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Messier marathon madness

Thursday, April 7, 2011

In the latter part of the 1700s, French astronomer Charles Messier (pronounced Mess-e-a) spent much of his time looking for comets. While looking for the soon-returning Halley's Comet he ran across a bright, fuzzy spot that attracted his attention.

After plotting this object and determining it could not be the expected comet, he decided to start a list of those things which, although possibly looking like comets, were not, in fact, comets.

This fuzzy thing he found he labeled on his list as M1. It is known to us today as the Crab Nebula residing near the star Zeta Tauri, the end star in the lower horn of Taurus, the Bull.

In his lifetime Messier discovered 20 comets on his own but kept adding to his list of things that were not comets. The discoveries of other astronomers were also added over the years and the list ultimately grew to 110 objects, although a couple of them are thought to be either duplicates or of questionable observation.

One of the many fun things astronomers do these days is called a "Messier Marathon," or attempting to locate and observe all 110 of the Messier objects in one night.

Such an event, while challenging and somewhat strenuous, can be of great entertainment for those involved. I call it the astronomical version of "March Madness" because the best time to attempt these events is late March and early April when all 110 objects can indeed be viewed in one night.

In attempting this marathon event, the astronomer starts in the west picking up the early objects and travels across the sky to the east racing the rising sun to pick out the last stragglers before the bright sunlight washes out the sky.

I have never participated in a Messier Marathon, but it is one of the things I have on my "Bucket List" of those things I would certainly like to do.

Well, this past week such an event presented itself.

In conjunction with Global Astronomy Month events the Virtual Telescope project, under the direction of Mr. Gianluca Masi of Ceccana, Italy, opened the use of two robotic telescopes which would locate as many of the Messier Objects as possible and broadcast the event live around the world by Internet for any who would want to watch.

Well, this is too good to pass up. Starting at noon local time on Saturday, April 1, and continuing until just before midnight, the game was afoot. Mr. Masi, at the controls of the computer operated telescopes provided a running commentary on what was being observed and responded to live question posted by some of the more than 3,000 individuals from around the world who had logged-on to the event, myself included.

Starting with M41, a bright open star cluster in the constellation Puppis, the chase was on and continued all night ending with the brilliant M22 Sagittarius Star Cluster which was nearly washed out by the rising sun.

True, this was not one of those "in the field" marathons but it contained all the excitement and thrill of the chase and the fun of communicating with people from all around the world was certainly worth it. Besides, I could participated from the comfort of my own soft chair in front of my computer instead of being outside freezing myself. That's fun, isn't it?

SKY WATCH: First quarter moon Monday, April 11. Tonight, Thursday, April 7, a very slender crescent moon will be hovering just above the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus, the Bull. It will be a great binocular event. Just to the left of the moon is bright Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus.

NEXT WEEK: More astronomical blathering.

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Vernon Whetstone
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