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BACK BAY AMATEUR ASTRONOMERS


"Bringing Astronomy to the People of Hampton Roads"

BACK BAY AMATEUR ASTRONOMERS

"Bringing Astronomy to the People of Hampton Roads"

BACK BAY AMATEUR ASTRONOMERS


"Bringing Astronomy to the People of Hampton Roads"

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Welcome to the Back Bay Amateur Astronomers website

Amateur is Latin for lover and our club originally met in the Back Bay to look at the stars

We are a group of dedicated amateur astronomers drawn together by a common interest in astronomy. Our club was founded on December 14, 1978 by members dedicated to promoting amateur astronomy.

We invite you to come to our any of our free monthly events to take a look through our telescopes and learn more about the night sky.

The BBAA is an active member society of the Astronomical League, a part of the Night Sky Network, and a member of the Virginia Association of Astronomical Societies (VAAS). We are also active on social media. Please visit our social media pages on BBAA Yahoo Group, BBAA Facebook Group, BBAA Twitter page, BBAA Facebook page and Instagram to stay up to date with our club's latest activities.

Clear skies

Messier Marathon

Club member George Reynolds prepared the following information for the Messier Marathon and it was originally published in our club's newsletter "The Observer". You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here .

Getting Ready Messier Marathon (Part I)

It’s time to get ready for the annual Messier Marathon! What’s that you say? That the Messier Marathon “window” is closed for this year? Then I say it is time to get ready for next year’s Messier Marathon.

The optimal time of year for a Messier Marathon is the last couple weeks of March. That is when it is potentially possible to see all 110 (109 for purists) Messier objects in one night of observing. But that means that now is the time to sharpen your skills to be able to attempt a Messier Marathon in 2018.

You may ask, “What is a Messier Marathon, and why should I do it?” “Messier Marathon” Is a term describing an attempt to find as many Messier objects as possible in one night. The objects are not evenly distributed across the celestial sphere, so depending on the season of the year and the location of the observer, there will be a varying number of them visible in the night sky. The Messier Marathon idea occurred in the 1970s independently among several North American and perhaps one Spanish amateur astronomers and groups.

Many amateur astronomers – and especially many professionals – never see all the Messier objects in their lifetimes. Attempting to find them all in one night can improve one’s techniques and ability to search for and locate celestial objects. There is the benefit of seeing, in one night, major components of our galaxy: open and globular star clusters, various nebulas and multiple stars, and other galaxies beyond our own. There is also the satisfaction of finding them, and perhaps of working with others in a mutual quest for a common goal.

The distribution of the Messier objects varies greatly across the night sky. Some areas are heavily crowded, like the Virgo Cluster and Coma Berenices, and Sagittarius near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Other parts of the sky are virtually empty of Messier objects, such as near the Great Square of Pegasus and between Ursa Major and Gemini. If you practice finding them now, you will have more chance for success at Messier Marathon time.

Timing is critical. In summertime there are not enough hours of darkness to see all 110 objects. The sun sets too late and rises too early, causing many early and late objects to be lost in the twilight or daylight. In winter, some of the objects don’t rise high enough above the horizon to be seen at our latitude, which is about 37 degrees North. Early spring, in mid- to late March, is the best time to try to perform a Messier Marathon.

Of course, there are other considerations besides time of the year: day of the week, Moon phase, weather, light pollution, local horizons, instrument(s) used, and latitude. Concerning latitude, observers farther south, say, in South Florida or the southern tip of Texas, around 25 degrees North Latitude, would have more nights when they could see all 110, than would their counterparts farther north.

For observers who have to go to work throughout the week, weekends are best for staying up for a long night of observing. When the Moon is between three days before New Moon and two days after, its brightness is not a hindering factor. At other times, with a few exceptions, the early-rising or late-setting Moon may wash out many of the dim Messier objects. An unobstructed horizon is needed after sunset for the early-setting Messier objects, and a clear eastern horizon in the early morning is an aid to see those rising just before dawn.

A dark location is much preferred, as far as possible from local light pollution and the light domes of large urban areas. Of course, weather is a factor that cannot be taken for granted. Clear skies are a must to be able to see all the “faint fuzzy” objects of the Messier catalog. Unfortunately, weather cannot be accurately predicted far enough in advance, so alternative weekends may be necessary in your plans, in hopes that one of them will have a clear night.

This discussion started out with the teaser, “time to get ready” for a Messier Marathon. As we have said, one way to get ready is to plan your observing weekend and location, chosen to minimize light pollution and obstacles on the horizons. Another is to plan a date and time when the Moon’s brightness will not interfere, and to have alternative dates, in case of bad weather.

The last, but not the least important consideration is to prepare how to find the Messier objects. You will need to practice, practice, practice to hone your search skills and your familiarity with the Messier objects; how to locate, and then identify each one when you find it. You will need to practice finding them quickly, before they set in the west, or before sunrise obliterates them from the morning skies. You don’t want to become overwhelmed in those regions densely populated with targets.

But that will be the subject of another article. Start planning now to find a good time and location for next year’s Messier Marathon. Next time, in Part 2, I’ll give you tips on how to search, locate, and identify those elusive faint fuzzies. We’ll talk about the observing sequence, reference books and helps, the instrument(s) to use, and the experience you will gain by practicing mini-marathons throughout the year.

A Suggested Messier Marathon Search Sequence

Compiled online by Hartmut Frommert, using the work of Don Machholz. This list should be good for northern latitudes 20 to 40 degrees. Depending on geographic location, it may be impossible to find them all, and may be better to slightly modify this list. In case of doubt, consult Don Machholz’s book.


1
Messier 77

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2
Messier 74

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3
Messier 33

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4
Messier 31

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5
Messier 32

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6
Messier 110

7
Messier 52

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8
Messier 103

9
Messier 76

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10
Messier 34

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11
Messier 45

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12
Messier 79

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13
Messier 42

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14
Messier 43

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15
Messier 78

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16
Messier 1

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17
Messier 35

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18
Messier 37

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19
Messier 36

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20
Messier 38

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21
Messier 41

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22
Messier 93

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23
Messier 47

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24
Messier 46

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25
Messier 50

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26
Messier 48

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27
Messier 44

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28
Messier 67

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29
Messier 95

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30
Messier 96

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31
Messier 105

32
Messier 65

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33
Messier 66

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34
Messier 81

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35
Messier 82

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36
Messier 97

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37
Messier 108

38
Messier 109

39
Messier 40

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40
Messier 106

41
Messier 94

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42
Messier 63

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43
Messier 51

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44
Messier 101

45
Messier 102

46
Messier 53

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47
Messier 64

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48
Messier 3

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49
Messier 98

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50
Messier 99

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51
Messier 100

52
Messier 85

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53
Messier 84

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54
Messier 86

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55
Messier 87

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56
Messier 89

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57
Messier 90

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58
Messier 88

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59
Messier 91

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60
Messier 58

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61
Messier 59

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62
Messier 60

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63
Messier 49

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64
Messier 61

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65
Messier 104

66
Messier 68

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67
Messier 83

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68
Messier 5

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69
Messier 13

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70
Messier 92

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71
Messier 57

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72
Messier 56

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73
Messier 29

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74
Messier 39

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75
Messier 27

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76
Messier 71

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77
Messier 107

78
Messier 12

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79
Messier 10

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80
Messier 14

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81
Messier 9

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82
Messier 14

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83
Messier 80

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84
Messier 19

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85
Messier 62

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86
Messier 6

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87
Messier 7

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88
Messier 11

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89
Messier 26

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90
Messier 16

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91
Messier 17

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92
Messier 18

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93
Messier 24

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94
Messier 25

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95
Messier 23

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96
Messier 21

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97
Messier 26

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98
Messier 8

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99
Messier 28

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100
Messier 22

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101
Messier 69

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102
Messier 70

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103
Messier 54

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104
Messier 55

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105
Messier 75

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106
Messier 15

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107
Messier 2

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108
Messier 72

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109
Messier 73

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110
Messier 30

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For a PDF version of the Messier Objects from the information above click here.

Getting Ready Messier Marathon (Part II)

Charles Messier was a comet hunter, perhaps one of the first, in the 18th century. He kept coming across faint, fuzzy objects which at first glance appeared to be comets, but which turned out to be nebulae, galaxies, star clusters, and even a double star or two. He cataloged more than 100 of these objects for other comet hunters to avoid when searching for real comets. Ironically, today, more than 200 years later, we seek out those objects he cataloged to be avoided. Finding all the objects in the Messier catalog has become almost a rite of passage for serious amateur astronomers. The Astronomical League offers pins and certificates for those who identify 70 to 110 M-objects with binoculars or a telescope.

Some ambitious amateur astronomers even try to find all 110 objects in one night of observing. They call it a Messier Marathon, and you too can do it! In our first article (May 2017) we talked about planning for location, Moon phase, and time of year to do your Messier Marathon. This time we will deal with honing your skills at searching, finding, and identifying them all, with references for search sequence and tips for building your experience level, so you can participate in such a marathon next year.

There are so many books and references for the Messier Marathon that it may take a third article on this topic. We will mention two of them here: The Observing Guide to the Messier Marathon by Don Machholz and The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide by the late Harvard Pennington. Reading these books and following their guidance will give you experience in finding and recognizing Messier objects.

Don Machholz was one of the earliest founders of the Messier Marathon. In his book, on page 65, he says this about experience:

“If you can, right now, tell the person nearest you what M1 looks like through your telescope, or what type of object M107 is, or which Messier Object is close to M65, then you have more than enough experience to do well in the Messier Marathon. If you can’t, then the best way to gain the experience is to go out tonight and see some Messier Objects. This is not the type of thing you can learn from a book (even this one), but comes from nights out under the stars.”

A book I highly recommend is Pennington’s book, which I abbreviate “TYRMMFG”. Not only does it tell you, with sketches, sky charts, and simulated finder views, how to find the Messier objects, it has enough description to help you identify the objects when you find them.

The order in which you try to find the M objects, called the “search sequence”, is important. You will want to catch objects before they set in the west and are gone from view, or before they disappear in the early morning twilight. The books and several online sources have several alternative search sequences, differing mainly in the first and last objects to look for. In general, M74, M77, M33, and M31 will be among the first items you attempt in evening twilight, while M15, M2, M72, M73, and M30 will be the ones you try to catch in the early dawn. A complete search sequence can be found in Machholz, Pennington, and any number of online links, such as that of the organization, Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS): http://messier.seds.org/xtra/marathon/marath2.html

According to Pennington and Machholz, you can do a “mini-marathon” any time of the year. Any given night there are fifty to sixty Messier objects visible in the night sky. Good advice for your potential marathon is to search them out now, whichever ones are available, and practice your skills at locating and identifying. To make it more fun, try a cooperative effort with another amateur astronomer or two. You can help each other, and enjoy the camaraderie, the joint adventure, and the satisfaction. This applies to your Messier Marathon in March as well.

Some considerations to keep in mind dealing with the search: 1) Get familiar in the fall and winter with those objects that will be the first to set early in the evening in March, so you can find them quickly at the start of your marathon. 2) By the same token, practice finding the early-rising objects by locating them in prime time in the spring and summer. 3) Since the Messier objects are not evenly spread across the sky, there will be very busy search times, like in the Virgo cluster of galaxies in late evening, then a lull after midnight, when there are no objects to find. You might want to take a nap, or get some refreshment and prepare for the spate of early morning objects in Scorpius and Sagittarius, when you will need to locate some 25 objects in a short period of time, ahead of the brightening dawn (and you will be really tired).

The Astronomical League has awards for both binocular and telescopic Messier searches. I suggest you use both in your practice for the marathon. The binoculars will help you locate your targets in their starry context, and you can zero in on them with your telescope and fully identify them. Log them as you find them, even for practice, and indicate “binocular” and/or “telescope”. You can find the requirements for the A.L. awards at https://www.astroleague.org/al/obsclubs/messier/mess.html.

Send a copy of your logs to the club’s ALCor (Astronomical League Correspondent – Bill McLean for the BBAA) when you have logged 70 (binocular) or all 110 (telescope) Messier objects. Practice finding the M-objects throughout the year, so that you can quickly locate and log them for your Messier Marathon in March. I suggest you use BOTH binoculars and a telescope, and log your observations. That way, you can earn both the Binocular Messier award and the telescope awards with not much extra effort.

Some Hints on Strategy

Don Machholz, one of the originators of the “Messier Marathon” concept, says in his book,

“A well-designed search sequence should take you from one Messier Object to the next with minimum movement; it should also get you through the list without missing anything. This means it is important to find evening objects before they set, and morning objects just after they rise. * * * Even though March and April are the best months for logging the greatest number of Messier Objects, a Marathon can be held during other times of the year too. * * * We have become familiar with the traditional March Messier Marathon . . . that is when the sun is near 14 hours of right ascension and it blocks out very few of the Messier Objects. It is also south of the equator, giving longer nights to northern hemisphere observers. In March the globular cluster M30 is difficult to see. In the fall Messier Marathon M30 is easy, and the southern galaxy M83 replaces M30 as the hardest to find.”

(pp. 66 -67, The Observing Guide to the Messier Marathon: A Handbook and Atlas by Don Machholz).

Harvard Pennington, in his book, The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide, uses a slightly different order. He does not number them, as in the table above, but this is the order in which they appear on the pages of his book, arranged by constellation:

1-M74, 2-M77, 3-M31, 4-M110, 5-M32, 6-M33, 7-M34, 8-M76, 9-M79, 10-M42, 11-M43, 12-M78, 13-M50, 14-M47, 15-M46, 16-M41, 17-M93, 18-M52, 19-M103, 20-M1, 21-M45, 22-M36, 23-M37, 24-M38, 25-M35, 26-M48, 27-M44, 28-M67, 29-M65, 30-M66, 31-M95, 32-M96, 33-M105, 34-M3, 35-M53, 36-M64, 37-M85, 38-M51, 39-M101/M102, 40-M106, 41-M40, 42-M81, 43-M82, 44-M97, 45-M108, 46-M109, 47-M102(Alt.), 48-M63, 49-M94, 50-M68, 51-M83, 52-M104, 53-M61, 54-M49, 55-M58, 56-M59, 57-M60, 58-M84, 59-M86, 60-M87, 61-M88, 62-M89, 63-M90, 64-M91, 65-M98, 66-M99, 67-M100, 68-M13, 69-M92, 70-M56, 71-M57, 72-M71, 73-M27, 74-M29, 75-M39, 76-M5, 77-M10, 78-M12, 79-M107, 80-M9, 81-M14, 82-M11, 83-M26, 84-M16, 85-M17, 86-M18, 87-M6, 88-M7, 89-M19, 90-M62, 91-M4, 92-M80, 93-M8, 94-M20, 95-M21, 96-M23, 97-M24, 98-M25, 99-M22, 100-M28, 101-M54, 102-M69, 103-M70, 104-M55, 105-M75, 106-M15, 107-M2, 108-M72, 109-M73, 110-M30.

Pennington has a whole chapter (Chapter 5) on learning the constellations and their “signposts”, to make it easier for you to locate the Messier objects in those constellations. As I said previously, practice, practice, practice ahead of time, so you are familiar with the objects and where to find them. He also emphasizes that you should locate the easy objects first, and stay in order, so you don’t forget or skip any. In Chapter 8 he explains the types of objects you will be looking for: galaxies, globular clusters, open clusters, nebulae of various types, double stars, asterisms, and possible “Messier mistakes”, and a duplication.

Some Final Hints and Tips

Here are some final suggestions for a successful Messier Marathon. Pick the right date, avoid the moon, and plan alternate dates in case of bad weather. Bring warm clothes, food, extra batteries and pens or pencils and log sheets for logging your finds. Prepare for dew with a lens hood or (better) a dew heater. Know when twilight occurs, both evening and morning. Allow time to locate each object; don’t spend so much time on one object that you miss finding others.

And to add to the realtor’s emphasis on location, location, location, I’ll add (again), practice, practice, practice. Get prepared for a challenging Messier Marathon, and have fun!