How do you plan for a Messier Marathon race? This ultimate astronomy challenge is as much a test of planning and preparedness as it is a test of skill. Experienced astronomers recommend you develop a minute-by-minute observation plan and choose your timing, location and gear wisely. Participate in the Marathon as a team or with a club, and you’ll be surrounded by support and helpful advice.
1) Form or join a Messier marathon team
A Messier marathon is meant to be a social activity, where communities of space-lovers connect and converse under the stars. Astronomy’s most difficult challenge, observing all 110 objects from the Messier Catalog, is significantly more rewarding when you have a group of friends or fellow stargazers to support, encourage and celebrate your efforts.
Reach out to fellow members of the Unistellar Network, and see if they want to form a team. Professional and amateur astronomers alike are active in the community, which includes 4,000 eVscope users in Europe, Japan and North America. eVscope users are active, supportive members of the astronomy community, and they frequently host virtual events and observations.
If you choose an in-person event, particularly in Covid-19 times, discuss and agree upon safety protocol early on. Masks make for great face-warmers on chilly nights! If in-person gatherings don’t feel safe for you, join or host a virtual observation event.
2) Choose your Messier Marathon dates wisely
The full Messier marathon can only be successfully completed during a limited time of year, typically mid-March through early April. Because of the faint nature of these deep-sky objects, you must choose a date that is as close as possible to the new moon. Otherwise, some objects will not be visible. Many astronomy clubs choose a Saturday night for their Messier marathon, since the event requires participants to stay up all night. But flexibility will be key, since Mother Nature is unpredictable.
3) Identify an ideal location to observe the Messier objects
Charles Messier was from France, and so the objects he discovered are located in the northern hemisphere. As such, observers must also be in the northern hemisphere—specifically within certain degrees latitude—in order to successfully observe all 110 objects in one evening. Otherwise, some objects will not be observable because they’re too close to the sun (and therefore too faint) or located below the horizon.
Whether you go for the full marathon or a shorter race, you must also consider your horizon, and how many trees, buildings or other items may obstruct your view of certain objects. Some of the observations are quite low to the horizon during their visible period. A dry-run at your chosen location will help you’ll encounter challenges during your scheduled plan.
Finally, determine how dark your location is. The Bortle scale measures the night sky’s brightness in a particular location using a 1-9 scale. Check interactive light pollution maps online, or use a smartphone app to check your sky quality.
Lastly, are there any bright lights in your immediate area that could unexpectedly pollute your sky? Check your location at night, not during the day, just to be sure.
4) Invest in the right gear to see deep-sky objects
Most Messier objects are invisible to the naked eye, so you’ll have to invest in binoculars or a telescope to observe them. It can be extremely complicated to locate these objects and view their rich color and detail, so don’t hesitate to rely on high-tech gear such as smartphone apps and automated pointing-and-tracking systems.
Unistellar’s eVscope is a powerful partner for this thrilling and challenging task. Proprietary low-light and imaging technology allows for real-time views of colorful deep-sky objects, including nebulae, galaxies, star clusters and more. What previously required extensive knowledge and hours of observation time can now be completed by novices, in little time.
The eVscope is equipped with Autonomous Field Detection technology, providing extremely accurate and easy-to-use pointing and tracking, as well as detailed information about the objects you are observing. The eVscope also features patented Enhanced Vision technology that allows for accumulation of light that is imperceptible to the human eye, providing users with an unparallelled live observation of faint objects.
5) Consult the experts for advice
The Marathon is a test of planning and preparedness, as much as it is a test of skill. And part of the fun in participating is learning the Messier story and savoring the beauty of the objects.
Read a book about the Messier Marathon, such as The Unistellar Guide to the Messier Marathon, a free ebook available for download or printing. Other books provide an extreme level of detail on each object, including detailed star charts, but can be a cumbersome read. If you have a lot of time on your hands, consider The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide by H. C. Pennington or The Observing Guide to the Messier Marathon: A Handbook and Atlas by Donald Machholz.
Consult with members of the Unistellar Network using the dedicated eVscope user groups on Facebook, or the private Slack channel dedicated to citizen science. Professional and amateur astronomers alike are active in the community, which is fun, supportive, inspiring and diverse. You can get encouragement and support in multiple languages, including English, French, Japanese, and German.
6) Create an observation plan
First, refer to the Unistellar Guide and observation plan, which offers a general recommendation for your viewing order and timing, along with brief descriptions and images of each object. Save the guide on your smartphone or tablet, or print a version for easy reference and notetaking.
Next, print a highly detailed plan based on your observing date and location. We recommend using “Larry McNish’s Messier Marathon Planner Version 1.52,” a fast and detailed web tool that will let you know which objects cannot be observed in your location, and why. You can choose a variety of viewing sequences, input horizon limits, and select from a few high-quality viewing sequences.
7) Practice, practice, practice
As with a traditional marathon, training is essential to success. You can’t show up for a highly challenging marathon and expect to wing it.
Practice key portions of your observation plan in the days and weeks leading up to your official event. You don’t have to complete the full marathon during training, simply choose the most challenging legs of your race. Then, invest a few hours of observation time each week, or whenever Mother Nature provides the opportunity.
8) Prepare for an all-nighter
Waking up for a middle-of-the-night training observation will give you a keen understanding of how tired, cold or hungry you may get during the actual event. You’ll likely be more tired, cold, hungry and thirsty than anticipated. Nocturnal living can be a challenge!
Don’t skimp on the warm clothes and blankets, comfy chairs, snacks and beverages. Figure out where you’ll go when you need to use the restroom. Bring red lamps to protect your night vision, and white-light flashlights to help when you drop something or need to clean up. Invest in power banks and external battery packs.
9) Be mindful of star party etiquette
Each astronomy club has its own rules, or you can establish your own. Check out Unistellar’s Star Party Etiquette Guide for ideas. Understanding and adhering to star party etiquette will ensure everyone has a good time during a long night of darkness.
10) Share your love of the stars
Observing a Messier marathon is a thrilling experience; sharing your observations with other stargazers can be equally gratifying. Share your observations on social media using the #UnistellarMarathon hashtag to join a global conversation about the Messier marathon and astronomy. Be sure you set your image privacy to “Public” or this sharing may not be visible to the global astronomy community.
If you’re competing with an eVscope, don’t forget to save and share your images with Unistellar, and compete for fun prizes and bragging rights. Fellow members of the eVscope user groups on Facebook always appreciate seeing your beautiful captures.