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The Final Four

March Madness isn't restricted to tall people with a ball and a basket. Late March and early April is the only time of the year when it is possible to view all 109 valid Messier Objects [MOs] if you are willing to spend an entire night (dusk to dawn) in a mad dash from one object to another. Some amateur astronomy organizations (but not Frosty Drew Observatory [FDO]) host Messier Marathons on the first moon less weekend in spring.

It is relatively easy to run a Messier Marathon with a large scope, a dark night and computerized star finders, but is a real challenge with a small telescope and no aids except a printed star map. The MOs were a list of faint fuzzy patches seen in the telescopes used by Charles Messier and associates during the 18th century. The big thing in 18th century astronomy was finding comets and Messier was the champ. He was called the "comet ferret" for good reason. The problem Messier and his associates had was that faint fuzzy patches that stayed in the same place were easily confused with comets (which move nightly). Hence the list of faint fuzzy patches to be avoided.

How ironic that his list of patches to be avoided actually were a list of many of the most significant objects in the sky. Later better telescopes would resolve these faint fuzzy patches into magnificent galaxies, clouds of star forming gas, clusters of stars orbiting galaxies and remnants of stars that had exploded. Each of these objects became know as M (for Messier) followed by the order in which he listed them. M1 is the Crab Nebula, an expanding maelstrom of superheated gas rushing outwards from a star which exploded less than a thousand years ago. M42 is a gaseous stellar nursery where hundreds of stars are being formed as we watch. M31 is our sister galaxy in Andromeda which together with our own galaxy (the Milky Way) dominates the local group. M54 is a cluster of stars which the Milky Way Galaxy has torn away from the much smaller nearby Sagittarius Galaxy. M51 is the incredibly beautiful "St. Catherine's Wheel" of stars. M87 is an oval galaxy so huge that it would take more than 1000 of our own galaxy to form it. And on and on...

When we started to display these MOs for visitors at FDO, we had no intention of tracking down all 109. However one by one each of these objects were accumulated. Each has something wonderful or beautiful about it. While many other wonderful items are visible, these MOs are pretty much the cream of the crop in the northern hemisphere. We have kept a "Life List" for our large telescope of everything which has been seen through it. Earlier this year while I was examining this list, I noticed that we had seen more than 80% of the MOs. This kicked the search for the remaining MOs into high gear. We have now reduced the list to our FINAL FOUR: M26 a open cluster of stars in the Shield (Scutum), M29 another open cluster at the central star of the Swan (Cygnus), M69 a globular cluster in the Archer (Sagittarius) and M91 a spiral galaxy in the Maiden (Virgo) super cluster of galaxies. I suspect that these four made it to the end of our list simply because each of them is located near another far more spectacular deep space object.

Only two things have kept us from finishing the list. The most important factor is that FDO takes its role as a PUBLIC facility very seriously. We show the public the items they want to see (if possible) before we attempt to see items of interest only to the members. The other factor has been the miserable string of rainy Fridays this year (14 of 18 Fridays have been rain outs since December). Our excitement and enthusiasm must be catching because we now have the public hoping to be around when the next "special" object is first seen in our eyepieces. I'll bet that M69 will be the last MO to be visited simply because it is the last one to rise high enough in the sky to be seen. In all likelihood we'll finish before our telescope reaches the end of it second year.

Saturn is almost lost in the evening twilight. Jupiter and Mercury are bright in the western sky when the sky first gets dark. Venus is bright, but unless you get up early, you won't see it. However Mars is making a close pass by the Earth. It is finally rising early enough (between 10 and 11 PM) that visitors to FDO will be able to view the red planet. Mars is the only planet which shows surface markings. The Syrtis and Tharsus regions as well as the north and south polar caps can been see when the sky is clear and steady.

Leslie Coleman
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
May 1, 2001
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Columns
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