MESSIER MARATHON NIGHT AT CHARTERHOUSE OBSERVATORY

 

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M104 The Sombrero Galaxy  - Image: NASA/Hubble/STScI

The Wells and Mendip Astronomers held their first Charterhouse Observatory event on Saturday 9th March, an evening dedicated to discovering the beautiful deep-sky objects listed in Charles Messier’s famous catalogue.

Unfortunately, poor weather got the better of our programme of observation. However, we enjoyed an interesting evening of activities, including a talk on the Messier objects, an exhibition of posters on the night sky and the stunning astrophotography work of Joanne and Peter Richardson. These were followed by a tour of the observatory and demonstration of its Fullerscopes 18.25” reflector and how to drive it from a laptop using Stellarium software.

Later, the gathered enthusiasts tried their hand at a space quiz, after which there was a chance for members and guests to chat and get to know one another while enjoying our Webmaster Dick Cummings’ excellent soup - perfect for a cold Mendip night.

As for the weather, well, better luck next time!

Charles Messier and his catalogue

 

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Charles Messier - Image: Wikipedia

Charles Messier (1730-1817) was one of the greatest observational astronomers of his age. Having come toParisin his late teens to work as an astronomer’s assistant, he went to work for wealthy astronomy professor, Joseph Delisle, in 1751. He became a very competent observer and recorder of astronomical events at Paris Marine Observatory, eventually becoming Chief Astronomer of the Navy inFrance.

He was renowned as a comet hunter – King Louis XIV called him ‘le furet des comètes’, the ‘comet ferret’ – discovering his first comet in 1758, and going on to observe over 20 in all. He was particularly gifted in predicting comet orbits, including his first project observing the return of Halley’s Comet.

When hunting for comets he frequently came across ‘fuzzy’ objects in the sky, so, to avoid confusion he began cataloguing these. The first version of his catalogue, published in 1774, included 45 objects, which increased to 104 objects in his final 1784 edition of the catalogue. He worked with his assistant Pierre Méchain, who discovered at least 20 of these objects.

There are 110 deep-sky objects listed in the Messier catalogue today, as another 7 objects were added between 1921-1966 which were recognized as having been observed by either Messier or Méchain. Each object is designated today by the letter M plus its number, e.g. M1 (the Crab Nebula in Taurus), M31 (the Andromeda Galaxy) or  M42 (the Orion Nebula).

Observing Messier’s objects

The Messier Objects, under good viewing conditions, are visible in small telescopes. Many are even visible in binoculars if you know where to find them.

You won’t see them in the full-colour glory of images taken by large telescopes because:

1)  Your eyes don’t see in colour in dim light – faint, extended objects are more likely to appear greyish;

2)   You need to collect light over a long exposure time to see the fine detail.

BUT

Many of the objects are be thrilling to see even in a small-to-medium instrument! Remember to try using averted vision to capture fainter detail.

The Messier Marathon

There is a period in the year when it is theoretically possible to view all of the Messier objects in the course of a single night. The Messier Marathon is the attempt to do this. There is a window of a few weeks from mid-March to early April when it is possible, as the Sun lies in a relatively Messier-free part of the sky, so the objects are sufficiently far from it to be seen.

Messier compiled his catalogue from a northern latitude, so not all of the objects are visible from the southern hemisphere. Low northern latitudes are best (say 25-35°N), but we have a reasonable view from our location at 51° N, where the optimum date is during early-mid-March. A moonless night is best to enhance your chances of seeing these deep-sky objects.

If you can’t get a clear or relatively moonless night in March, there is also a short period around the autumn equinox when most of the Messier objects can be seen.

For much useful information on doing the Messier marathon visit:

http://www.messier.seds.org/xtra/marathon/marathon.html

Of course, you don’t have to try and see them all in one night. Discovering them in your own time is rewarding and exciting.

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M45 The Pleiades - Image: Aiglon College

Clear skies and happy hunting!

The meeting was reported in the local press. Click here