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It's Messier Marathon season, so I thought I share how to use SkyTools 4 Visual to plan for one.

One of my laments for the Nightly Planner was that it wasn't well suited to planning a Messier Marathon. The purpose of the Nightly Planner is to select the best objects to view on a given night. It's not meant to get you a bad view of something low on the horizon. For good views, the Messier objects are best observed year round, rather than be forced into a single night. 

I was thinking about this and it is one of the reasons that I added the Observing Plan feature. When we plan a Messier Marathon our goal is to observe every object on the list, no matter how bad the view. In this case,  what we want to do is to observe each object when we have the best chance to see it, and to move through the list efficiently. 

Here are the steps to make your own Messier Marathon plan using SkyTools 4 Visual:

1. Pick a night in the spring when you will be free to attempt it. The best nights for a Marathon can be found on the web, but they often choose only the very best night, yet others may work too. New moon nights work best, but a few days before/after may work too. Note the teal line on the Nightbar preview on the Night selection tool, which indicates the altitude of the moon during the night. The best nights will be when the moon is not above the horizon during the dark part of the night.

2. Select a telescope, location, observer and open the Messier Observing List (usually found in the Default folder).

3. Disable all filters. Sort the list by Difficulty, looking for any marked as undetectable. Any object marked as undetectable will most likely be impossible to observe on this night. For most locations and telescope, it is common for a few objects to be out of reach. The idea it to try for as many as possible. But you can try different nights to see if you can get more of these objects to be detectable. Select one of these undetectable objects and look at the red dashed line on the NightBar. Most objects will be low on the horizon during evening or morning twilight. In general, if in the morning twilight, try nights later in the month. If in evening twilight, try nights earlier in the month.

4. Set the weather to what is typical for this time of year or to match the forecast.

5. Under Generate Observing Plan set the amount of time you will typically need to find an object plus the amount of time you intend to view it. For a marathon, allow a little extra time for finding objects and less time to view them. It is best to be honest, especially with the time to find each object.

6. Enable the check box next to Plan to generate your plan.

7. I recommend right-clicking on the View Time column and selecting "Reset Custom View Times."

You may be a bit disappointing in the result. In addition to those objects that are not detectable, the algorithm may toss some objects in order to fit them all into the time allotted. A dark site and a larger telescope will naturally allow you to see more objects.

To see which objects are being skipped, right-click on the check mark column. Select Clear All, and then Check Displayed. Remove the check next to Plan. The objects that were not included in the plan will not have check marks next to them.