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Monique Keiran: This marathon is truly astronomical

Next weekend, a few hardy members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Victoria chapter will mark the start of spring with a little-known ritual.

Next weekend, a few hardy members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Victoria chapter will mark the start of spring with a little-known ritual. Clear skies willing, they will stay up until dawn on Sunday to participate in an astronomical test of endurance, knowledge and night-sky navigation skills.

Their marathon differs from most. Instead of running long distances, participants will spend the night hunched over their telescope eyepieces, twiddling knobs and adjusting their instruments by hand. They seek not to cover territory on the ground, but in the sky.

Their goal is to locate 110 specific heavenly objects before dawn. The objects were first catalogued by a French astronomer named Charles Messier more than two centuries ago.

“It’s gruelling, but possible,” says Sherry Buttnor, president of the astronomical society’s local chapter. “It takes all night, and you’re out there trying to locate your last objects as the sky is lightening.”

Buttnor is a former marathoner. Years ago, she challenged herself to find all of Charles Messier’s “objects” from her own Victoria-area backyard. She found 103 before dawn washed out the sky.

“I’m glad I did it,” she says. “It really was a neat experience, but it was hard. Night-time temperatures get pretty cold at this time of year, and you have to understand, when you’re doing this, you’re not moving around much, so the cold sinks right in.”

The marathon could occur at warmer times of year. At these latitudes, however, March offers a compromise between temperature, likelihood of clear skies, and — most critical of all — total hours of darkness in a night.

Marathoners participate for varying reasons. Buttnor says she did it because she thought it would be an interesting, unusual thing to do. Some people are drawn to the camaraderie — if they’re part of a small group — and the gentle competition within each group.

Taking part also tests a person’s star-searching ability. Whether you’re participating on your own or with a group, it comes down to you, your telescope and your knowledge of the night sky.

The beauty and variety of Messier’s objects provide further reason.

Messier, an 18th-century astronomer, spent most of his life looking for new comets. In his search, he encountered many fuzzy, starry objects that were easily mistaken for comets with the primitive telescopes of the day.

After repeated observation, he determined these objects didn’t move against the rest of the night sky — they could not be comets. Not wanting to waste more viewing time on them, he and his assistant kept a running list of the distracting objects.

Now known as the Messier catalogue, the list of not-comets begins with Messier 1, or M1— also known as the Crab Nebula, a star that, to our eyes, exploded just 961 years ago — and continues to Messier 110, or M110 — a satellite galaxy dwarfed by its big sister, the Andromeda galaxy.

The catalogue’s numbering system and origins belie its contents, which include some of the most impressive objects to be seen through modern-day backyard telescopes from the northern hemisphere.

For example, M42 is the Orion Nebula, a spectacular nursery for newborn stars. Messier 10 is the Andromeda galaxy, a stunning spiral of hundreds of billions of stars that neighbours our own galaxy, the Milky Way. The Ring Nebula, or M57, shows the awe-inspiring last gasps of a dying star blowing its atmosphere into space.

Buttnor describes M13, a globular star cluster containing about 100,000 stars in the Hercules constellation, as a scattering of perfect, tiny diamonds that shine and glint against deepest black.

Astronomical society members are holding Saturday’s challenge on Little Saanich Mountain, in a clearing not far from the giant government telescope. Due to security restrictions on the federal lands, several weeks’ advance notice is required to participate.

However, other local stargazers can participate elsewhere, on their own or with friends.

It’s that kind of event — a quiet, personal challenge, marked by Thermoses of coffee and checkmarks on a list.

And hour upon hour of private, frosty-breathed wonder at the universe’s varied exquisiteness.

To start training for next year’s Messier Marathon, contact the Victoria chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada at