Letter from the President - March 2020

Original article appears in GuideStar March, 2020.

It’s Messier Marathon Time!

Just a few weeks ago, several members of the H.A.S. leadership group met to conduct our annual planning meeting for 2020.  We spent every bit of allotted time we had – before gently being reminded that the Mendenhall Center was going to be closing – coming up with ideas and programs to provide more for our members to do this year.  If you’ve taken a look at our club calendar at all lately, you’ll see a whole slew of events – from outreach star parties, Novice Labs at the dark site, and Loaner Scope training to help members familiarize themselves with the telescopes they borrow from our inventory.

M51, Image credit: ESA/HubbleOne of those upcoming events is the Messier Marathon. which we’re going to host at the H.A.S. dark site near Columbus on Saturday, March 21. 

What is a Messier Marathon, you ask?  Well, to answer that question, you first need to know who Messier was. In brief, Charles Messier was a French astronomer and comet hunter who lived in the 18th and early 19th century.  He scoured the night sky for comets, which often appeared as faint, fuzzy objects in the heavens above.  Unfortunately for him (and fortunately for the rest of us), comets aren’t the only faint, fuzzy objects that one could expect to see using the telescopes of Messier’s day.  The sky was littered with these objects – nebulae, globular clusters, open clusters, galaxies, and a supernova remnant – and, in an attempt to avoid these objects in his hunt for comets, he and others cataloged more than a hundred “faint fuzzies” so that he wouldn’t mistake them for his desired targets in subsequent searches. Others came along after Messier and completed his list, which now stands at 110 of the finest and brightest deep sky objects we can see with our telescopes.   … 

So, where does the “marathon” come in?  There’s not a 26.2 mile run associated with this event, I promise!

These objects in Messier’s catalog are scattered throughout the night sky.  Many of them are in prime position to be observed in summer, while others are best seen in other seasons.  However, there’s a brief window of time in early spring where it’s possible to observe every one of these objects in a single night.  There’s some planning that goes into it, and plenty of coffee drinking during that night, as well, but it’s always a great challenge to try and bag all 110 objects without the aid of a go-to system on one’s telescope. We’re also not sticklers for all of the rules, so if you want to attempt the Messier Marathon with a go-to telescope, we won’t tell anyone! 

On the night of March 21, we’d like to invite all of our members to give the Messier Marathon a shot at our club dark site near Columbus (weather permitting, of course).  If you don’t have a telescope but you’ve been a member in good standing for more than two months, you can borrow one of our loaner telescopes (see the inventory here).  Also, be sure that you’ve taken the online orientation to the dark site and passed the test so that you’ve got the new gate code to get in.

We’ll send out more information about this through our email list soon, so keep an eye out for that. But even if you don’t have a telescope and want to just come out to experience the dark site when it’s buzzing with activity, you’re more than welcome to join us out there.  Several of us will be there to show you around and help you get situated.  And if you can’t make it that night, find another event participate in with us.  Amateur astronomy is a journey and the first step is often the most difficult.  But it does get easier with practice and experience, and it’s always more enjoyable with friends who share the same interests.

Clear Skies,
Joe Khalaf
President, Houston Astronomical Society

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