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