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Sky-watchers try to see 110 objects in a night in celestial marathon

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Rising temperatures (at least a little), days getting longer and the earth hurtling in its orbit toward the vernal equinox can only mean one thing.

Spring, of course, but more to the point, the annual Messier Marathon, said Bethel College assistant professor of physics and astronomy Tracy Tuttle.

“Each spring, astronomers around the world convene to party all night under the stars and test their mettle with the daunting challenge of observing and/or imaging all 110 Messier objects – the most beautiful and interesting celestial objects in the sky – in one night,” Tuttle said.

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 in one night, though few have ever managed it.

The Messier (pronounced MAY-zee-ay) 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.

This year’s annual marathon will be held Friday, March 4, “and almost everyone is virtually invited,” Tuttle said. “We have a collaborative group this year comprised of Outhouse Observatory – me – the North Central Kansas Astronomical Society (NCKAS), SETEC Observatory in Goddard, Fort Hays State University, Kansas State University and Etscorn Observatory at New Mexico Tech, with Bethel graduate Luke Schmidt.

“Anyone with internet access can follow our progress, ask questions or leave comments on our website, messier.nckas.org.”

Anyone who would like to participate or wants further information should visit the website or contact Tuttle at 316-284-5821 or via e-mail.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is in the first tier in its category in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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