Astronomy for All.

Easter Monday (5th. April 2010) turned out to be a fascinating day – and night! Working during the day I became more and more excited at the prospect of taking part in my very first Messier Marathon. A what you say?

Charles Messier (b. 1730 – d. 1817) began his astronomical life at the age of fourteen when he saw the six tailed comet of 1744 and a few years later when he saw an annular Solar eclipse which was visible from his hometown on July 25, 1748. (An annular eclipse is one in which the moon does not completely cover the sun but leaves a circle of the sun visible it looks like a ring or annulus.)

A NASA image of an Annular Eclipse.
Messier eventually started working at an observatory for the ‘Astronomer of the Navy’ one M. Delisle. In 1757 Messier started looking for the expected return of Halley’s Comet, but as he hunted he came across nebulous objects that might be confused as comets. Objects like the great Spiral in Andromeda and its companion fuzzy object. As he looked for Halley’s comet Messier discovered a comet of his own; as he observed it he came across another comet-like object this time in Taurus (the Crab Nebula) and realised that a catalogue of these comet llike objects was needed.
So began the Messier catalogue with the Crab Nebula being the first entry and so became known as M1 or Messier 1. The great Spiral became known as M31 and its companion M32. As he scanned the skies Messier discovered new objects (M3 and M41) as well as new comets.
What is this Messier marathon? Well around the end of March when the moon is well under way waining or is at new moon phase a happy chance of celestial mechanics allows for observers to try and see all the 110 objects is Messiers’ catalogue in one night. It needs careful planning to see all objects and to ensure that the observer is not looking back and forth across the sky and so wasting time moving the telescope great distances. The first marathons may have begun in the late 1970s so are a recent idea.
Unfortunately for me it was cloudy here in Southport, happily all was not lost. A chap named Gianluca Masi from a town 90 km from Rome decided to use his observatory to do an online marathon. His observatory – the Ballatrix Observatory – can be remotely controlled by users around the world but for Monday night Mr. Masi ran the show.
And what a show! His commentary was fascinating: he talked about how he was taking the images and where we were in the imaging process. Within what seemed like a few seconds an image would appear on the computer screen of one of the Messier objects. Quite amazing.
There were fellow observers from Italy, the USA, Turkey, Argentina and many other countries, all of whom could communicate with Gianluca and each other as the images came in. Not only that but we were treated to the view of the observatory as the marathon was ongoing. Simply fantastic.
Mr. Masi did this under the aupices of Global Astronomy Month a spinoff from the International Year Of Astronomy which occured in 2009. Under the tag-line ‘One World One Sky’ it is an attempt to bring people together through astronomy and to further our understanding of the universe and each other.
Here is the address for the observatory;
http://virtualtelescope.bellatrixobservatory.org/english.html
I couldn’t stay up all night observing even though I was in the comfort of my home and poor Gianluca was outside in a chilly 5C night. What I saw was fantastic, the speed of the camera in taking images was incredible as was the idea that there were hundreds of people all tuned in to gaze at some spectacular sights!

M3, a globular cluster in the constellation of Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs.)

Published in: on April 6, 2010 at 19:32  Leave a Comment