Annual Messier Challenge

Original article appears in GuideStar October, 2018.

by Jim King, Field Trip & Observing


Annual Messier Challenge

A plan to learn the joy and excitement of observing the Universe

One of the issues we as Novice Astronomers face is a program or plan of how to get started in observing.  After gazing at the Moon and planets a few times, the next question is, “What now?”.

Charles Messier was an 18th-19th century French astronomer who began his career as a comet chaser.  Over the course of his life, he used, among others, his 3.5-inch refractor telescope to scan the cosmos looking for…comets.   During this endeavor, he managed to identify and document the majority of what has become known as The Messier Catalogue.

This catalogue identifies 110 of the most-observable and beautiful objects, visible in the northern hemisphere, that we as novice and more experienced astronomers alike, can enjoy searching out and observing.  These objects can be found using almost any level of decent modern telescope with many visible simply with good binoculars or even by plain eyesight.  Some can be seen from your back yard.  Others will require darker locales or periodic trips to a dark site.

The Astronomical League (AL) offers a certificate and pin to those who complete their Messier Program.  There are, of course, certain basic requirements as to documentation and methods.  As members of the Houston Astronomical Society (HAS), all of us are members of the AL.  Please go to the AL website and check out the observing programs and requirements.

Most novice astronomers will quickly identify the Messier Catalogue as a logical next step in their journey.  These objects run the gamut from easy to somewhat challenging.  They can provide great learning practice if one wants to move on to more demanding observing.  However, sometimes the idea of searching out all 110 objects can be somewhat daunting.

In the following pages, there is presented a program for observing the Messier Catalogue in phases.  This program breaks down the catalogue into six parts based on the time of year when they are most easily observable.  Fall has the fewest at 13, winter has the most at 23.  All others are somewhere in between those two extremes.  Each is very doable and entertaining while providing a valuable learning experience.

The idea here is not to have a marathon; but rather, a journey that, with a little effort, can be easily completed within a 12-month period.  By using segmented observation periods, one will have the time to truly observe the objects, not just check them off a list.  While completing the list is the object, the journey is the fun part and provides the experience to proceed to the next level whatever you decide that to be.

If one wishes to use a Go To system or use a celestial app, that is permissible with this plan for personal use; but, not if one wants to complete the AL Messier Program.  Again, refer to the AL website for requirements and techniques.

Learning astronomical observation is like a treasure hunt.  The real fun is in the chase.  Learning the constellations, pointer stars, star-hopping, and other “natural” celestial navigation techniques is the real challenge and presents the most satisfaction of a job well done.

For the full article including a suggested object list for the Fall/Winter season, see the October 2018 Guidestar.

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