Happy Spring! Happy New Moon! And Happy Wednesday!
To kick off the astrological new year we’re going to be doing the biggest Stargazing Side Quest yet – A Messier Marathon! Tonight you’ll have stargazing opportunities the whole night to find 11 different celestial objects instead of just one at our usual time of 10pm!
Messier Marathons are stargazing events where amateur astronomers try to find as many Messier objects as they can during one night. These events are named after French astronomer Charles Messier – a comet hunter who created a list of fuzzy-looking celestial objects that others might mistake for comets. This originally started off as a “things to avoid looking at in the sky” list, but today its 110 objects are ironically celebrated by astronomers because, as it turns out, with modern day observing equipment, these objects are quite pretty!
Messier Marathons usually take place between mid-March to early April, preferably as close to the new Moon as possible. This is because the skies are darker without the light of the Moon so its easier to observe the fainter objects. The time period between March-April is chosen because the Sun is in the constellations Aquarius and Pisces. Since there are no Messier objects in these constellations, they aren’t obscured by the light of the Sun so they can all be seen between sunset and sunrise.
While there are 110 different Messier objects that can be found during a Messier Marathon, we will be focusing on a list of 11 that are easy to find. If you want to go all out, you can download this handy checklist from Celestron and try to find more. In order to find all 110, you’ll need a telescope, but the 11 Messier objects we’ll be looking for tonight can all be easily seen with either the naked eye or a small pair of binoculars.
Instead of going out at 10pm tonight, you can go out at any time after sunset until the wee hours of the morning. At any point in time through the night there will be observable Messier objects (assuming viewing conditions are favorable).
If you want to start right after sunset, the first thing I recommend checking out tonight is Jupiter. While not a Messier object, it is about to be under the Sun’s beams soon so we only have a couple days left to see it in the western sky before sunset. So might as well pay the planet of jovial abundance a visit before embarking on this stargazing adventure. Venus will be VERY bright in the evening western sky so be sure to pay this beauty a visit too.
Onto the actual list!
The first Messier object you can find tonight is M45 aka The Pleiades. We’ve already found this for week 44 so check out that week’s post for more info about the Seven Sisters. To find M45, start from bright Venus and keep looking up until you see what looks like a tiny, fuzzy big dipper. This will be visible once it gets dark until around 10pm ET.
Now let’s head over to the constellation Orion where we’ll find our next two Messier objects. One is M42, the Orion nebula, which we found recently for week 57. The other is actually right in the same general spot, called M43 or de Mairan’s nebula. These two can be seen until around 11pm ET. M42 can be seen easily with the naked eye, but you’ll need binoculars or a telescope to differentiate M43 from it. Either way, you’re basically looking right at it so feel free to cross em both off your list.
After Orion head east to the bright star Sirius in Canis Major (Week 16 and 55). Above Sirius is the constellation we found last week for Week 61, Monoceros. In between Sirius and Monoceros is where you’ll find the Heart-Shaped cluster M50. While you’re here, look a bit east of M50 to find the open clusters M46 and M47. M47 should be visible with the naked eye, but you’ll need a pair of binoculars or small telescope to see M46.
After that, keep heading southeast between Canis Major and the constellation Puppis to find M93 – the Butterfly cluster. M93 will also need at least a small pair of binoculars to see, but you still get points for finding where these fainter objects are in the sky even if they’re too faint to see with the naked eye. M46, 47, 50, and M93 will be up until around midnight ET.
Now head up from Sirius to Procyon (Week 56) and up to the constellation Cancer (Week 12). Right in the middle of this constellation is M44 the Beehive cluster. This cluster of stars can be seen with the naked eye and will be visible until around 2am ET.
If you’re up super late you can find the last few Messier objects in and near the constellation Scorpius (Week 21). The first is called M4 the Crab globular cluster. M4 can be found right next to Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius. Then look down toward the scorpions tail to the space between Scorpius and the constellation Sagittarius (Week 26). In this part of the sky you’ll find our last two Messier Marathon targets: M6 the Butterfly cluster (there’s apparently two Butterfly clusters) and M7 Ptolemy’s cluster. All three of these Messier objects can be seen with the naked eye.
If you’re looking up in the evening you can find M45, the Pleiades.
If you’re looking up around 9-10pm ET you can find M42 and M43.
If you’re stargazing around 10pm-12am you can find M46, M47, M50, and M93
If you’re up after midnight you can see M44.
If you pulled an all-nighter and are up in the wee hours of the morning you can see M4, M6, and M7.
How many Messier objects did you find? I might fall asleep too early for the last four, but I’ll try to get the earlier ones like the Pleiades, Orion nebula, and some of the star clusters. Let us know which ones you found by tagging us with your stargazing pics @stargazingsidequest and @liminal.earth! We always love to see how you’re participating in #WUFO and how you make it uniquely fun and exciting!
Pictures are all screenshots from Stellarium.