Messier Marathon: How to See 110 Deep-Sky Objects In One Night?

Star Walk
10 min readMar 4, 2024
© Vito Technology, Inc.

The Messier Marathon is the most popular stargazing competition, challenging people to spot as many Messier objects as possible in just one night. Ready to take on the challenge but unsure of where to begin? We’ve got you covered! With our Sky Tonight app at your fingertips and this comprehensive guide, you’ll navigate through the star-studded sky with ease. Let’s get started!

Introduction to the Messier Marathon

Who was Charles Messier?

Charles Messier was an 18th-century French astronomer, who is best known for creating his “Catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters.” Originally, he created it to help comet hunters by distinguishing fixed celestial bodies that could easily be mistaken for comets.

What is the Messier Catalog?

The Messier Catalog is a collection of some of the brightest deep-sky objects, most of which are visible from the Northern Hemisphere. It comprises 110 objects, each identified by an “M” followed by a number. Some of them also have proper names (like the Pleiades or the Andromeda Galaxy).

What are the Messier objects?

The Messier objects are deep-sky objects of the three main types — nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies. To an observer, they look like fuzzy, cloud-like spots in the sky. The number of visible objects varies depending on the location of the observer and the time of year. The most crowded areas are the Virgo Cluster and the region around the Galactic Center.

What is a Messier Marathon?

The Messier Marathon is an astronomical challenge that invites enthusiasts to observe all 110 objects listed in the Messier Catalog in a single night. Developed in the 1970s by American astronomers Tom Holfelder, Donald Machholz, and Tom Reiland, this event tests observing skills and endurance.

How can I participate in the Messier Marathon?

The Messier Marathon is designed for both experienced astronomers and those new to stargazing. You can take part in it with your local astronomy club, with your friends and family, or even just on your own.

Want to find out how good you are at stargazing before starting off? Test your skills with our stargazing quiz!

Where does the Messier Marathon take place?

The Messier Marathon is an event for observers in the Northern Hemisphere. Unfortunately, only a few Messier objects are visible from the Southern Hemisphere. The ideal conditions to view the Messier objects are between 20 degrees south and 55 degrees north, worldwide.

How to prepare for the Messier Marathon?

Charles Messier didn’t have the fancy gadgets to help him spot deep-sky objects, but luckily, you do! If you’re new to stargazing and not too strict about doing everything the old-fashioned way, using apps like Sky Tonight can really help you get ready for the Messier Marathon. Here’s how to make the most of it:

  • First, find out your longitude. Go to Menu — Settings — General — Location, and you’ll see your longitude and latitude if you’re letting the app use your device location.
  • Look up the Stargazing Index for the night you plan to observe. You’ll find this in the Visible Tonight section (a telescope icon on the main screen). A high percentage means a good night for stargazing.
  • Find out when astronomical twilight begins in your area. Go to the Calendar feature, select the Sky tab, and look for the astronomical twilight start time for the desired date. This is when you should be ready to observe.
Choose the best time and location for stargazing with the free astronomy app Sky Tonight. © Vito Technology, Inc.
  • Get to know the Messier objects better. Just search “Messier” in the app, and you’ll see a list pop-up. Browse through the list to learn objects’ names and what they look like. Click on any object to get more details about it.
  • Quickly find a Messier object in the sky. Enter the object’s name in the search bar, hit the blue target button next to its name, and then press the compass icon. The app will show you where to look for the object in the real sky. Just move your device following the white arrow on your screen until it aligns with the object.
  • Set up alerts for when Messier objects rise and set. After searching for an object and tapping on it, go to its Events section. Under Visible Passes, you’ll see its rise, peak, and set times. Press and hold a time to set a notification. Customize it, and the app will remind you so you won’t miss seeing an object.
Even if you are new to stargazing, the Sky Tonight app will help you prepare for the Messier Marathon. © Vito Technology, Inc.

Messier Marathon tips

Even with the help of the app, seeing all 110 objects in one night is quite challenging. Weather, sky conditions, and landscape can make it easier or harder. Here is how to prepare:

  • Choose a location between 20 degrees south and 55 degrees north, with a clear view of the horizon (especially facing west and southeast).
  • Plan for a long night with appropriate supplies (warm clothes, food, and drinks).
  • Use a high-quality 3-inch (or larger) telescope to see the faint objects, and keep 10x50 binoculars handy for the brighter ones.
  • Learn about the Messier objects in advance and try to find some of them on different nights before the Marathon.
  • Start at astronomical twilight, so you’re all set to see the first Messier objects when they show up.
  • If you can’t find an object quickly, don’t get stuck on it. Move on so you don’t miss others.
  • Be careful not to miss an object, because once it sets, it’s gone for the night. However, there are a few exceptions, such as M52, M103, M31, M32, M110, and M76, that may show up in the early morning to give you a second chance.
  • Now that you’ve seen what you can, you may have to wait for more to become visible. This might be a good time to take a break. Think about taking a nap and coming back around 3 a.m. to continue.

Enjoy the experience! Not everyone will spot all Messier objects in a single night, but the journey itself is fun. Remember, you can tailor the Marathon to suit your preferences and capabilities. Consider breaking it into smaller sessions to observe all 110 objects over the spring.

What should I start with?

Start by observing the objects in the western sky, as they will soon disappear behind the horizon due to the Earth’s rotation. Key targets to start with are galaxies M74 and M77 — they will be the first to set in the evening.

Then move eastward through the night and explore the dense regions. For example, Sagittarius has the highest number of Messier objects — 15 in total — making it a prime area for exploration. Close behind is Virgo with 11 objects, Coma Berenices with 8, Ophiuchus and Ursa Major with 7 each, and Canes Venatici and Leo with 5 each.

If you are still up by dawn, you will be able to see your last objects low on the eastern horizon, especially the globular cluster M30.

When is the Messier Marathon?

The Messier Marathon takes place in March or April, chosen for optimal conditions. During this time, the Sun passes between Pisces and Aquarius, where no Messier objects are located. As a result, the objects remain free of the Sun’s glare from dusk to dawn.

For the best possible observing results, the main date of the Marathon is scheduled for a weekend closest to the New Moon. In 2024, the New Moon is on March 10, making the primary Marathon weekend the night of March 9–10. If you miss the first opportunity, don’t worry! You can still try your luck during the secondary weekend on the night of April 6–7, as the subsequent New Moon falls on April 8.

Also, don’t limit yourself to the best Marathon dates. Less complete Messier Marathons can be held at any time of the year.

Best Messier Marathon dates 2024–2030

Here is a list of primary and secondary Messier Marathon weekends for the next years:

  • 2024: March 9, April 6
  • 2025: March 22, March 29
  • 2026: March 21, March 14
  • 2027: April 3, March 6
  • 2028: March 25, no secondary weekend
  • 2029: March 17, March 10
  • 2030: March 30, March 9

The dates up to 2100 are available on the Messier Marathon earliest website.

What can I see during the Messier Marathon?

The number of objects you will see depends on the chosen time and location, as well as your equipment and level of experience. However, don’t hesitate to begin! Many of these objects are relatively easy to spot, even with the basic equipment and minimal practice.

5 Brightest Messier Objects

Here are some of the most well-known Messier objects, all visible to the naked eye. You don’t need to wait for the Marathon to observe them — start stargazing on any suitable night.

Messier 45, the Pleiades

The Pleiades are an open star cluster in the constellation Taurus. It’s one of the most prominent deep-sky objects in the whole sky, shining at a magnitude of 1.6. Find out more about “The Seven Sisters” cluster in our dedicated article.

The Pleiades (M45) are an open star cluster in the constellation Taurus. © Vito Technology, Inc.

Messier 31, the Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy is a barred spiral galaxy located in the constellation Andromeda. It is the closest major galaxy to the Milky Way, sitting “only” 2.5 million light-years away from our Sun.

The Andromeda Galaxy (M31) is a spiral galaxy in the constellation Andromeda. © Vito Technology, Inc.

Messier 44, the Beehive Cluster

The Beehive Cluster is an open star cluster that lies at the “heart” of the constellation Cancer and contains about 1,000 stars. It appears to the naked eye as a hazy patch of light. Because it’s located in a zodiacal constellation, the Beehive Cluster frequently encounters the Moon and planets.

The Beehive Cluster (M44) is an open star cluster in the constellation Cancer. © Vito Technology, Inc.

Messier 7, the Ptolemy Cluster

The Ptolemy open star cluster is located in the constellation Scorpius. It favors the Southern Hemisphere, where it’s best seen from June to August. In northern latitudes, spotting it can be challenging as it hangs low on the horizon. The optimal time for Northern Hemisphere observers is around 10 p.m. in July when the constellation Scorpius reaches its highest point in the sky.

The Ptolemy Cluster (M7) is an open star cluster in the constellation Scorpius. © Vito Technology, Inc.

Messier 42, the Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula is located in the constellation Orion, near the famous asterism Orion’s Belt. It stands out as one of the brightest nebulae, shining at a magnitude of 4.0. To the naked eye, it resembles a star, but with binoculars or a small telescope, it will appear as a hazy glow.

The Orion Nebula is a diffuse nebula in the constellation Orion. © Vito Technology, Inc.

If these 5 deep-sky objects don’t satisfy your curiosity, explore our list of 15 brightest star clusters that you can observe with the naked eye!

Other objects to see during the Messier Marathon: Comets 12P/Pons–Brooks, C/2021 S3 (PanSTARRS)

You can fill in the gaps between night and morning Messier objects by looking at some of the other celestial beauties, such as the brightest comets.

During the primary Messier Marathon weekend on March 9–10, comet 12P/Pons–Brooks will be located in Andromeda, while by the secondary date of April 6–7, it will transition to Aries. Expected to reach approximately magnitude 7 by then, it should be visible with a pair of binoculars.

Additionally, comet C/2021 S3 (PanSTARRS) is anticipated to reach its peak brightness of magnitude 9.9 on March 1 and make its closest approach to the Earth on March 14. This comet should also be visible with binoculars during the Messier Marathon weekends.

Solar System Marathon

As an additional challenge, you can try to spot as many of the planets in our Solar System as possible during the Marathon night.

On the night of March 9–10, 2024, Mercury and Neptune will appear in the sky shortly after sunset, but they’ll stay low on the horizon and may be obscured by the Sun’s glare. Jupiter and Uranus will be visible until midnight. As dawn approaches, try to see Venus and Mars hanging low on the eastern horizon, though it may be a challenge. Saturn will rise almost simultaneously with the Sun and won’t be visible.

On the night of April 6–7, 2024, look for Mercury at dusk, followed by Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune before midnight. In the morning, Saturn and Mars will appear in the dawn sky. Neptune will rise next but will be lost in the Sun’s glare. Although Venus will be the last to rise, you may still find it in the early morning sky.

Messier Marathon: Conclusion

Whether you catch a glimpse of all 110 objects during the Messier Marathon or just a few, the experience of exploring the night sky and learning about the universe is certainly rewarding. So grab your telescope, gather your friends or family, and embark on a cosmic adventure that promises both fun and challenge. And if you want more stargazing this month, check out our article on the best astronomy events in March 2024.

Text Credit: Vito Technology, Inc.



Star Walk

Point your device at the sky and see what stars, constellations, and satellites you are looking at 🌌✨