Lisa Tobias, who also provided our first open thread, expands further on the Messier Marathon that she mentioned there.
I know a lot of amateur astronomers and a few professional ones. When you ask, they almost always they’ll you how they have loved the stars since they were kids and how they were so excited when they opened their first telescope box (probably a Wal-Mart special with more power than Galileo ever hoped for). That wasn’t me.
I always enjoyed looking at the stars, but that’s all I did. Walking in and out to the car or sitting by the fire at camp; that was enough. I just looked up and imagined. Maybe it was Halley’s Comet that ruined it for me. I was only about 9 when the comet came through, but my school (which was located in the country surrounded by horse farms and corn fields) made a big event to go out and observe the comet. I thought this sounded like a great idea until I was awoken at an hour far too early to recall after so many years and sat in a freezing cold field for hours. Did I see the comet? Probably. It was not a great morning for observing and the individuals running things had difficulties, but I remember a fuzzy blob, so that was probably it. Was I impressed? Not really. Haile-Bop was much better.
So why am I doing this? Spending my nights and weekends sitting in (slightly warmer) fields and parking lots looking at fuzzy blobs? Because my students taught me to love astronomy. I was teaching in South Florida where we could see 5 stars directly overhead on a clear night, but we had an astronomy club because they wanted one. We tracked those five stars, told stories about new constellations we made up from them (just like I used to do when I was little), and tracked airplanes on the approach to the airport. It didn’t matter, we were together, learning, and having fun. That is what astronomy is all about.
When we sat together (even on cloudy nights because they would want to come out) we would pull out the magazines and read about the things we could only image we could see if we had dark skies. That is when I started dreaming of completing the Messier Marathon list.
The Messier Marathon is a great place for someone who is looking to become a little more serious in his/her astronomy to get started. Most of the objects can be seen with binoculars in good skies and they are, for the most part, rather interesting. There is a window of about a week in mid-March where, if you are crazy enough, you can start at sundown and got to sunup, you can see all 110 objects that Charles Messier catalogued as he hunted for comets in the late 18th century. By about 2 am you will start feeling like you have seen, “just another fuzzy blob”, but resist the urge and force yourself to slow down a little and keep a log. With the technology of today, many of our club members like using the voice recorders on the phone to record time and description information. Making a quick sketch will help as well.
I have done the Marathon for years now. It is still one of my favorite events and look forward every year to visiting old friends, M81 & M82. If I don’t see all 110 objects now, that’s ok. I won an award for completing it my first year, so that desire has been fulfilled; now I go out to be with friends, both celestial and terrestrial. We tell stores, eat too much, and jokes fly all night long.
I always imagine Charles Messier sitting in a cold field all alone; that is not astronomy to me. Astronomy is a social event. I learn before I go, while I’m there, and from those I’m with. I still get cold and periodically think that it is crazy to be out doing this, but then someone finds a beautiful globular or a fireball streaks across the sky and it’s not cold anymore.
So March 21st I will be with good friends in a field, looking at fuzzy blobs. I hope that you are out somewhere doing the same.
Messier Marathon observing list: http://www.astunit.com/tonkinsastro/messier/messmara.pdf