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Running a celestial marathon

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Astronomers try to see 110 objects in a single night

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- South central Kansas stargazers, take note: A small window of opportunity will open near the end of March. Actually, however, the window is not on stars, but on 110 mostly non-stellar objects that can be seen in the night sky.

"There are 110 famous celestial objects that are out-of-the-ordinary," says Tracy Tuttle, assistant professor of physics and "chief astronomer" at Bethel College. "These are mostly galaxies, nebulae, clusters of stars--when you want to look at interesting objects in the sky, you’d look at these."

Not too many people, even dedicated sky-watchers, have seen all 110 of these objects in a lifetime, Tuttle says. But for two or three days each spring, near the vernal equinox, the length of the day and night and where the objects are in the sky make it possible to see them all in one night.

Those days this year are March 24 and 25, an "especially good" time because it falls near a new moon, reducing the interference of the moon’s light, Tuttle says.

So on March 24, with the 25th as a rain/cloud date, Bethel College’s Mabee Observatory will hold a "Messier (pronounced May-zee-ay) Marathon," an all-night-long-attempt to spot and document the 110 celestial objects. "We tried it a couple of years ago [right after the observatory first opened]," Tuttle says, "and we got 27 before we were clouded out."

The Messier Marathon is named for French astronomer Charles Messier (1730-1817). Somewhere around 1757, Messier began looking for comet Halley (which he finally saw in 1759). From that time forward, he devoted his professional life to hunting comets. In doing so, he also found nebulae, star clusters and other objects. Eventually, he began a catalog that became the 110-object list that Messier marathoners now use.

For the Bethel marathon, Tuttle and his staff will be imaging with Mabee Observatory’s main 16-inch telescope, along with a 120 mm refracting telescope and two remote telescopes, for four in all. These telescopes will not be available to the public to look through, but the observatory’s observation deck will be open from 8 p.m. until midnight for people to view the sky with other telescopes and binoculars and to check the marathon’s progress.

An added feature will be the presence of staff from Radio Kansas in Hutchinson, who will be breaking into "Night Crossings" every 20 minutes or so from 9 until 11:30 with updates on how the viewing is going.

"Lots of our listeners to ‘Night Crossings’ are also star-watchers," says Radio Kansas outreach director Michael Ables. "So we’re following our listeners’ direction. We also play a lot of ‘music for the stars’ on ‘Night Crossings.’"

Radio Kansas has done similar live broadcasts at Lake Afton Public Observatory on the Wichita State University campus but Ables notes that "each visit is unique."

"We have a couple of reasons for doing [the marathon]," Tuttle says. "We want to promote the idea of astronomy and observing the night-time sky.

"We also want to get people to think about reducing light pollution--glaring lights mar the beauty of the night sky, they’re unsafe, and they waste energy," he continues. "The United States spends $1.5 billion and burns 6 million tons of highly polluting coal a year to produce light that is wasted."

In addition, the Messier Marathon is fun, he says. However, it doesn’t make for a peaceful night.

"You’d think it would be leisurely, but it’s not," he says. "It’s pretty non-stop and hectic." In addition, there will be a Webcast with live chat going on throughout the night. The Web address is astronomy.bethelks.edu for those who want to follow the marathon’s progress or join in the chat.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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