On the evening of Friday, April 1, I attempted my second-ever Messier Marathon. My first was last year, in February of 2010 (observing report here). That one was an out-of-season marathon, and only about 105 objects were visible, of which I observed 98. My goal this year was to break into the triple digits.
Owl Canyon Campground is a BLM public campground about 6 miles north of Barstow. It’s a great place for camping, hiking, and stargazing, but not a site one would usually choose for marathoning. The campground is down in the canyon, and the canyon walls raise both the eastern and western horizons, which cuts down the time available for fishing the early evening and late morning targets out of the twilight. But it’s close by, which was good because I couldn’t leave town earlier than 4:00 on Friday and needed to be to my destination and all set up by nightfall. And the forecast was a bit more favorable there than any of my usual haunts, which had clouds predicted for shortly after midnight.
I was there with my friend Andy, and both of us were using 5-inch reflecting telescopes and 15×70 binoculars. We were each armed with a checklist, a photocopy of the map from the Sky & Telescope Messier Card, and the S&T Pocket Sky Atlas. I also had Harvard Pennington’s Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide along, primarily for the detailed charts of evening and morning objects, although it wound up getting used much more than that. Andy got his first telescope last year (reviewed here) and had seen only some of the Messier objects before our marathon attempt; for him the night was primarily about exploration and working on his object-locating skills. My 6-yr old son, London, was also along on the trip, for the fun of camping and our traditional morning-after hike.
We got to the campground well before sunset, made a fire, and roasted hot dogs for dinner. The sun set a little after 7:00 and by 7:30 we were picking out stars and constellations. Our first Messier object, unsurprisingly, was the Pleiades (M45), which we needed as a signpost to get down to the galaxies of the evening rush. We missed M74 and M77–the high western horizon cut them off before the sky was dark enough to see them. We saw M31 and M32 at 8:22, and M110 at 8:38, just before Andromeda set. M33 was another no-show; both of us suspected a glow at about the right place, but it was right on our local horizon and we couldn’t be certain that what we though we saw was really distinct from the twilight skyglow.
After that, things got easier. We nabbed M76, M34, and M79 before 9:00, and then paused for a few minutes to roast marshmallows. We were back in action by 9:20, roaming through the nebulae and open clusters of Taurus, Orion, Canis Major, Puppis, Gemini, Auriga, and Cancer.
We soon fell into a comfortable rhythm. My goal was to find as many Messiers as possible, and Andy’s goal was to see them, and to get some experience using his scope under dark skies. He found many of the objects himself, with either his scope or the big binos, but for some of the less impressive specimens he cadged views through my scope. I set out a lounge chair and blankets for London so he could stay warm while he looked for shooting stars and satellites, and before long he was fast asleep under the stars.
For last year’s Marathon I had used a 6″ f/8 Dob, which I later sold when I moved up to a 10″ Dob. This year I was using a 5″ f/5 Newt on the Skywatcher AZ4 alt-az mount (also sold by Orion as the VersaGo II), and it was a pleasant combination. With a low-power eyepiece, the field of view was about 2.5 degrees, and 5″ is a lot of aperture under dark desert skies. Both of the trios of galaxies in Leo were easily seen in the same field of view, which allowed us to compare them during our brief study. Further to the east, Saturn heralded the rising of Virgo and the Realm of the Galaxies. The jewel of the solar system was spellbinding, as always, and both of spent some time lingering over her charms.
I had been somewhat dreading the Virgo-Coma “clutter” of galaxies. I found them all last year, but it took me about an hour and a quarter to slog through them. This year went much more smoothly–I started with M60 at 11:08 and finished with M100 at 11:31, and that was allowing time for Andy to look at each one before moving on. Later on in the evening he realized that he had forgotten to look at M100. I had already moved on, but was happy to return to M100 by the simple expedient of panning around western Coma until I spotted the broad dagger of stars next to that big, bright galaxy. That fast and lazy approach was my favorite object find of the night, but not my favorite view.
After finishing the Realm of the Galaxies, we turned north, to Ursa Major and Canes Venatici. My favorite view of the evening was of M97, the Owl Nebula, and M108, a distant galaxy, shining brightly in the same wide field. M51 showed hints of spiral structure and its companion, NGC 5195, was interesting for its bright, almost star-like core.
We ended the first session of the night in the east and northeast, sweeping up globular clusters in Hercules, Serpens, Ophiuchus, and Scorpio, and catching the open clusters of Cygnus as they crawled over the horizon. Our final objects were the globs M9, M62, and M19, about a quarter after 1:00 AM. We covered our scopes and went to bed, with an alarm set for 3:30 to get us up for the morning rush.
We rose on time, but so had the clouds. Starting about 11:00 PM we had seen high, thin clouds in the south, but they had not gotten very far overhead nor threatened to interrupt our marathon. By 3:30 it was a different story–the whole sky was fogged over, with only a handful of the brightest stars piercing through the gloom. We crawled back into our sleeping bags, and that was that.
Our total for the night was 80 objects. If we hadn’t gotten clouded out, I think we could have gotten into triple digits, although the high eastern horizon would probably have kept us from nabbing M30. But it was a fine night out under the stars, we both had fun and saw a lot of beautiful things, and we were well-rested in the morning, which almost never happens after a marathon.
Breakfast was pancakes and bacon cooked over the campfire, with the desert staying pleasantly cool as the sun ducked in and out of the clouds. London and I took our traditional morning hike and found many wildflowers, some beautiful volcanic rocks of almost every color, including green and purple, and a brave little lizard who let us get quite close before he rocketed away over the desert floor.
It was a heck of a lot of fun and a fine, rewarding night of stargazing, regardless of our total object count. I had time along the way to bag a couple of new objects for the Herschel 400. I think for Andy it was a bit of a breakthrough evening. He glommed on to The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide early in the evening and was soon zooming all over the sky, not just finding and viewing the Messiers on his own but also calling out their types and distances–one thing we both appreciate about the book is that along with maps and directions on how to find the Messiers, it has an eyepiece sketch, capsule description, and basic astronomical data on each one. It’s nice to know what you’re looking at.
It’s also nice to be reminded as you observe that the sky is not a dome over our heads but an inconceivably vast space, with objects scattered through it at all distances, “in which we float, like a mote of dust, in the morning sky” (in the words of Carl Sagan). The sun is 8 light minutes away; Saturn is about 1.5 light hours away; Sirius, the brightest nighttime star, is 8.6 light years from us; planetary nebulae (the gaseous shells of dying stars), double and multiple stars, and open star clusters are usually only a few hundred to a few thousand light years away in the neighboring spiral arms of the Milky Way; globular clusters are usually tens to hundreds of thousands of light years away in our galaxy’s halo; and the external galaxies of Messier’s catalog range from a little over 2 million light years away for Andromeda (M31) to a mind-bending 67 million light years for M109. And even this incredible gulf only gets us just barely to the edge of our local supercluster of galaxies, one of countless galactic superclusters strewn across the observable universe like stars across the arms of our own Milky Way.
Such is the span of space and time one can experience in one night during a Messier Marathon. I had a blast getting 98 last year, I had even more fun getting 80 this year, and I’m already looking forward to making a run on all 110 next year. Watch this space. And more importantly, just watch space.