The Marathon That Spans Light Years: An Astronomer’s Race

The Race of Astronomers: The Messier Marathon

From mid-near the end of March, astronomers prepare groups, snacks, locations, and their telescope setups (called scopes) in preparation for the annual Messier Marathon. But this isn’t your typical type of marathon. No, astronomers will not be running an aerobic 42km race. However, they will be racing across light years in search of ancient objects that have been shining millions of years before the formation of the Solar System. And this is all thanks to a French astronomer by the name of Charles Messier.

The Messier Marathon is a grueling and strategic challenge that involves finding, and documenting – whether this be visually or through photographic means – all the Messier Marathons of the night sky. Usually, even the experienced astronomers and astrophotographers fail, but there are always few that prevail; those who have planned for many months and possibly years for the most strategic route throughout the night sky.

You may be asking – what are Messier objects?

The catalog of “Messier” comes from the renowned French astronomer Charles Messier, who was known as a comet hunter. However, to the naked eye, a comet is a diffuse “glob” of glowing matter in the night sky – hard to tell apart from galaxies and nebulae in the night sky. While on the search for comets, Messier came across the Crab Nebula – a supernova remnant visually observed by Chinese astronomers – and believed it was a comet. Hence, he began his catalog, (mis)naming the nebula “Messier 1”.

This process continued until the 110th object, which is a satellite galaxy located near Messier 31 (The Great Andromeda Galaxy). By then, his Messier Catalog was full of various nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters scattered throughout the constellations of the sky. Ironically, none of these were comets – not even remotely close!

A few hundred years later, the amateur astronomers of this generation have taken on the same challenge as Messier to visually observe all 110 Messier objects that have been cataloged. The only difference is that this marathon takes place on a single night, whereas Messier spent years with his colleagues discovering such objects.

So grab a telescope and step outside on a clear and frigid March night. Start with the bright objects – perhaps Messier 42 (The Orion Nebula), Messier 45 (The Pleiades Star Cluster), or Messier 31 (the diffuse Andromeda Galaxy), and begin your quest searching through the night sky for Messier’s galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. Perhaps you will be one of the few sky watchers to hold the title of the astronomer who completed the Messier Marathon in a single night.

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