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.

Everyone returned to his or her scope. As the sky darkened, tension mounted, and for good reason: the Messier Marathon starts with a bang. The section of sky containing the Messier objects just barely fits between sunset and sunrise, so the most westerly object, M74 -- a mid-sized and not especially bright galaxy -- was going to sink below the horizon before the sky was dark enough to guarantee its visibility. In other words, most competitors would probably have their hopes of a perfect score dashed just minutes into the eleven-hour event.

A dozen or so stars shortly became visible to the naked eye. Some observers tried to use these as reference points as they aimed their scopes at the still-blank patch of sky hiding M74. For a few minutes it was oddly silent, as competitors tried various tricks to make M74 jump into relief, from switching eyes on the scope to looking just to the side of M74's presumed location (so as to capitalize on the eye's more sensitive off-center vision) to jiggling the scope. After several more minutes they started swinging their scopes in search of other, easier-to-find objects. I later learned that only twelve competitors, including Crayon and Rattley, had spotted M74.

Soon hundreds of stars were shining, along with three planets. By eight-fifteen most competitors had settled into a steady routine. Under other circumstances they might have filled notebooks with descriptions and sketches of their sightings -- and many of the Messier objects are quite beautiful, from galaxies that appear as opaline whorls or streaks to nebulae whose indigo or other tints can be picked up by large telescopes. But tonight's objects were quarry to be spotted quickly -- "bagged" is the term marathoners use -- and then immediately left behind.

Bagging an object is easier said than done. To see anywhere near 110 in a night a competitor must nail one about every six minutes. And because the objects aren't evenly spread through the sky, there are periods when it is necessary to spot an object every two or three minutes. Three minutes may sound like plenty of time in which to line up an object in a telescope -- especially given charts that show the position of each object with respect to familiar constellations -- but it's not. What can be seen through a telescope is only a tiny portion of the sky, much smaller than any recognizable segment of a constellation. Looking at the sky bit by bit through the eyepiece is a little like having to find your way around your house by looking at one square inch of carpeting or wallpaper at a time. Many amateurs own telescopes with computerized "go-to" systems these days, but almost everyone I met in Arizona had disconnected them. "It would be like fishing with a net," one competitor said. Instead most marathoners relied on the "star-hopping" method, which involves training the telescope on a star that can be found with the naked eye and then jumping in succession to other easily identifiable stars close by until one has the desired Messier object in view.

BY ten o'clock the temperature had plummeted, and people were starting to add layers of clothing. The time appeared to be passing uneventfully for most of the competitors, who were steadily bagging and recording objects. But around eleven o'clock, with the rising of the constellation Virgo, the intensity increased. Whereas most major constellations contain perhaps five or so Messier objects, Virgo contains sixteen, along with dozens of other objects that are easy to mistake for Messiers. One marathoner showed me a telescopic view in which there were six distinct galaxies, only two of which were Messier objects.

Still, for the more experienced gazers Virgo is generally no problem. Gerry Rattley wrapped it up in less than five minutes. Don Jones, a mathematics professor whose telescope was thirty inches wide and twelve and a half feet long (he needed a ceiling-painter's ladder to reach the eyepiece, and kept clambering up and down to reconcile his telescopic views with the dense star charts spread on the tailgate of his car), also breezed through it -- and then some. "I'm seeing galaxies that aren't in the book," he said -- a hazard with an oversized scope.

In contrast, A. J. Crayon, the marathon's coordinator, was in something of a frenzy, muttering nonstop as he scurried between his charts and his telescope, stopping only to pound his flashlight, whose batteries were running down. "I got half of them," he explained of his hunt through Virgo, "and then I jumped to the wrong star, and then I was lost." Crayon was soon back on track, but some of the less serious competitors found this a good time to call it quits. I stopped by one RV in which a group of airline employees were holed up against the cold, enjoying hot chocolate and in some cases preparing for bed. I left them reluctantly.

The Virgo activity wound down shortly after midnight, with the arrival of a large patch of sky containing relatively few Messier objects. Many competitors took the opportunity to grab some sleep. This seemed to work for those who had campers, sleeping bags, or propane heaters, but I spent two hours shivering in my car (it's not good form to run one's engine in the middle of an observing site) before finally drifting off.

I was awakened around three by renewed sounds of distress from Crayon. "I'm in trouble," he said in a low voice. He was now sporting a one-piece insulated jumpsuit and a watch cap with a Batman logo; he had the earpieces of his eyeglasses outside the cap. Crayon's truck was blocking his view of two Messiers. There was nowhere else to put the truck, and if he moved his telescope he would have to recalibrate it, losing fifteen minutes or so. He decided to skip the blocked objects for now, hoping that they would pop into view later. A pack of coyotes to the north mocked his decision loudly and at length.

Other observers, too, were hitting snags. A few, out of some combination of overconfidence and fatigue-induced poor judgment, had napped without setting an alarm, and woke to find themselves behind. Though Rattley had remained awake, he had taken a long break from Messier-hunting and now caught up with astonishing speed, working his scope like a fiddle and bagging object after object without so much as glancing at a chart. "M22, a nice globular," he mumbled, squinting through the eyepiece and then immediately yanking the telescope to a new position. "There's M21 ... M20, the Trifid, some color, nice ... M8, the Lagoon Nebula, nice ... M24, part of the Milky Way cloud."

A crescent moon came up just before five. Between the moon, the fluorescent haze of approaching sunrise, and a thin line of low red clouds, spotting Messiers was becoming increasingly difficult. Several people bleated in frustration.

The twelve competitors who had seen M74 at the start had all bagged every object up to this point. But Crayon -- who had ended up moving and realigning his telescope -- now lost three in the glare, and Rattley lost one. With a single object to go, five people still had a chance to join the elite list of perfect marathoners.

The final object, M30, wouldn't rise until well into twilight, only a short time ahead of the sun. It was expected to be even harder to see than M74 had been; some believed it would be outright impossible. Nonetheless, by five-thirty most people were pointing at the spot where M30 was supposed to be. No one shouted out in excitement, though, and by six the last telescope had been abandoned.

This ending felt anticlimactic to me, but everyone else seemed suddenly energized. Most people stood around gabbing, as if they had just awakened from a long, comfortable sleep and were pleasantly surprised to find themselves surrounded by fellow Messier enthusiasts. As Crayon collected the check-off sheets, he identified the winners, five in all, who'd gotten 109 objects. One was Bill Ferris, the half-time astronomer. Three besides him were highly experienced observers. The last was a relative newcomer, but he had teamed up with one of the other winners. Eighteen marathoners got a hundred or more objects -- a group achievement that had been bettered only twice before, anywhere, both times at All Arizona marathons. Some first-timers had done exceptionally well: Glenn Nishimoto had bagged 106, and Robert Martin 105. Even Mike Luciano finished respectably -- "somewhere around eighty," he told me -- while Whiddon and the kids slept.

As I climbed into my car to leave, I was startled by the sun breaking over the horizon. I hadn't realized that it wasn't up yet, and it seemed to me at that moment to provide an absurd and entirely uncalled-for amount of light.

David H. Freedman is a senior editor at Forbes ASAP, and the author of which was published in January.

The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; Extreme Stargazing - 00.03 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 3; page 105-107.