Extreme Stargazing

A race to spot 110 designated celestial objects in the time between dusk and dawn

ASTRONOMY may be unique among the hard sciences in that some of its heroes are known primarily for looking, without necessarily making much sense of what they see. A case in point is Charles Messier, a tenacious eighteenth-century Frenchman who, armed with a telescope hardly better than what one could buy at Wal-Mart today, devoted most of his life to sweeping the heavens in search of comets. He discovered several, but he is celebrated for a different reason: in the process Messier recorded the precise locations of sundry faint, pretty smudges that we now know to be galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae, or clouds of gas and dust. His efforts were prematurely curtailed by injuries sustained in an icehouse mishap, but he still managed, with some assistance, to catalogue 110 celestial objects.

There is no way of knowing what Messier thought would become of his catalogue; it seems unlikely, though, that he imagined it inspiring an arduous competitive event. But it did: the Messier Marathon. In this, participants try to observe and identify all of Messier's 110 heavenly objects in a single night. Messier Marathons came into being in the United States in the mid-1970s and have grown in popularity ever since.

That it is possible to spot all the Messier objects in one night is owing to a quirk of celestial alignment of which Messier himself was probably unaware. On any given night a small wedge of sky doesn't make it into view between dusk and dawn. The particular wedge, and the Messier objects in it, vary over the course of the year, as the earth makes its way around the sun. But sometime from mid-March to early April it happens that the unseen patch contains no Messier objects -- and so for several days the entire Messier catalogue rotates through the night sky. Light from the moon typically leaves only one or two of these nights fit for a marathon.

Though a marathon can be attempted alone in the back yard, most amateur astronomers who tackle one are drawn together, for much the same reasons that runners gather for terrestrial marathons: preferred venues, camaraderie, the spirit of competition, and witnesses. Astronomy clubs throughout the United States, and to a lesser extent in other northern-latitude countries (many Messier objects aren't visible from the Southern Hemisphere), hold marathons in which the goal is simply for people to have fun and to spot as many objects as they comfortably can before deciding to call it a night. The All Arizona Messier Marathon is one of a handful that do not fall into this laid-back category.

LAST year the Messier Marathon was held on March 13. (This year the prime marathon night will be April 1.) I arrived at the flat, scrubby site of the Arizona gathering, some ninety minutes outside Phoenix, at about five -- an hour and a half before sunset, and almost two hours before the sky would be dark enough to see more than a few stars. The gathering already had the look of an elaborate tailgate party stretching for a hundred yards. About forty people were there, mostly huddled in groups of two or three to a telescope, each group supported at a minimum by chairs, tables, and car trunks crammed with supplies, and in many cases by tents, pop-up camper vans, or even RVs. People were poring over charts and books and the odd laptop computer, or fiddling with their telescopes, a few of which were -- startlingly, considering the need for portability in Messier marathoning -- the size of naval artillery pieces. Soon the gathering had grown to about seventy people, roughly half of whom intended to compete.

The competitors were an eclectic bunch, most of them from the Phoenix and Tucson areas, and included a number of first-time marathoners. Mike Luciano, a young mailman who would look at home on a skateboard, brought his fellow letter carrier and girlfriend, Debby Whiddon, her two children, and their Pomeranian. Luciano and Whiddon had laid in a supply of cola and pastry to help keep the kids awake past their bedtime, but a tent was standing by for the inevitable sugar-fueled crash. Robert Martin, a software engineer, was there with his fiancée, Kasia Zabinski, an actor who also makes science-fiction and other independent films. Her scarlet lipstick and leather jacket were conspicuously hip among the nearly ubiquitous astronomy-themed T-shirts and caps. Glenn Nishimoto, a buoyant public-health worker with an eye-catching aluminum-skinned telescope, told me that a weekend of practice had raised his hopes of going all the way.

There were several old hands, too, including Steve Bell, an electrical engineer with a 109 marathon (in which he'd missed just a single object) under his belt, and Gerry Rattley, an electronic chip designer and one of the nine people on the planet who have ever been credited with a perfect marathon. Only one competitor, Bill Ferris, actually had the word "astronomer" in his job title, and he hastened to point out that it was only a half-time position -- though the miniature observatory built into his tent suggested that he would be a force to contend with.

Just after sunset A. J. Crayon, the deep-sky chairman of the Phoenix-area Saguaro Astronomy Club, who has organized the All Arizona Messier Marathon annually since 1993, gave an informal pep talk to the crowd. As they spotted objects, Crayon explained, contestants were to check them off on the official marathon sheet. The honor system would be in force. (Crayon later told me that what small amount of concern over cheating exists tends to focus on the possibility -- so far unrealized -- that a relative hacker will claim an object that more-experienced observers fail to spot.) The first-, second-, and third-place finishers, determined strictly according to the number of objects spotted, would each get a plaque; anyone who saw more than fifty objects would get a certificate.

Presented by

David H. Freedman is the author of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—And How to Know When Not to Trust Them. He has been an Atlantic contributor since 1998.

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