March 8, 2022
Flagstaff, AZ. – On March 11, Lowell Observatory will host a star party that shares scintillating views of 110 star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. This represents every object listed in the celestial compendium known as the Messier Catalog. This event includes an on-site component for observatory guests and members, as well as a free, virtual component that offers viewers from around the world the rare opportunity to see every one of these stellar superstars in a single evening.
In-person participation at Lowell Observatory runs from 6:30 – 10pm. Guests may observe Messier objects through the 8-inch Moonraker refracting telescope at Lowell’s Giovale Open Deck Observatory (GODO, lowell.edu/godo). From 10pm until midnight, Lowell will host a Members Only private event to continue the search.
The virtual component of the marathon runs from 6:30pm through 6:00am the following morning. Lowell will broadcast live from the GODO using a state-of-the-art, 14-inch PlaneWave telescope and Mallincam video camera. Viewers may watch at Messier Marathon 2022: An Overnight Virtual Star Party » Lowell Observatory.
Throughout both the in-person and virtual components of the marathon, Lowell Observatory educators will share telescopic views of the celestial objects as they become visible in the sky, explain the nature of these bodies, talk about the fascinating life of the catalog’s creator, Charles Messier, and answer questions from viewers.
This event takes place weather permitting. In the case of inclement weather in Flagstaff on March 11, the event will be rescheduled.
Background on the Messier Catalog and Marathon
In 1758, French astronomer and comet hunter Charles Messier detected a diffuse object in the sky that he initially believed to be Comet Halley. Further study revealed that it wasn’t a comet, but Messier nevertheless measured its position and then renewed his search for Halley, which he eventually saw.
This experience hooked Messier on comet hunting and he began a quest to find as many as possible. He would go on to discover or co-discover 20 in his lifetime. However, for every comet he found, he saw several of the cometary lookalikes. He decided to catalog them, with the intention of helping future astronomers avoid confusing these “bothersome” objects with comets.
Ironically, most sky watchers in modern times find these comet imposters much more interesting than the actual comets Messier recorded. They became so popular that by the end of the 1970s, several different amateur astronomers had begun trying to see all of the objects on a single night. They targeted a stretch of time from mid-March to early April (at other times, not everything is available to see), from sundown one day to sunup the next, and ideally when the Moon was near its new phase so that its light didn’t wash out the objects.
From these early, informal “Messier Marathons” grew organized, sanctioned events in which groups of observers often gather for an exhausting yet satisfying evening of camaraderie and accomplishment—a true marathon experience.
Kevin Schindler, Lowell Observatory