This story starts with Jeff Barton, Director of Astronomy at the Three Rivers Foundation for the Arts and Sciences (3RF). Jeff sent me a Facebook message on January 27, inviting me to come speak at the 3RF Messier Marathon star party, for which 3RF would pay my travel expenses and provide food and lodging.
I did not get this message until February 19, because I suck at Facebook. Fortunately the offer was still open. So last Thursday I flew to DFW, rented a car, and drove out to the Comanche Springs Astronomy Campus, a little west of Crowell, Texas.
3RF is an educational foundation and Comanche Springs is the North American astronomy wing (they also have scopes in Australia for public education and outreach). It’s out in rural Texas ranchland, and as you drive up the first thing your eyes will light on is the big silver observatory dome.
There are several roll-off roof observatories on the campus, with more to come in the near future. This one holds two imaging scopes, a big Ritchey-Chretien on the left and a big SCT on the right, both on Software Bisque Paramounts. These are set up for remote observing – in the near future, schoolteachers will be able to tie into these telescopes and collect images with their students.
Irritatingly, I didn’t get any pictures of the big roll-off roof observatory which holds one of 3RF’s 30″ Obsession dobs, and where they park the two 20″ and one 18″ Obsessions when they’re not in use. That’s right, four 18″ and larger Obsessions in one place. They have more stored in town, waiting for more observatories to be built, and another gaggle of Obsessions in Australia.
In lieu of a picture of the Obsession shed, here’s a view of the north end of campus, looking east. From left to right you can see one of the four or so bunkhouses in the background, the ‘new’ classroom/mess hall, the equipment shed where the binocular chairs are stored, and the restrooms, and one of the observing fields in the foreground.
Here’s one of the motorized binocular chairs. You sit in the padded seat and drive yourself in altitude and azimuth with the joystick on the right armrest, while the Fujinon 25×150 binoculars deliver 6″ of unobstructed light-gathering to each eye. There’s another chair with a more modest but still impressive 100mm bino, and I believe a third chair that wasn’t out during my visit.
The tagline “Deep in the dark of Texas” is not my original, I got it from the back of a 3RF t-shirt. It’s true. The skies at Comanche Springs are dark. Seriously dark. You drive through a section of open range to get there. I had to get a picture of this brown cow sitting by the side of the road – this cow refused to be fazed by anything. I grew up in rural Oklahoma and in my experience, free-range cattle are highly correlated with dark skies. The skies at Comanche Springs are Bortle 1 or 2. The only places I have been under skies this dark are Afton Canyon, the All-Arizona Star Party, and the remote desert of southern Utah. More than 200 miles west of the DFW metroplex, and 20 miles from the nearest town of more than 1000 people, there are no light domes on the horizon – none.
I roomed with these fine gentlemen. You may know Robert Reeves from his several books on astrophotography (see this page) and from his “365 Days of the Moon” on Facebook, which has now been running for more than two years. David Moody is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (yes, the one in London, co-founded by Herschel) and one of the authors of Astronomical Sketching: A Step-by-Step Introduction. Lonnie Wege is a sales manager at Celestron and brought the door prizes, which were donated by Celestron.
To be in the company of such experienced observers and imagers was a real privilege, but it was only intimidating for the first 30 seconds or so because they’re all so nice. In Seeing in the Dark, Timothy Ferris describes hanging out at the Winter Star Party: “I listened to the elders talk – a mix of astronomical expertise and self-deprecatory wit, the antithesis of pomp.” That’s what it was like for me at the 3RF star party – just a bunch of regular folks, all equally willing to share and learn, all equally excited for nightfall.
I got in Thursday evening but didn’t do much observing. It was cold and windy, and then cloudy. I did spend a few minutes out in the lee of one of the bunkhouses cruising the sky with binoculars, and I figured out an easy hack for hanging my red headlamp over my bunkbed, but that was about it. Incidentally, my headlamp is already red, but like almost all red-light accessories marketed toward amateur astronomers, it’s still too darned bright. Usually I have a layer of masking tape over the front to knock down the brightness, but for some reason I pulled it off recently. Fortunately they had plenty of red taillight tape in the 3RF coffers, so I got it back into fighting trim.
On Friday I visited the elementary and middle schools in nearby Quanah, Texas, with 3RF’s Director of Education, Townly Thomas. Townly visits schools in a 100-mile radius from Quanah to bring enhanced STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) activities to kids. I know she’s popular because I heard one student call to her as we walked down the hall: “Mrs. Thomas, when do we get to do STEAM again?” I went in my capacity as professional paleontologist and brought some fossil casts for the students to see. Pictured above are the thumb claw of Saurophaganax, a big allosauroid from Black Mesa in the Oklahoma panhandle (more about that here), and the skull of Aquilops, a little ancestral horned dinosaur that I got to help name in 2014 (ditto). Many thanks to my friends and colleagues at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History for making the casts available – I’ve had fun introducing them to lots of schoolkids.
After the school visit, I got on the road back to Comanche Springs – I didn’t want to miss the talk by Robert Reeves on his lunar imaging. Here’s a handful of the many things I learned from Robert:
- He uses a 180mm SkyWatcher Mak to get his moon images these days. Runs his camera at 50 frames a second for 100 seconds to get 5000 frames, stacks and saves only the best 500, and then does a LOT of careful, thoughtful processing.
- Lunar shadows are jet black, not gray. If you see gray shadows in someone’s moon images, they need more processing.
- The lunar Bay of Rainbows is Sinus Iridum, not Sinus Iridium – no third ‘i’. I have been misspelling and mispronouncing it for a decade.
Now, this was a Messier Marathon star party and there were rules and checklists and everything – more on that later in the post. I think that originally Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights were all fair game for the contest, but Friday night turned out to be suboptimal. We did get a lovely sunset, as you can see above, but those clouds were pushed on through by a strong, cold wind. Instead of setting up scopes ourselves, many of us retreated inside the dome to observe with the 15″ refractor. We also had a group of 15 or 20 college students visiting, so we all took turns looking through the big refractor. They’d already been going for a while when I got inside. The first object I saw myself through the big scope was the globular cluster M3. Then we looked at M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, and then Comet 41P.
I haven’t blogged about the comet yet, but it is easily visible in binoculars under dark skies, and with any luck it may get naked-eye visible in the next week or so. I haven’t checked to see if it’s visible from Claremont – I was too pooped after I got home last night. I saw it every night in Texas, but I haven’t sketched it yet. Hopefully I’ll get that done soon. In the meantime, Sky & Tel has a good finder chart that will carry you through the end of April here.
After the comet, we looked at the galaxies M102, M82, and M104, and the globular cluster M13. I might have missed an object or two – I popped outside to call home, and spent some time in the attached classroom warming up and getting to know some of my fellow stargazers. I know we went to Jupiter at some point, and we back to Jupiter at the end of the session to catch the start of an Io shadow transit.
I slept in on Saturday and did some final tinkering on my talk. David Moody gave a talk before dinner about visiting the Royal Astronomical Society library and getting to see first editions of books by Copernicus, Newton, Bode, Bayer, and more.
After David’s talk we had dinner and door prizes in the mess hall. Here Jeff Barton (right) is pointing past Fred Koch, who was drawing names, to accuse Lonnie Wege (left) of something. It was all in good fun and there was plenty of laughter, especially when Phil Jones won the grand prize – 15×70 SkyMasters, just like mine – in absentia, having been out setting up his imaging gear. When he came in, Lonnie told him that all he had won was the case, and the binos were going to someone else. Well, binos did go to someone else (whose name unfortunately escapes me), but he had already won 10×50 binos so he kindly donated the 15x70s to Phil. This is Phillip L. Jones of VisualUniverse.org, by the way – you’ve probably seen his photos in books and magazines.
I won a door prize myself – a rechargeable hand warmer. I ran over and plugged it in after dinner so it would be ready to go by marathon time. I was very glad to have it later on.
Saturday night was looking much, much better. There were a few clouds low on the western horizon, but everyone who had come to Comanche Springs to observe or image was getting ready. Here are Glenn Winn in the foreground setting up his 17.5″ Discovery dob, and Jim Admire in the background with his XT10g. Just out of the frame on the right was Jay Ellis and his own XT10.
I set up just south of Jay, and the four of us were the biggest group of visual marathoners. Phil Jones had his imaging rigs set up about 100 feet south of Glenn. There were more imagers on the south observing field, by the Obsession shed, and at least two serious visual observers: Tom Monahan and Russ Boatright (there may have been more, but Tom and Russ are the two who came to the awards ceremony on Monday).
I don’t remember what scope Tom was rolling with, but Russ impressed the hell out of all of us by going super-minimal: he did a naked Messier Marathon from Memory. Not naked as in unclothed, but naked as in, not even with a list of the objects. In a regular M-cubed the observer is allowed no charts – they have to find all of the objects from memory, hence the name. In a naked M-cubed, the observers is not even allowed a list to remind them what to look for, it’s just them and their instrument. Russ ran his naked M-cubed with Canon 18×50 image-stabilized binoculars.
Saturday night’s marathon was great. There were clouds low in the west again, and none of us got M74. But the clouds blew through quickly and after that it was clear, dark skies all night. I was rolling with the Bresser AR102S Comet Edition and Fujinon 7x50s I had borrowed from 3RF. I’d actually flown in with my own binoculars, the Bushnell 10x42s that I had out at Santa Cruz Island last June, but the 7x50s gave a wider, brighter image and were more in line with my current fascination for low-power, wide-field uber alles. I would have brought the Bresser 7x50s that came with the Comet Edition package, but I ran out of room in my backpack – the Bushnell roofs take up about half the space.
And speaking of space in my backpack – I managed to fly with carry-on luggage only. A red duffel bag held the Bresser OTA, Manfrotto tripod, DwarfStar alt-az head, and big dinosaur claw, with my clothes wrapped around everything as packing material. My backpack had a couple more shirts, my laptop, travel paperwork, notebook, Pocket Sky Atlas, binoculars, boxed Aquilops skull, shaving bag, and Bob King’s new book Night Sky With the Naked Eye, which I’d gotten specifically to read on the plane (expect a review soon). Both bags were stuffed nearly to bursting, but they were both within carry-on allowances and the backpack still fit under the seat in front of me.
Oh – rules. There were five categories: Young Astronomer, GoTo Telescope, Non-GoTo Telescope, Binoculars, and Highest Aggregate Score. No-one has ever gotten all 110 objects in one night at a 3RF marathon, so the highest aggregate goes to the person who gets the most over the course of two nights. If there’s a tie in the number of Messier objects, the bonus points kick in. Herschel 400 objects were worth two points apiece, and there was an ascending scale of more difficult dim objects, including Hickson Compact Groups of galaxies.
Here’s my log from Saturday night. Although I missed M74, I tried to make up for it by nailing as many H400 clusters in Cassiopeia and Perseus as I could. By the time I took my first break at 10:15, I had 27 Messiers and 16 H400s. I took several short breaks over the course of the evening to get snacks and caffeine and chat with people. It all went pretty smoothly until just before dawn, when I was trying to catch M30. I star-hopped down from Deneb Algedi (aka Delta Capricorni) to the right vicinity and found myself looking at trees. They were only small trees, and probably 200 yards from the observing field, but they still obscured those last few crucial degrees above the horizon. I’d picked a bad spot.
What I should have done is pick up the binoculars and walk south until I could see the target star with no trees in the way. What I actually did was pick up the scope and chair and run south and set up where I thought I’d be in the clear, only to star-hop down again and see other, different trees – I’d gone too far south. So I moved everything yet again, and by the time I got on target, the sky was getting bright. Fooey. Still, I got 108 objects, tying my personal best from 2013, which was actually the last time I’d even attempted a Messier marathon, so I couldn’t be too unhappy.
As it happened, I tied with Glenn Winn that night. He’d missed M77 in the early evening, but gotten M30, so his list of 108 objects was slightly different than mine but came to the same total.
Anyway, I went to bed happy. Got up for lunch on Sunday, then slept some more, then got up for another talk by Robert Reeves. Robert’s second talk was also on the moon, but focused less on his imaging methods and more on the processes that have shaped the moon, and the moon’s changing appearance under varying conditions of light and shadow. It was incredible stuff – I took a whole page of notes to guide my own future moon-observing.
Sunday night we had clearer skies than Saturday, but it was colder and a brisk north wind was blowing not long after dusk. None of us got M74. Down at the Obsession shed, folks were looking for it with even bigger scopes and failed to see it, so I’m confident it just was not visible that night. Possibly that was atmospheric, but the zodiacal light certainly didn’t help – it was a broad dagger of light stabbing up vertically from the horizon all the way to the Pleiades. I have never seen it so bright.
The other thing that shaped my Sunday night plans was the fact that Glenn did get M77, bringing his aggregate Messier total to 109. All of my bonus points from H400s would only help in the event of a tie, and the only was I could tie him was to get M30. And without M74, there was no chance for me to achieve my personal goal of getting all 110 Messiers in one night. So I needed to be up before dawn to try for M30, but there was no point in subjecting myself to a whole night of observing in the windy cold. I packed up the scope and moved into the lee of Jeff Barton’s camper and switched over to binoculars. I was still using the 3RF Fujinon 7x50s.
It was another Fujinon binocular that would provide the most memorable views of the evening: the 25×150 motorized bino chair. 3RF volunteer Gary Carter had set up the bino chairs and was touring people around the sky on Saturday evening, but I was too busy marathoning to partake. Sunday night I hopped in the big chair, Gary got the binos adjusted, and I was off.
In a word – WOW. I have been fortunate to get to observe with a lot of big telescopes, but I am not exaggerating when I say that using that bino chair was my favorite observing, ever. I just sat there comfortably in a padded chair and drove myself around the sky with the joystick, while enjoying hands-down the brightest, most immersive, most enjoyable views of the night sky that I have ever had. Six inches is a lot of light-gathering per eye. I don’t know the AFOV of the eyepieces but it is wide. It’s hard for me to even believe that the magnification was only 25x – everything subjectively seemed much bigger, because it was so much brighter and more detailed than I am used to. When I was cruising over to look at the Double Cluster, I kept getting distracted by all of the little open clusters that dot the Milky Way in and around Cassiopeia (I was coming in from the north). M78, near Orion, was so big and bright that at first I thought I had the wrong object.
In summation, observing with the Fujinon bino chair was a transformative experience – it changed my perspective on what observing could BE.
I knocked off a little before midnight with 60 Messiers in the bag, and went to get some sleep. I didn’t get up until 5:30, and I wasn’t back out on the observing field until 5:45.
I have read many accounts from observers under dark skies who said that when the summer Milky Way rose, it was so bright that they mistook it for a cloud. I had not previously experienced that for myself. But Monday morning I was headed out of the bunkhouse and I saw a bright, white cloud in the eastern sky. We’d been fighting the occasional cloud every other night, so when I saw that cloud out of the corner of my eye I thought, “Aww, crap, I need clear skies to get M30”. But when I turned my head to see how big the cloud was, and how extensive, it turned out to be the Milky Way in Sagittarius and Scutum. I should have known better anyway – Comanche Springs is so dark that actual atmospheric clouds aren’t bright, but dark. They show up as blank spaces in the starfields.
I didn’t get M30. I got the scope correctly placed this time, and I got to the target star, and I spent about 15 minutes alternately adjusting the zoom eyepiece and staring into the darkness. A couple of times I thought I saw something, but I couldn’t even hold it in averted vision, so it could well have been a case of averted imagination. Anyone who has pushed their gear to its limits in the search for faint fuzzies will know the feeling. There are the things that you see repeatably in the same place, with the same orientation, that you log as detected – and then there are things that never swim up out of the minor variations in background darkness that your retina throws up when confronted with a blank slate. M30 never surfaced for me.
Ah, well. I did get 25 more Messiers with the 7x50s between 5:45 and 6:05. It helped that I had seen them all the previous morning with the telescope, so I knew exactly where to look. I probably could have gotten a few more, like M2, if I hadn’t been so fixated on M30. But 85 Messiers in one night with 7×50 binos is not a bad total at all, especially not when I got a 5.5-hour break in the middle.
I was too keyed up to go right back to sleep, so I went into the observatory classroom, made myself a Frito pie with a microwave bowl of Dinty Moore Beef Stew – which was awesome, by the way – and copied my results over from my personal log to the 3RF competition forms. Then I went back to sleep for a couple more hours.
We all reconvened in the observatory classroom around 10:00 for the final tally and presentation of awards. Here’s the scoreboard:
The highest aggregate total went to Glenn Winn, with 109 objects over the two nights. I got second in the Non-GoTo category, behind Glenn, and also got second in the Binocular category, behind Russ Boatright. In his naked M-cubed with the 18×50 bins, Russ got a staggering 90 objects. Color me impressed – very impressed. Jim Admire got 91 objects with his XT10g, and that was without pushing through dawn, so he won the GoTo category. Tom Monahan wasn’t even going to turn in his sheet, figuring that his 47 objects from the first half of Saturday night would not qualify him for anything. But a lot of people who signed up didn’t turn in any results, so Tom got the pleasant surprise of third place in the Non-GoTo category. I think the Young Observer awards went unclaimed, as no actual youngsters participated in the marathon.
Here’s a shot of the winners’ circle. From left to right are:
- Jeff Barton, our host and the competition judge;
- Glenn Winn with his 1st place medal and aggregate score trophy;
- Russ Boatright;
- Jim Admire;
- yours truly, and;
- Tom Monahan.
Many thanks to 3RF volunteer Gary Carter for taking the photo, and for permission to use it here.
A good time was had by all, and plans are already being laid for next time. Turns out that Jeff Barton is a fan of double stars, and he visibly lit up when I brought the idea of a Double Star Marathon to his attention. Something like 80 globs are visible in the fall during fall Messier Marathon season, so some kind of glob marathon may be in the offing in the near future as well.
I learned some things about my gear, too. The Bresser/Manfrotto/Dwarfstar rig was utterly uncomplicated, as I suspected from my test run at the Salton Sea the previous weekend. Rarely have I had more effortless and trouble-free observing. And I’m proud to have gotten 108 objects in one night with a 4″ scope – I don’t think there’s any shame in losing to a 17.5″ reflector, nor to an observer as experienced and friendly as Glenn. I might even have ‘sold’ a few of the Bresser Comet Edition packages, as there was a lot of curiosity about the scope among the star party attendees. I think Jeff Barton may have ordered one yesterday morning.
Is a 4″ reflactor enough scope for a Messier Marathon? It wasn’t this time. I’m not hurt about not getting M74 – if people with 17″ and 18″ dobs couldn’t see it, then conditions were just not right for it to be seen, period. M30 is more troubling. I know for dead certain that I was pointed at the right place, and I tried every trick in the book – averted vision, tapping the tube, slowly sweeping – and still couldn’t get it to pop out, and this was from its rising onward. But I know it was visible in bigger scopes. Sure, it will be a few degrees higher by the end of the month, but M74 will be a few degrees lower, too.
Now, I know that people have gotten all 110 Messiers in one night with even smaller scopes. According to this analysis by A.J. Crayon, hosted at the SEDS Messier site, it has been done with a 60mm refractor. That is darned impressive. So theoretically, yes, under perfect conditions, a 4″ scope is more than enough. But your chances improve with bigger scopes. Still, even a 17.5″ scope wasn’t enough to get all 110 this time, at this site. And it is worth noting that I’ve now done just as well with a 4″ scope as with my Apex 127, having gotten 108 objects in one night with both instruments.
Flying with the Bresser Comet Edition turned out to be surprisingly easy. I got scope, tripod, alt-az head, and clothes for five days into a standard duffel bag. The likelihood of this scope racking up more airline miles in the future is very high. And the 28mm RKE and 8-24mm Celestron zoom were all the eyepieces I needed. I didn’t use a finder of any kind – I didn’t take my green laser pointer for airport security reasons, and I forgot to borrow one from Jeff (who did offer) before the marathon started Saturday night. But it was okay, I just did my dead reckoning trick and didn’t even think about it after the first few objects. On the flip side, I did wish for a different atlas. I really need to suck it up and take the Jumbo PSA next time. At 4:00 in the morning when my eyes are tired and I’m trying to read by the dim light of a red headlamp, the writing in the standard edition is just too small.
I have new ambitions about gear – mainly, that I gotta get me some big binoculars. Frequent commenter and sometime observing buddy Doug Rennie has 20×80 bins that he mounts on one of these – that would be a potent and enjoyable combo for a very reasonable outlay (although I see that the price has crept up from the $65 or so it was going for last year). And my new no-holds-barred, price-is-no-object dream observing rig – which I may never achieve – is a motorized chair with 150mm binoculars. It was that good.
But ultimately the star party was not about gear, it was about experiences. I had a fantastic time at Comanche Springs, saw amazing things in the sky, learned a lot from my fellow amateurs, and most importantly made a lot of new friends. Many thanks to Jeff Barton and the whole 3RF crew for their hospitality and for making my trip possible. I don’t know when I’ll be back out there, but I’m already looking forward to it.
For more about Messier Marathons, including log sheets, links, and observing reports from previous marathons, see this page.