Monday, March 15, 2010

Messier Marathon debriefing.

Well, the Messier Marathon last night was a bit of a downer. There were some really high clouds in the early evening that slowly dissipated over the first hour and a half of night, blocking people from seeing the early objects. For those of you who don't know what the Messier Marathon is, let me back up.

Charles Messier (MESS-i-ay) was a French amateur astronomer who lived from 1730 to 1817. His major abiding love in life was comets, and over his lifetime he found or helped find 13 of them, not bad for someone using a 4-inch telescope. One thing that really bothered Messier was that there are a lot of things in the sky that look like comets [read: fuzzy blobs] (mainly 'cause with the resolution he had, pretty much anything that's not a star or a planet would look like a comet). He made notes of the location of these counterfeit-comets, and eventually decided to publish his list of them to help other comet hunters avoid being fooled by them. He published several versions, with a list that grew to 103 before his death with an additional 7 added later that were deduced from his notes.

Fast forward to the present.

No one remembers any of the comets Messier found, but his list of objects, the Messier Catalogue, is a fixture at every star party there is. That's because the objects he found, due to the fact that he was using a small telescope, are among the brightest and easiest to see in the sky. Each object on the list has its own M-number, for instance, the Andromeda Galaxy is M31, the Pleiadies are M45, and the Great Nebula in Orion is M42. Anyway, since Messier was observing from Paris, all the objects in the list can be observed from the northern hemisphere. It also works out that, due to the way they are distributed on the sky, there are some nights in spring around this time of year when you can see all 110 objects in one night, if you start when the sun sets and keep going till dawn. That's a Messier Marathon, which was going on last night, though as I mentioned, the early evening clouds prevented people from catching the objects close to the sun.
Thankfully, the clouds did dissipate over time (although I don't think they ever went away completely), so it wasn't a total failure. The sunset did produce some really dramatic colors in the clouds, though, as you can see in the picture below:

So it was a rather interesting night, despite the observational difficulties.

One other random thought: I was looking up Hawaiian words in the dictionary, and came across this lovely phrase:
 Lau ā lau nā hōkū o ka lani
"hundreds and hundreds of stars in the heaven".
(According to the dictionary lau typically means something like "many", but it also serves as "hundreds" in this context)
It's interesting to me that Hawaiian often has a sentence order remarkably similar to English. I hope to be taking Hawaiian 101 next semester, so I can investigate it more fully.


  1. Did you really stay up ALL night? (sorry, I seem to be having issues with the commenting function again)

  2. No, we were there as volunteers, so we were done at 2200, though it took a little longer than usual to get home (we stopped to check the tire pressure on our vehicle) so I WAS up till after midnight. The amateur astronomers, however, were signed up for breakfast at Hale Pohaku, so I'm assuming they did...


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