Messier Marathon – A fun spring challenge

What is a Messier Object?

Let’s start with what Messier objects are. The Messier Catalog, also known as the “Catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters”, is a list of 110 astronomical objects that was first compiled by the French astronomer Charles Messier in the 18th century.

What is the Messier Catalog?

The catalog contains a variety of celestial objects visible from the Earth’s northern hemisphere, including galaxies, nebulae, star clusters, and other deep-sky objects. Messier originally created the catalog to help fellow astronomers distinguish between these objects and comets, which at the time were often mistaken for new discoveries.

Each object in the Messier Catalog is assigned a unique number, from M1 to M110, and is accompanied by a brief description of its location and appearance. One thing to remember is that the objects are not ordered by location in the sky. Rather, they are ordered in the order of the cataloguing by Messier. The catalog has become an important tool for amateur and professional astronomers alike, and many Messier objects are popular targets for observation and astrophotography.

What is a Messier Marathon?

A Messier Marathon is an astronomical event where stargazers attempt to observe all 110 objects in the Messier catalog in a single night. Because the catalog consists of objects that span the entire circumference of the celestial sky, observers must start in the western sky near sunset and end in the eastern sky near sunrise, essentially completing a full 360 degree rotation of the sky. Naturally this means that an observer must be up all night.

What is the best time of year to do this?

The best (and only) time that this is possible is in early spring. Mid March to early April in the northern hemisphere, when the moon is new or crescent, is the most favorable window of opportunity. Objects need to be observed in the order of right ascension (similar to longitude on earth’s surface), since the rotation of earth will, in turn, rotate the position of the objects in the sky during the course of the night.

The easiest way to complete the marathon is to use a go-to-telescope, since it can automatically point to the selected object. Those who might consider themselves purists will opt for an additional level of difficulty and will attempt to find each object based on their knowledge of how to point the telescope manually, also called star-hopping. The Messier Marathon is considered a challenging and rewarding event for amateur astronomers and is a test of their observing skills and endurance.

There are so many objects? How do I know which ones to see first?

The order in which the objects are observed during the marathon can vary depending on the observer’s location and time of year, but a typical order is as follows:

  • Start with the objects that are low in the west just after sunset: M74, M77, M33, M31
  • Move to objects in the constellation Cassiopeia: M52, M103, M76, M34
  • Observe objects in Perseus: M31, M32, M110, M33, M34, M76
  • Observe objects in Taurus and Orion: M1, M45, M42, M43
  • Move to objects in Auriga: M38, M36, M37
  • Observe objects in Gemini: M35
  • Move to objects in Canis Minor: M41
  • Observe objects in Cancer: M44
  • Observe objects in Leo: M95, M96, M105, M65, M66, M105
  • Move to objects in Coma Berenices: M64, M85, M88, M91, M98, M99, M100
  • Observe objects in Virgo: M60, M59, M58, M89, M90, M87, M91
  • Observe objects in Hydra: M68, M83, M48
  • Observe objects in Canes Venatici: M51, M63
  • Finish with objects in Ursa Major: M109, M108, M97, M101, M51, M40, M81

Below is a table of the Messier objects along with their NGC (New General Catalog) number.

Table 1 Messier Objects

M1 Crab Nebula1952
M2 Globular Cluster in Aquarius7089
M3 Globular Cluster in Canes Venatici5272
M4 Globular Cluster in Scorpius 6121
M5 Globular Cluster in Serpens 5904
M6 Butterfly Cluster in Scorpius6405
M7 Ptolemy Cluster in Scorpius6475
M8 Lagoon Nebula in Sagittarius6523
M9 Globular Cluster in Ophiuchus6333
M10 Globular Cluster in Ophiuchus6254
M11 Wild Duck Cluster in Scutum6705
M12 Globular Cluster in Ophiuchus6218
M13 Hercules Globular Cluster in Hercules6205
M14 Globular Cluster in Ophiuchus6402
M15 Globular Cluster in Pegasus7078
M16 Eagle Nebula in Serpens6611
M17 Omega Nebula in Sagittarius6618
M18 Open Cluster in Sagittarius6613
M19 Globular Cluster in Ophiuchus6273
M20 Trifid Nebula in Sagittarius6514
M21 Open Cluster in Sagittarius6531
M22 Globular Cluster in Sagittarius6656
M23 Open Cluster in Sagittarius6494
M24 Milky Way Star Cloud in Sagittarius4715
M25 Open Cluster in Sagittarius4725
M26 Open Cluster in Scutum6694
M27 Dumbbell Nebula in Vulpecula6853
M28 Globular Cluster in Sagittarius6626
M29 Open Cluster in Cygnus6913
M30 Globular Cluster in Capricornus7099
M31 Andromeda Galaxy in Andromeda224
M32 Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy in Andromeda221
M33 Triangulum Galaxy in Triangulum598
M34 Open Cluster in Perseus1039
M35 Open Cluster in Gemini2168
M36 Open Cluster in Auriga1960
M37 Open Cluster in Auriga2099
M38 Open Cluster in Auriga1912
M39 Open Cluster in Cygnus7092
M40 Double Star in Ursa Major 
M41 Little Beehive Cluster in Canis Major2287
M42 Orion Nebula in Orion1976
M43 De Mairan’s Nebula in Orion1982
M44 Beehive Cluster in Cancer2632
M45 Pleiades or Seven Sisters in Taurus 
M46 Open Cluster in Puppis2437
M47 Open Cluster in Puppis2422
M48 Open Cluster in Hydra2548
M49 Elliptical Galaxy in Virgo4472
M50 Open Cluster in Monoceros2323
M51 Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici5194
M52 Open Cluster in Cassiopeia7654
M53 Globular Cluster in Coma Berenices5024
M54 Globular Cluster in Sagittarius6715
M55 Globular Cluster in Sagittarius6809
M56 Globular Cluster in Lyra6779
M57 Ring Nebula in Lyra6720
M58 Spiral Galaxy in Virgo4579
M59 Elliptical4621
M60 Elliptical Galaxy in Virgo4649
M61 Spiral Galaxy in Virgo4303
M62 Globular Cluster in Ophiuchus6266
M63 Sunflower Galaxy in Canes Venatici5055
M64 Black Eye Galaxy in Coma Berenices4826
M65 Spiral Galaxy in Leo3623
M66 Spiral Galaxy in Leo3627
M67 Open Cluster in Cancer2682
M68 Globular Cluster in Hydra4590
M69 Globular Cluster in Sagittarius6637
M70 Globular Cluster in Sagittarius6681
M71 Globular Cluster in Sagitta6838
M72 Globular Cluster in Aquarius6981
M73 Asterism in Aquarius6994
M74 Spiral Galaxy in Pisces628
M75 Globular Cluster in Sagittarius6864
M76 Little Dumbbell Nebula in Perseus650, 651
M77 Spiral Galaxy in Cetus1068
M78 Reflection Nebula in Orion2068
M79 Globular Cluster in Lepus1904
M80 Globular Cluster in Scorpius6093
M81 Bode’s Galaxy in Ursa Major3031
M82 Cigar Galaxy in Ursa Major3034
M83 Spiral Galaxy in Hydra5236
M84 Elliptical Galaxy in Virgo4374
M85 Elliptical Galaxy in Coma Berenices4382
M86 Elliptical Galaxy in Virgo4406
M87 Elliptical Galaxy in Virgo4486
M88 Spiral Galaxy in Coma Berenices4501
M89 Elliptical Galaxy in Virgo4552
M90 Spiral Galaxy in Virgo4569
M91 Spiral Galaxy in Coma Berenices4548
M92 Globular Cluster in Hercules6341
M93 Open Cluster in Puppis2447
M94 Spiral Galaxy in Canes Venatici4736
M95 Barred Spiral Galaxy in Leo3351
M96 Spiral Galaxy in Leo3368
M97 Owl Nebula in Ursa Major3587
M98 Spiral Galaxy in Coma Berenices4192
M99 Spiral Galaxy in Coma Berenices4254
M100 Spiral Galaxy in Coma Berenices4321
M101 Pinwheel Galaxy in Ursa Major5457
M102 Spindle Galaxy in Draco5866
M103 Open Cluster in Cassiopeia581
M104 Sombrero Galaxy in Virgo4594
M105 Elliptical Galaxy in Leo3379
M106 Spiral Galaxy in Canes Venatici4258
M107 Globular Cluster in Ophiuchus6171
M108 Spiral Galaxy in Ursa Major3556
M109 Barred Spiral Galaxy in Ursa Major3992
M110 Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy in Andromeda205

4 thoughts on “Messier Marathon – A fun spring challenge”

  1. Hi Patrick,
    Thank you for sharing your experience with the Messier Marathon. As someone who is new to astronomy and astrophotography, I had never heard of this challenge. It’s fascinating to think about attempting to observe and photograph all 110 Messier objects in a single night.

    My question for you is, what are some of your favorite Messier objects to observe or photograph? Are there any that are particularly challenging to capture, and how do you approach those?

    Thank you for sharing your passion and knowledge of astronomy and astrophotography. I look forward to potentially attempting the Messier Marathon in the future.

    • Thanks for your interest. Astrophotography can be challenging but very rewarding when you get some good results. Two of my favorite Messier objects are M31 (Andromeda Galaxy) and M42 (the Great Orion Nebula). They are not only beautiful and full of detail, but also very bright and can be seen with the naked eye. This makes them good targets for both beginner and experienced astrophotographers. As far as challenging objects, I love the Horsehead Nebula. It is not a Messier object. Rather it is catalogued as IC434. It is dim, but can be found in the Orion constellation near the great nebula. In my urban sky, a filter is a necessity to block city lights. A go-to telescope makes it much easier to locate.  The object is fascinating, as it looks like a horse’s head. All three of those objects can be seen on my Images page.

  2. This is the first time that I have read about a Messier Marathon, and I see you don’t need to be particularly fit for this one. Sounds like you can potentially see some pretty interesting sights. I think you would have to know a lot about Astronomy to partake in this event.

    What is the most difficult sighting to see on the list?

    • Michel,

      Most, but not all, do require a telescope to see. A dark sky is also helpful. A few of the objects are bright enough to see with the naked eye, so you don’t even need a telescope. The Andromeda Galaxy and Orion Nebula are worth looking at with binoculars! Go-to telescopes make this challenge easier, but some who have a lot of astronomy knowledge can do this just with their knowledge of the night sky. It’s hard to pick one really tough object since many require a telescope. My favorite “toughie” would have to be the Horsehead Nebula. It is not on Messier’s list, but can be found near the Orion Nebula. I have an image on the “Image Gallery” page. Thanks for your comment!


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