Try a Messier Challenge this week

Attempting to view all the 110 Messier objects in one night is fun. It’s best tried during the last week of March or early April, when the Sun is out of the way.

Telescopes Ready and Waiting. A Messier Challenge is about to start. Credit: Mark Hardaker

From the United Kingdom, it is not possible to complete what astronomers call the “Messier Marathon”, an all-night session during which the observer tries to see each of Messier’s 110 nebulous objects.  We are too far north to be able to see M74 in Pisces before it sets in the evening and to see M30 in Capricornus before the sun rises.  However, you can still get tremendous satisfaction from completing a Messier Challenge – trying to find as many as you can – during the night.

M13 Her [xst2ii]

Many astronomical societies gather under dark skies during these days to have a go. The Moon’s phase is critical of course, especially as some of the more tricky Messier objects are located low in Scorpius and Sagittarius – you don’t want the Moon lurking nearby. This year the waning crescent Moon moves out of Sagittarius around Wednesday 3 April, making the weekend after the best time to plan a Challenge.

A successful Challenge can net you around 100 – 105 Messier objects, depending on your location and, particularly, how clear your southern horizon is, but you must plan well. The original Marathon was first attempted by American astronomers in the 1970s. The concept – for a Challenge or a Marathon – is to start observing at dusk and to continue through the night until sunrise.

How to Plan a Messier Challenge Credit: Jim Cornmell and Mark Hardaker

Your observing plan will start with the Messier objects low in the western sky at sunset, trying to catch them before they set. Next, work steadily eastward across the sky through the night, logging your progress as you go. As one who has done it, I can confirm that a Messier Challenge is a test of your observing stamina and willpower, especially if the weather is changeable, and of your own physical fitness. You need to have sufficient hot coffee on hand to last you through the night and some food to sustain you – it gets quite cold in the early morning. Having some shelter available from the wind is a good idea, as well as warm blankets and a deck chair to sit and rest. And don’t forget your dew shields! As the night turns colder, a thin misty layer will cover every surface, including your lens and mirrors, unless you protect them.

Waiting for the last Messier objects in the morning cold. Credit: Mark Hardaker

Imaging a Messier Challenge in one night may be even more challenging, but worth a try.  The new smaller fully-automated smart telescopes, such as the ZWO SeeStar S50, might prove useful in capturing images quickly then moving on to the next object. Do make sure you have enough battery power to last the night.

After the first rush to catch the lowly galaxies in the north and west and a second to capture the many objects in the “realm of galaxies” in Virgo, there follows a period of relative calm. You can pause a while to enjoy the night sky as it wheels above you and share your experiences with your colleagues. Then, suddenly it seems, the summer constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius appear on the eastern horizon and the race is on to see the galaxies and clusters there before the first rays of dawn call a halt to the proceedings.

Enjoy your Challenge and keep safe.