Messier and his Mini Marathon

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THIS PAGE IS INTENDED TO HELP YOU FIND YOUR WAY AROUND THE SKY

A contemporary portrait of Charles Messier born 1730 – died 1817

Astronomers are always talking about ‘M' number this and ‘M' number that so what are these ‘M' numbers? The ‘M' is short for Messier and refers to in an object from the Messier Catalogue of ‘fuzzy' objects (deep sky objects - beyond our Solar System).

Charles Messier was a French comet hunter who spent much of his life searching for and studying comets. While scanning the night sky, Messier kept finding ‘fuzzy' objects that were not stars, looked like comets but did not appear to move like comets. To avoid confusion Messier made a list of these ‘fuzzy' objects so he could avoid them when he was searching for new comets.

Charles Messier was born in Badonviller in the Lorraine region of France, the tenth of twelve children of Françoise B. Grandblaise and Nicolas Messier, a Court usher. Six of his brothers and sisters died while young and his father died in 1741. Charles' interest in astronomy was stimulated by the appearance of the great six-tailed comet in 1744 and by an annular solar eclipse visible from his hometown on 25th July 1748. Charles died in Paris on 12th April 1817 at the ripe old age of 86 and is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, in Section 11.

Telescopes in the time of Messier were not as good as the telescopes of today and even telescopes used by many amateurs today are far better than the best telescopes available in the late 1700's. We now know these objects are galaxies, star clusters, nebulae, planetary nebulae and super nova remnants. To Messier these objects were just ‘a nuisance' but they are ‘the things to see' for us.

Deep Sky objects may have been a nuisance to Charles Messier but to the modern amateur astronomer they are the things to look for. We now use Charles Messier's Catalogue to search out the brightest of the interesting objects to look at through our telescopes.

Messier's first catalogue [of these mysterious fuzzy objects] was published in 1774 and listed 45 objects. There are now many other catalogues of deep sky objects such as the New General Catalogue (NGC Numbers) with thousands of objects listed. However the 110 Messier objects are still the things most amateur astronomers start off looking for. So what are these objects that astronomers search out with their binoculars and telescopes?

We now know that these objects, that were so annoying to Charles Messier, are Deep Space Objects (also called Deep Sky Objects). Deep Space Objects are objects that reside beyond the furthest reaches of our Solar System and out to the most distant parts of our Galaxy, they even stretch out into the furthest reaches of the Universe.

COMPLETE LIST OF ALL THE MESSIER OBJECTS

NUM

CONSTELLATION

Object and Remarks

NUM

CONSTELLATION

Object and Remarks

M.01

Taurus

Supernova remnant

M.56

Lyra

Globular cluster

M.02

Aquarius

Globular cluster

M.57

Lyra

Planetary Ring Nebula

M.03

Canes Venatici

Globular cluster

M.58

Virgo

Galaxy type Sb

M.04

Scorpio

Globular cluster

M.59

Virgo

Galaxy type E3

M.05

Serpens

Globular

M.60

Virgo

Galaxy type E1

M.06

Scorpio

Open cluster naked-eye

M.61

Virgo

Galaxy type Sc

M.07

Scorpio

Open cluster

M.62

Ophiuchus

Globular cluster

M.08

Sagittarius

Lagoon Nebula

M.63

Canes Venatici

Spiral galaxy

M.09

Ophiuchus

Globular cluster

M.64

Coma Berenices

Galaxy Black-Eye

M.10

Ophiuchus

Globular cluster

M.65

Leo

Galaxy type Sa

M.11

Scutum

Open cluster Wild Duck

M.66

Leo

Galaxy type Sb

M.12

Ophiuchus

Globular cluster

M.67

Cancer

Open cluster

M.13

Hercules

Naked-eye Globular

M.68

Hydra

Globular cluster

M.14

Ophiuchus

Globular cluster

M.69

Sagittarius

Globular cluster

M.15

Pegasus

Globular cluster

M.70

Sagittarius

Globular cluster

M.16

Serpens

Nebula + cluster

M.71

Sagitta

Open cluster

M.17

Sagittarius

Nebula Omega

M.72

Aquarius

Globular cluster

M.18

Sagittarius

Open cluster

M 73

Aquarius

Asterism of stars

M.19

Ophiuchus

Globular cluster

M.74

Pisces

Galaxy

M.20

Sagittarius

Nebula Triffid Nebula

M.75

Sagittarius

Globular cluster

M.21

Sagittarius

Open cluster

M.76

Perseus

Planetary

M.22

Sagittarius

Globular cluster

M.77

Cetus

Galaxy

M.23

Sagittarius

Open cluster

M.78

Orion

Nebula

M.24

Sagittarius

Open cluster

M.79

Lepus

Globular cluster

M.25

Sagittarius

Open cluster

M.80

Scorpio

Globular cluster

M.26

Scutum

Open cluster

M.81

Ursa major

Galaxy type Sb

M.27

Vulpecula

Planetary Dumb-Bell

M.82

Ursa major

Galaxy irregular.

M.28

Sagittarius

Globular cluster

M.83

Hydra

Galaxy type Sc

M.29

Cygnus

Open cluster

M.84

Virgo

Galaxy type E1

M.30

Capricornus

Globular cluster

M.85

Coma Berenices

Galaxy type Ep

M.31

Andromeda

Great Spiral Galaxy

M.86

Virgo

Galaxy type E3

M.32

Andromeda

Galaxy M31 companion

M.87

Virgo

Galaxy type Eo.

M.33

Triangulum

Galaxy type Sc.

M.88

Coma Berenices

Galaxy type Sb

M.34

Perseus

Open cluster

M.89

Virgo

Galaxy type So

M.35

Gemini

Open cluster naked eye

M.90

Virgo

Galaxy type Sc

M.36

Auriga

Open cluster

M.91

Coma Berenices

Galaxy

M.37

Auriga

Open cluster

M.92

Hercules

Globular cluster

M.38

Auriga

Open cluster cruciform

M.93

Puppis

Open cluster

M.39

Cygnus

Open cluster

M.94

Canes Venatici

Spiral Galaxy

M.40

Ursa Major

Double star

M.95

Leo

Galaxy type SBb

M.41

Canis Major

Open cluster naked eye

M.96

Leo

Galaxy type Sa.

M.42

Orion

Nebula Great nebula

M.97

Ursa major

Planetary Owl Nebula

M.43

Orion

Nebula part of M42

M.98

Coma Berenices

Galaxy type Sb

M.44

Cancer

Open cluster Praesepe.

M.99

Coma Berenices

Galaxy type Sc

M.45

Taurus

Open cluster Pleiades

M.100

Coma Berenices

Galaxy

M.46

Puppis

Open cluster

M.101

Ursa Major

Spiral galaxy

M.47

Puppis

Open cluster naked-eye

M.102

Not confirmed

May be NGC 5866

M.48

Hydra

Open cluster

M.103

Cassiopeia

Star cluster

M.49

Virgo

Galaxy type E4

M.104

Virgo

Galaxy

M.50

Monoceros

Open cluster none

M.105

Leo

Galaxy

M.51

Canes Benatici

Spiral galaxy Whirlpool

M.106

Canes Venatici

Galaxy

M.52

Cassiopeia

Open cluster

M.107

Ophiuchus

Star cluster

M.53

Coma Berenices

Globular cluster

M.108

Ursa Major

Galaxy

M.54

Sagittarius

Globular cluster

M.109

Ursa Major

Galaxy

M.55

Sagittarius

Globular cluster

M.110

Andromeda

Galaxy

The Messier Marathon is a term describing the attempt by amateur astronomers to find as many Messier objects as possible in one night. Depending on the location of the observer and the season there are a different number of them visible, as they are not evenly distributed in the celestial sphere. The best latitudes to attempt the marathon are around 25 degrees North but from the UK it is still possible to observe all 110 Messier objects in one night. This opportunity occurs once every year, around the middle to end of March and the best time to try is of course when the Moon is near its new phase or out of the night sky completely.

A wall chart containing images of all the 110 Messier objects

To achieve the goal of finding all the Messier objects it is necessary to start as soon as it is dark enough to see the most westerly objects. These objects will soon disappear over the western horizon so it is essential to catch them before they move out of view.

The observer must then start searching for the objects very much in the order they appear in the sky moving from east to west. This is to take advantage of the precession of the sky as the stars and objects appear to move east to west due to the rotation of Earth. This precession ensures new objects appear over the eastern horizon as the most westerly objects disappear over the western horizon.

It is essential to have a sequence list ready for the attempt so it can be conducted methodically. There should also be notes to help find each object and a time by which each object must be found before it becomes too difficult to find.

Some objects are easier to find than others and many are very familiar to amateur astronomers so these may take just a few seconds to find and tick off. However some are much more difficult and may take some considerable time. The Messier Marathon is just for fun so it is most important to enjoy the attempt rather than just to complete the marathon.

 

THE MESSIER MINI MARATHON

All this sounds very ambitious for the beginner to astronomy but there is an easier marathon. This is called the Messier Mini Marathon and has just 25 objects to find. The objects are the better known members of the Messier catalogue so they are brighter and easier to find. The mini marathon can be divided into four sessions from dusk to dawn. Here is a list of the Mini Marathon Objects:

Session 1 From dusk until about 21:00 (9 o'clock)

M31 The Andromeda Galaxy

M34 An Open Star Cluster near M31

M45 The Pleiades Cluster in Taurus

M42 The Great Nebula in Orion's Belt

M35 In t he neighbouring cluster in Gemini

M36 The second in the line of clusters in Auriga

M37 The first in the line of clusters in Auriga

M38 The third in the line of clusters in Auriga

M41 An Open Cluster near to Sirius the Dog Star

Session 2 From 22:00 (10 o'clock) until Midnight

M44 The ‘Beehive' cluster in Cancer

M81 A bright Galaxy in Ursa Major

M82 A second bright Galaxy close to M81

M65 A bright Galaxy below Leo

M66 A second bright Galaxy close to M65

M104 The ‘Sombrero' Galaxy in Virgo

Session 3 From 02:00 until about 04:00

M13 The Great Globular Cluster in Hercules

M92 A smaller and fainter Globular in Hercules

M57 The Ring Nebula (planetary) in Lyra

M27 The Dumbbell Nebula (planetary) in Vulpecula

Session 4 From 05:00 until dawn

M4 Globular Cluster close to Antares in Scorpio

M22 Globular Custer in Sagittarius

M11 The Wild Duck Cluster in Scutum

M5 Globular Cluster in Serpens

M15 Globular Cluster in Virgo

M71 Open Cluster in Sagitta

Some of the final session objects may be difficult to find if it is too close to dawn and the sky is beginning to brighten. So Sessions 3 amd 4 can be combined at a convenient time.

Unfortunately the whole marathon does take the whole night to complete so is not a task to be undertaken lightly, especially if the observer needs to go to work or school the next day. Having said that, although the main challenge is to complete the whole marathon in one night, it is not really necessary to do it all on the one night. The main object is to be able to find the objects on the list and ‘tick' them off.

If the object is quite difficult to find we can use a method called 'Star Hopping' to help. This involves using a detailed star chart to mark out a sequence of star hops to lead us to our target. A simplified hand drawn chart is worth producing to have to hand during the marathon.

The following pages have charts and some guidance to help find the Mini Marathon objects listed above.

 

Messier Mini Marathon Session 1 - From dusk until about 21:00 (9 o'clock)

 

Object
Image
Directions to the object

Messier 31 (M31)

The Great Spiral Galaxy

Constellation of Andromeda

This is a giant spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way Galaxy. It can just be seen with the naked eye in a dark and clear sky. A pair of binoculars will show it as a small 'fuzzy' patch of light. A telesope will reveal an elliptical patch of light with a bright core at the centre.

Find the constellation of Andromeda

Messier 34 (M34)

A small and sparce Open Cluster

Constellation of Perseus

This is a custer of of relatively young stars that have formed from the gas and dust in a Nebula (a cloud of gas and dust in a galaxy). There are about 80 stars in total in this cluster.

Find the constellation of Perseus

Messier 45 (M45) the Pleiades also called The Seven Sisters

A beautiful 'naked eye' Open Cluster in Taurus

This is a cluster of bright young stars with the seven brightest stars visible and able to be counted with the naked (unaided) eye. It is best seen using binoculars or a small telescope and a low magnification eyepiece.

Find the constellation of Taurus

Messier 42 (M42) Orion Nebula

A beautiful bright Nebula

Constellation of Orion

This is a brightest and best Nebula in our night sky. A Nebula is a cloud of gas and dust in a galaxy. New stars are forming in M42 and illuminating the nebula around them. The four stars at the centre of M42 are called the Trapezium and they are providing the light that is illuminating the Nebula around them.

Find the constellation of Orion

.

Messier 35 (M35) in Gemini

A lovely Open Cluster

This is the brightest and best Open Cluster that appears to be in a nearly staight line with the three Open Clusters in Auriga detailed below. It is the largest, brightest and most densly populated of these four Open Clusters. It can be found using binoculars. A telescope will show the string of stars winding through the cluster.

Find the constellation of Gemini

Messier 36 (M36)

A rather sparce Open Cluster

Constellation of Auriga

This is the centre of the three Open Clusters in Auriga. It is also quite small and more compact than M36. It can be found (with a little dificulty) using binoculars. The background of stars in the Milky Way does tend to obscure the cluster a little. It is not very impressive and less pleasing to the eye than M37.

Find the constellation of Auriga

The constellation of Auriga is located almost directly overhead at this time of the year. It has a distorted pentagon shape that includes the bright star Capella. First try to determine the shape of Auriga. Then imagine a line from the star Elnath to the star above called 'Theta' Aur (both marked on the chart below). imagine a line bisecting this line at 90º half way up the line. M36, M37 and M38 appear to be straddling this bisecting line.

See the chart below.

Messier 37 (M37)

A rather sparce Open Cluster

Constellation of Auriga

This is the lowest Open Cluster of the three in Auriga. It is actually located just outside the pentagon shapre of Auriga. It is small and compact but can be found ( with a little dificulty) using binoculars. The background of stars in the Milky Way does not help the search. It is best of the Auriga clusters.

Find the constellation of Auriga

Messier 38 (M38)

A rather sparce Open Cluster

Constellation of Auriga

This is the Open Cluster nearest of the three in Auriga to Capella. It is small and a bit scattered but can be found (with a little dificulty) using binoculars. The background of stars in the Milky Way does not help the search. It is not very impressive but can still be found using binoculars.

Find the constellation of Taurus

The constellation of Auriga is located almost directly overhead at this time of the year. It has a distorted pentagon shape that includes the bright star Capella. First try to determine the shape of Auriga. Then imagine a line from the star Elnath to the star above called 'Theta' Aur (both marked on the chart below). imagine a line bisecting this line at 90º half way up the line. M36, M37 and M38 appear to be straddling this bisecting line.

See the chart above.

 

Messier 41 (M41)

A rather sparce Open Cluster

Constellation of Canis Major

The constellation of Canis Major is very easy to find. Just follow the line of three stars of Orion's belt down the the left (east) for about five belt lengths and you will find the very bright star Sirius.

M41 is just below Sirius and can be found using binoculars, see the chart in the right column.

Find the constellation of Canis Major

Messier Mini Marathon Session 2 - From 22:00 until about Midnight

 

Object
Image
Directions to the object

Messier 44 (M44) Praesepe

The ‘Beehive' cluster in Cancer

This is a second largest and second brightest Open Cluster in the Messier Catalogue, only M45 is better. It is a naked eye object in a dark sky with no light pollution. It is best seen using binoculars. It can be seen in a small telescope using a low power eyepiece. There is a shape of stars within the cluster that looks like an old traditional conical straw bee hive. The other stars around it look like bees.

Find the constellation of Cancer

Messier 81 & 82 (M81 & M82)

A pair of Galaxies

Constellation of Ursa Major

This is a pair (actually a triplet) of relatively bright galaxies. M81 is a nearly face on giant spiral and M82 is an edge on Giant Spiral. They will need a telescope and a dark unpolluted sky.

Find the constellation of Ursa Major

Messier 65 & 66 (M65& M66)

A pair of Galaxies

Constellation of Leo

This is another pair (also actually a triplet) of relatively bright galaxies. M65 is a tilted giant spiral (top in the image) and M66 is nearly face on Giant Spiral. They will need a telescope and a dark unpolluted sky to see. There is another pair of galaxies M95 & M96 further to the west (right) below Leo.

Find the constellation of Leo

 

Messier 104 (M104)

The ‘Sombrero' Galaxy in Virgo

Constellation of Virgo

This is a beautiful galaxy to see in long exposure images. It has a bright Nucleus and a magnificent dust lane. It will need a telescope and a dark unpolluted sky to see. A more detailed star chart may be needed to to plot a 'star hopping' route to M104.

Find the constellation of Virgo

.

 

Messier Mini Marathon Sessions 3 and 4 - From Midnight until Dawn

 

Object
Image
Directions to the object

Messier 13 (M13)

Great Globular Cluster in Hercules

This is the closest and best Globular Cluster in our night sky. It is located in the constellation of Hercules and quite east to find using binoculars. It is a cluster of about a million stars and is one of about 90 globular clusters orbiting the centre of our Galaxy. They may be the dense cores of a small galaxies that have ventured too close to our Milky Way Galaxy and been stripped of their outer stars.

Find the constellation of Hercules

Messier 92 (M92)

Globular Cluster in Hercules

This another Globular Cluster in the constellation of Hercules. It is a more distant Cluster than M13 and consequently looks smaller than M13. It does have a much denser and a neater ball of stars than M13 but does need a telescope to see. It will need a high power eyepiece to see its outer stars as individual stars.

Find the constellation of Hercules

Messier 57 (M57)

A Planetary Nebula in Lyra

This is the best known Planetary Nebula. It is too small to see as a ring using binoculars so will need a telescope and a dark unpolluted sky. Using a larger telescope will enable the White Dwarf star at the centre of the ring to be seen. No colour will be seen as shown in the image, as a long exposure photo will be needed.

Find the constellation of Lyra

Messier 27 (M27) Dumbbell

A Planetary Nebula in Vulpecula

This is a beautiful Planetary Nebula to see in long exposure images. It does not appear as a ring like M57 but it does have two faint lobes of gas and dust. It will need a telescope and a dark unpolluted sky to see well. It is called the Dumbbell Nebula but is does actually look more like the faint shape of a butterfly.

Find the constellation of Vulpecula

Messier 4 (M4)

Globular Cluster in Scorpius

Mesier 4 (M4) is always low in the southern sky from the UK so is seen through the thick, mirky and turbulant air close to the southern horizon. It is also close to the Milky Way so has a background of a multitude of stars. It does really require a telescope to see as a cluster of indivivual stars.

 

Find the constellation of Scorpius

Messier 22 (M22)

Globular Custer in Sagittarius

Messier 22 (M22) is a globular cluster located near the Milky Way bulge in the constellation of Sagittarius. It is one of the brightest globular clusters in the sky and was one of the first objects of this kind to be discovered and later studied. M22 is also one of the nearest globular Clusters to us.

 

Find the constellation of Sagittarius

Messier 11 (M11)

Wild Duck Cluster in Scutum

This is a very beautiful Open Cluster in Scutum. It can be seen using binoculars but looks beautiful when seen using a telescope with a low power eyepiece. It is also sometimes called the ‘Jewel box'. It is quite low in the sky from the UK but it is bright and quite large so fairly easy to find.

Find the constellation of Scutum

Messier 5 (M5)

Globular Cluster in Serpens

M5 This is a lovely bright Globular Cluster located in Serpens. It is a cluster of about a million stars similar to M13 but appears slightly flattened. It is not so bright and large as M13 but it can be found using biniculars but is best seen through a telescope.

Find the constellation of Serpens

Messier 15 (M15)

Globular Cluster in Pegasus

Messier 15 (M15) is another lovely bright Globular Cluster located in Pegasus. It is a cluster of about a million stars similar to M13 but is not so large and bright. It can be found using biniculars but is best seen through a telescope. It will be the last Messier Mini Marathon Object to rise over the eastern horizon.

Find the constellation of Pegasus

Messier 71 (M71)

Open Cluster in Sagitta

M71 is a rather small and sparse Globular Cluster in Sagitta. It is a little difficult to discern against the Milky Way behind. Unlike M13, M5 and M15 it does not appear as a distinct spherical ball of stars so can be a disappointment when found. It is however an unusual Globular Cluster for a new astronomer to find.

Find the constellation of Sagitta

 

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