather than by type – so if you review the official list of Messier objects, you’ll see it varies by type as the numbers go. Typically, Messier’s objects of a similar number occur in the same or neighboring constellations – though this varies as he discovered more and more objects across the sky.
What is the Messier Marathon?
The Messier Marathon idea was developed by several astronomers in the 1970s (source). Briefly, in a Messier Marathon, you try and see all 110 Messier objects in a single night. Like a physical marathon, it takes planning and pacing to quickly move through over 100 deep space objects in a single night – as you’ll see below, there are several key factors that can affect your ‘success’ in completing a Messier Marathon.
The first documented successful Messier Marathon was completed by astronomer Gerry Rattley on March 23-24th, 1985; astronomer Rick Hull completed it about an hour later. This suggests it took several years between when the idea was developed and when astronomers finally figured out the “right” order to see all 110 objects between sunset and sunrise.
Coincidentally, 2020 is the 35th anniversary of the first successful Messier Marathon and you can complete the marathon on the same dates that Rattley and Hull completed their first runs!
Typically it takes an entire night to run the marathon, so this isn’t for the faint of heart. You’ll need to plan an overnight stargazing trip and stay awake the whole time!
How to Run the Messier Marathon
Before you head out and start looking around for Messier objects, there are some important things to keep in mind and plan ahead for.
1. Get the Right Equipment
In order to complete a Messier Marathon, you need the right gear. Unfortunately, most of Messier’s deep space objects can’t be seen with the unaided eye, so you’ll have to invest in binoculars or a telescope to see all of the objects in the Marathon.
At a minimum, you’ll need a 3-inch (80mm) telescope; this size will only work under the darkest sky conditions (more on that below), so if you have access to a larger telescope with more power, that’s a better choice.
From our list of the best stargazing telescopes, we recommend the following for a Messier Marathon:
- Meade Polaris 130 (130mm), starts around $150
- Celestron NexStar 130SLT (130mm), starts around $400
- Orion SkyQuest XT8i (200mm), starts around $650
- Meade LX90-ACF (200mm), starts around $1700
2. Find the Right Location
Darkness is critical to the success of a Messier Marathon: you need to find a location with as little light pollution as possible plus choose a night where the moon won’t interfere with its own brightness (more about that below).
The reason reducing light pollution is so critically important is that you’ll be stargazing across the whole sky from horizon to zenith as the night passes. If there is too much light pollution it will interfere with your ability to see Messier objects too near the horizon (where the atmosphere can already cause visibility issues).
If you want to run a Messier Marathon, plan to travel at least two hours away from a major urban core. Ideally, you can find a dark sky park or place that is favored by your local astronomy club.
3. Pick the Right Date
It’s critically important that you pick the right night to try and run a Messier Marathon. All 110 Messier objects pass through the night sky on only certain nights of the year.
Typically the best dates for a Messier Marathon fall between February 27th and April 1st each year depending on your latitude. Additionally, it’s important to run a Messier Marathon on the nights near the new moon, which further limits the nights available to avoid light pollution from the moon.
In 2020, the best night to run a Messier Marathon is March 23-24.
However, this is a weeknight, so most astronomy clubs will be trying to run the marathon on the weekend before or after: either March 21-22 or March 28-29.
4. Use a Resource to Guide the Marathon Route
If this is your first Messier Marathon, the best way to try and be successful is with a guide. There are several options to guide yourself through the 110 objects in the right order. We’ve listed the order below – but these tools will help you be even more successful.
- Do your first marathon with fellow amateur astronomers. Try looking up your local astronomy club to see if anyone is planning to do a Messier Marathon this year, and ask if you can join or help plan an event.
- Read the ultimate guide to the Messier Marathon. Astronomer Don Machholz wrote the book: The Observing Guide to the Messier Marathon: A Handbook and Atlas This is a great resource as you learn about the Marathon and how to do it.
- Use a starchart app to locate each object then guide yourself there in the sky. Some good options include Night Sky, SkySafari, and Stellarium.
With the right tools, location, and date, you’re set to get out there and ‘run’ the marathon!
The Optimal Order for a Messier Marathon
In addition to the logistical considerations above, it’s important to run the Messier Marathon in the right order. Based on the list provided by Machholz in his book, The Observing Guide to Messier Marathon: A Handbook and Atlas, here is a modified guide to the order for a Messier Marathon using each constellation as a base (source):
- Start in Cetus, find M77 (spiral galaxy).
- Move to Pisces, find M74 (spiral galaxy).
- Shift to Triangulum, find M33, The Triangulum Galaxy (spiral galaxy).
- In neighboring Andromeda, find M31, The Andromeda Galaxy (spiral galaxy); M32 (satellite galaxy); and M110 (satellite galaxy).
- Move to Cassiopeia to find M52 (open cluster) and M103 (open cluster).
- Shift to Perseus to find M76 The Little Dumbell, Cork, or Butterfly Planetary Nebula and M34 (open cluster).
- Progress to Taurus to find M45, the Pleiades open cluster.
- Move to Lepus to find M79 (globular cluster).
- Shift to Orion to find M42, the Great Orion Nebula; M43, de Marian’s Nebula; and M78 (diffuse reflection nebula).
- Go back to Taurus to find M1, the Crab Nebula supernova remnant.
- Move to Gemini, find M35 (open cluster).
- Head to Auriga, then find M37 (open cluster), M36 (open cluster), and M38 (open cluster).
- Shift to Canis Major to find M41 (open cluster).
- In neighboring Puppis, find M93 (open cluster), M47 (open cluster), and M46 (open cluster).
- Move to Monoceros, find M50 (open cluster).
- Go to Hydra then find M48 (open cluster).
- Shift to Cancer, find M44 Praesepe, the Beehive Cluster, and M67 (open cluster).
- In neighboring Leo, find M95 (spiral galaxy), M96 (spiral galaxy), M105 (elliptical galaxy), M65 (spiral galaxy), and M66 (spiral galaxy).
- Move to Ursa Major, then find M81, Bode’s Galaxy (spiral galaxy); M82, the Cigar Galaxy (irregular galaxy); M97, The Owl Nebula (planetary nebula); M108 (spiral galaxy); M109 (spiral galaxy); and M40, double star WNC4.
- Go to Canes Venatici, find M106 (spiral galaxy); M94 (spiral galaxy); M63, the Sunflower Galaxy (spiral galaxy); and M51, The Whirlpool Galaxy (with M51B companion galaxy).
- Jump back into Ursa Major to find M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy (spiral galaxy).
- Move to Draco, find M102, the Spindle Galaxy (lenticular galaxy).
- Shift to Coma Berenices, then find M53 (globular cluster); M64, the Blackeye Galaxy (spiral galaxy)
- Go back into Canes Venatici to find M3 (globular cluster).
- Then go back again into Coma Berenices, to find M98 (spiral galaxy); M99 (spiral galaxy); M100 (spiral galaxy); and M85 (lenticular galaxy).
- Move into Virgo, find M84 (lenticular galaxy); M86 (lenticular galaxy); M87, Virgo A (elliptical galaxy); M89 (elliptical galaxy); and M90 (spiral galaxy).
- Cross back into Coma Berenices and find M88 (spiral galaxy) and M91 (spiral galaxy).
- Head back into the Virgo supercluster to find M58 (spiral galaxy); M59 (elliptical galaxy); M60 (elliptical galaxy); M49 (elliptical galaxy); M61 (spiral galaxy); and M104, The Sombrero Galaxy (spiral galaxy).
- Move back into Hydra and find M68 (globular cluster) and M83, the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy (spiral galaxy).
- Go to Serpens Caput, find M5 (globular cluster).
- Shift to Hercules, then find M13, the Great Hercules Globular Cluster, and M92 (globular cluster).
- In neighboring Lyra, find M57, the Ring Nebula (planetary nebula), M56 (globular cluster).
- Move to Cygnus and find M29 (open cluster) and M39 (open cluster).
- Shift to Vulpecula, find M27, the Dumbbell Nebula (planetary nebula).
- Go to Sagitta, find M71 (globular cluster).
- As we approach the galactic core, move to Ophiuchus and find M107 (globular cluster); M10 (globular cluster); M12 (globular cluster); M14 (globular cluster); and M9 (globular cluster).
- Shift to Scorpius to find M4 (globular cluster) and M80 (globular cluster).
- Head back to Ophiuchus, find M62 (globular cluster).
- Cross back into Scorpius and find M6, the Butterfly Cluster (open cluster), and M7, Ptolemy’s Cluster (open cluster).
- In neighboring Scutum, find M11, the Wild Duck Cluster (open cluster), and M26 (open cluster).
- Move to Serpens Cauda to find M16 (open cluster) and M17, The Omega/Swan/Horseshoe/Lobster Nebula (diffuse nebula).
- Shift to Sagittarius where things get really busy! Find M18 (open cluster); M24 (the Milky Way Patch star cloud); M25 (open cluster); M23 (open cluster); M21 (open cluster); M20, the Trifid Nebula (diffuse nebula); M8, the Lagoon Nebula (diffuse nebula); M28, M22, M69, M70, M54, M55, and M75 (all globular clusters).
- In neighboring Pegasus, find M15 (globular cluster).
- Move to Aquarius, then find M2 (globular cluster), M72 (globular cluster), and M73 (open cluster).
- End by shifting to Capricornus to find M30 (globular cluster).
Featured photo: Messier 31 / Credit: Horizon Productions SFL via Flickr