Messier's challenge: 110 unique objects in the night sky

In 1781, a French astronomer catalogued 110 unique objects in the night sky. Over the next week, you can see them all - if you look hard enough. Steve Connor reports

Tonight and every night for the next week or so you have the chance of taking part in an extraordinary marathon. No running is involved. All that's needed is a clear night, warm clothing and a telescope.

Serious astronomers call it the Messier Marathon after the 18th-century French astronomer Charles Messier, who first began to catalogue some of the more unusual celestial objects of the night sky. If you can see and count all 110 Messier objects, the marathon is done.

On the night of 23-24 March 1985, Gerry Rattley from Dugas, Arizona, was probably the first person to complete the Messier Marathon in one session - aided by the crystal-clear sky in his part of the world. Some amateurs aim to do it in one night, others are content to take a week.

This time of the year, after the vernal equinox and with the help of a new moon and a cloudless sky, is an especially good time to attempt the Messier Marathon. But it is a formidable task and even seasoned professionals admit that there are still some objects in the catalogue that they have yet to observe.

"It's a very serious challenge," said Professor Mark Bailey, director of the Armagh Observatory. "It's a bit like an amateur runner trying to do the mile in four-and-a-half minutes."

Charles Messier began cataloguing the "Messier" or "M" objects when he first detected a misty cloud of light on the night of 12 September 1758. "This nebula had such a resemblance to a comet in its form and brightness that I endeavoured to find others, so that astronomers would no more confuse these same nebulae with comets just beginning to appear," he later wrote.

The Andromeda galaxy is listed at M31 in the Messier catalogue. The Orion Nebula is M42, and M45 is better known as Pleides, or the "seven sisters", which are easily visible with the unaided eye.

Professor Bailey said that to Messier and his contemporaries, many of these objects did not look like ordinary stars or planets. "At the time people were not clear what these smudgy objects were. After all, people had just got used to the idea of the Earth going around the Sun," he says.

With bigger and better telescopes, astronomers began to distinguish between distant galaxies, true nebulae of gas clouds and remnants of massive supernova explosions, such as the Crab nebula first observed by Chinese astronomers in the 11th century.

Going through the catalogue, even if you don't make it to the end, is like taking a tour through the history and the science of astronomy, says Professor Bailey. "When you do the marathon you are making a contact with the history of astronomy, and you are making contact with the huge diversity of objects in the Universe."

It took a lifetime for Messier to compile his catalogue, which was interrupted at one stage by serious injury after he fell into an ice cellar. Now anyone with a good telescope can follow in his footsteps, with some help from the weather.

For details on how to embark on the Messier Marathon, visit www.universetoday.com

Many of the objects in Messier's Marathon are identified only as numbers. The others are called:

M1 Crab nebula; M6 Butterfly cluster; M7 Ptolemy's cluster; M8 Lagoon nebula; M11 Wild Duck cluster; M13 Great Hercules Globular cluster; M16 cluster associated with the Eagle or Star Queen nebula IC 4703; M17 Omega nebula; M20 Trifid nebula; M24 Milky Way Patch; M27 Dumbbell nebula; M31 Andromeda galaxy; M32 satellite galaxy of the Andromeda galaxy; M33 Triangulum galaxy; M40 Double Star, Winnecke 4; M42 Orion nebula; M43 de Mairan's nebula; M44 Praesepe, the Beehive cluster; M45 Subaru, the Pleiades; M51 Whirlpool galaxy; M57 Ring nebula; M63 Sunflower galaxy; M64 Black Eye galaxy; M73 System or Asterism of Four Stars; M76 Little Dumbbell, Cork, or Butterfly nebula; M81 Bode's galaxy; M82 Cigar galaxy; M83 Southern Pinwheel galaxy; M87 Virgo A; M97, Owl nebula; M101 Pinwheel galaxy; M104 Sombrero galaxy; M110 satellite galaxy of the Andromeda galaxy

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor