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Astronomers Set Annual Imaging Marathon

SOCORRO, N.M. March 1, 2011 – The temperature is rising, the days are getting longer and Earth is hurtling in her orbit toward the Vernal Equinox. This can only mean one thing – the annual Messier Marathon is right around the corner.
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Luke Schmidt poses with the 6-inch Takahashi telescope at the student-run Etscorn Observatory on campus.
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The Lagoon Nebula (catalogued as Messier 8 or M8, and as NGC 6523) is a giant interstellar cloud in the constellation Sagittarius.  The Lagoon Nebula was discovered by Guillaume Le Gentil in 1747 and is one of only two star-forming nebulae faintly visible to the naked eye from mid-northern latitudes. Photo courtesy of Richard Crisp
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The Etscorn Observatory  on the west edge of campus.
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Messier 2 or M2 (also designated NGC 7089) is a globular cluster in the constellation Aquarius, five degrees north of the star Beta Aquarii. It was discovered by Jean-Dominique Maraldi in 1746 and is one of the largest known globular clusters. Photo courtesy of  NASA/STScI/WikiSky

Each spring amateur astronomers around the world gather at observatories and with their backyard telescopes all night under the stars and test their mettle with the daunting challenge of observing and/or imaging all 110 Messier Objects in one night.

“These are the most beautiful and interesting celestial objects in the night sky,” Luke Schmidt said. “The Messier Marathon is a great change of pace from academic research.”

The Messier catalogue was compiled by French astronomer Charles Messier during the late 18th century and consists of 110 relatively bright deep sky objects, such as galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. This year, the Messier Marathon will be the night of Friday, March 4, into the wee hours of March 5.

A complete catalog of high-resolution photos of all Messier objects is available online.

A collaborative group of astronomers in Missouri, Kansas and New Mexico will be live and on-line imaging these beautiful objects and posting them online as they come in. Anyone with internet access can follow the group’s progress, ask questions or leave comments at messier.nckas.org.

Schmidt, a graduate student in astrophysics, and Dr. Dan Klinglesmith are spearheading the New Mexico Tech effort to capture images of these brilliant and spectacular celestial bodies. Klinglesmith is a support scientist and coordinator of education and public outreach for the Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer.

Schmidt and Klinglesmith are also using the Messier Marathon to spread the word about the annual Enchanted Skies Star Party, which attracts both amateur astronomers and professional physicists from around the country.

“The Messier Marathon is kind of a nice break from traditional research where you study just one or two objects,” Schmidt said. “These Messier Objects are more glamorous or well-known. It’s a fun way to spend a night looking at interesting and beautiful objects.”

The annual event is sponsored by the North Central Kansas Astronomical Society and everyone is invited. A collaborative group of astronomers spread over Missouri, Kansas and New Mexico will be live and on-line imaging these beautiful objects and posting them on the website as they come in. Anyone with internet access can follow our progress, ask questions or leave comments:

Schmidt said he’ll be using a 6-inch Takahashi and a 14-inch Celestron, both of which have digital photography equipment attached.

The biggest challenge is to keeping up with the objects as they move across the sky. Just after dusk, Schmidt will be trying to target the Messier objects that are about to dip below the horizon. Throughout the night, he’ll methodically move the telescope across the sky, capturing images of the Messier objects as quickly as possible.

“This is a unique time of the year – when the nights are long enough to get it all done and the objects are in the right places,” he said.

Schmidt has participated in Messier Marathons for five years. He started as an undergraduate at Bethel College in Newton, Kan.

Traditionally, Messier Marathons have mostly been just viewing parties. Now, New Mexico Tech – and their partner organizations – are among the few groups that aims to image all 110 objects and post the pictures on the web as the night progresses.

“It’s a pretty popular thing with amateur astronomers,” Schmidt said. “Others will do it and traditionally it’s just done visually. We’ll post pictures throughout the night so people can follow along that night. The best way to interact is online.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech