Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into three sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, and with a small telescope. The best time to view the night sky is at and around the times when the Moon is not visible, what is known as a New Moon; which will occur this month on March 20th. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 13th to the 22nd. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm.
It’s March again, the month of the Messier Marathons. I believe that the best way to become a good amateur astronomer is to try to locate all 110 Messier Objects in the night sky.
For new readers, the Messier Objects are a list of 110 celestial objects which include galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. The objects are usually known by their “M number”; M1, M42, M104, etc. This list was composed by Charles Messier in the late 18th century. Messier was a comet hunter, and he recorded this list of objects that looked like comets but were not. This list helped Messier, and his fellow astronomers avoid objects that might be confused for comets. It is ironic that today this “negative” list has become one of the most widely used lists of objects used by amateurs around the world. All 110 objects can theoretically be seen with only a pair of 10 X 50 binoculars under perfect dark sky viewing conditions. However, under normal viewing conditions, about 50% of the objects can easily be seen with simple binoculars. All 110 objects can be seen at about 25 power, using a simple telescope, preferably a Dobsonian, or 25 power binoculars. All 110 Messiers are seen in the image below.
So what is a Messier Marathon? The Messier Objects are found throughout the night sky every month of the year. However, a rare event occurs each year in March. In mid to late March, all 110 Messier Objects can be found in one night! Of course in order to accomplish this, you also need to have a new Moon. This event is known as a Messier Marathon, and amateur astronomers around the world attempt this task on or about the new Moon closest to the first day of spring (Vernal Equinox). This year the Marathon will be run on the weekend of March 21st and 22nd. The best locations in this hemisphere are in the southern part of the United States, including South Carolina. Please note that a Messier Marathon is not an easy task. It requires an excellent viewing area well away from light pollution. If you decide to take this challenge, you could go on-line and find the locations where you can join amateurs gathered at “perfect” locations for the marathon; most likely in Texas, New Mexico or Arizona. If you travel to these perfect locations, you still will be challenged to succeed. For example: To see Messier 110 (M110) you will have to find it very close to the western horizon just after sunset. To finish your marathon the next morning you will have a more difficult task competing with the Sun to see the cluster M30 in the east just before sunrise. Below is an image of 150 amateur astronomers during a recent Messier Marathon in the desert of Iran.
My thoughts on the Messier Marathons: Take your time and slowly attempt to locate all 110 Messier Object over two to three years. Once you have enjoyed the challenge of completing this list, at a later time you may like to try to do it in only one night in March. However, if you have not tried finding the Messier Objects, why not start from your local viewing site on the weekend of this year’s Messier Marathon. Keep your list small but try for at least twenty Messiers, using binoculars only. The list below shows 42 Messiers to choose from.
Easy Messier Objects:
2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 29, 31, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 41, 42, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 50, 52, 55, 67, 92, 93, 103.
The numbers shown in bold are the Messiers visible between sunset and midnight on March 21st. Of course if you wish to try for all 42 objects you will have to stay up all night.
Your best target for your telescope this month is the planet Jupiter. Although it was visible in January, the warmer temperatures of March should make observing more enjoyable. If you own a small telescope, the planets Jupiter and Saturn are usually the best targets each year. Jupiter is high in the sky all month, very bright, and just in the front of the constellation Leo the lion. The image below is what we can see with our ScienceSouth Dobsonian telescope.
One more sight for the month: Look at Jupiter with a pair of simple binoculars, and to its right you should be able to also see the open cluster M44 (Beehive Cluster), possibly in the same field of view; as shown below.
Naked Eye Sights: Enjoy the brilliant planet Venus in the west after sunset, and the bright planet Jupiter in the southeast. Don’t forget the constellation Orion as it begins its departure from the night sky.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Try for twenty Messier objects this month. Check out Jupiter and M44 to its right.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Concentrate on Jupiter. Observe the planet on several clear nights. Take note of the variation in detail of the Jupiter’s cloud bands. On any clear night, a planet may appear the same to the naked eye, but upper atmosphere moisture or turbulence although not visible to the naked eye will affect your viewing through a telescope.
See you next month!