Archive for the ‘Messier Marathon’ Category

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Deep in the Dark of Texas: the Three Rivers Foundation Messier Marathon

March 28, 2017

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.


Inside the dome is a 15″ refractor with DGM optics, an OMI tube, and a monster Astro-Physics mount.


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.

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Observing Report: the accidental Messier Marathon

March 11, 2013

Breakfast

Saturday night London and I went camping at the Salton Sea, and I took another stab at a Messier Marathon.

I did basically zero prep. I didn’t even think about checking the weather to see if camping was possible until noon on Saturday. Normally for a marathon attempt I have custom charts and checklists printed and I’ve been boning up on the positions and IDs of all the Messier objects for a few weeks. This time, nada. I have a laminated card with all the Messier objects plotted that I keep on my clipboard, and I took along Harvard Pennington’s The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide (which everyone interested in deep sky observing should own), but my object checklist was handwritten because we don’t have a printer at home and I didn’t have time to go find one. That pretty much tells you all you need to know about my level of readiness.

Gear

I was rolling with new kit this time. In fact, I’ve rolled with different kit every time I’ve attempted a marathon. In 2010 I used my XT6, which was still my biggest telescope at the time. For my first attempt in 2011 I used “Stubby Fats”, a 5″ f/5 reflector I sold last year. For my second attempt in 2011 I used the XT10, which is still my big gun. Oddly enough, I didn’t make a marathon attempt last year; I can’t remember why not.

Yes, that is an eyepatch hanging from the SV50.

Yes, that is an eyepatch hanging from the SV50.

This time I used my new tandem rig: my Apex 127 Mak with my SV50 refractor mounted alongside as a deluxe finder. This idea, of having a small rich-field scope mounted alongside a planet-killer, has been a gleam in my eye for a while. I toyed around with DIYing it, but the whole point was to get a rig that Just Works. My adventures in ATMing having convinced me that while some folks can build things that Just Work, I get that level of performance from someone else’s quality control. The first component was a set of 144mm inside diameter tube rings to hold the Apex 127 OTA. That let me rotate it so the finder dovetail faced straight sideways. The second part was a set of actual Stellarvue finder rings. These are crazy nice–the adjustment screws are metal, but with little nylon inserts at the tip so they won’t scratch the telescope tube.

I got this all assembled last year, but right at the end of my fall observing season, so I only used it once, which was the Oct. 20-21 Salton Sea run with David DeLano. Although I haven’t blogged about before now, I have actually gotten out a couple of times this spring, and so far I’ve been using the Apex 127/SV50 setup exclusively. I’m sure the XT10 isn’t out of a job–it can still pull down four times as much light as anything else I own–but the tandem rig is so convenient and flexible that I think it will probably be my default observing setup for the foreseeable future.

Evening Rush

The evening rush was a little stressful. Partly because I was rusty and I knew it, partly because I was worried about the weather, and partly because we were hungry. On the weather front, it was cool and cloudy here in Claremont and indeed all over southern California on Saturday morning. Weather Underground was predicting that it would clear off at the Salton Sea, but only just in time for nightfall, and I have seen things get foggy there fast. Happily the clouds did open up as we drove past Cabazon and out of the LA basin, and by the time we got to the campground there were just a couple of small stragglers left.

I was hungry because in keeping with the rest of the late decision to go and near-total lack of planning, we got to the sea just as it was getting dark, so we didn’t have time to get dinner on before I had to go catch the early-evening objects. I wasn’t so worried for myself, but I felt bad making London wait on dinner while I tried to track down faint fuzzies. Fortunately we had some snacks along to tide him over, and he’s pretty self-directed when he has free time and room to roam.

In the actual event, though, I did get all of the evening rush objects. The toughest were M110 and M74. M110 was tough because I’m not still not used to the upright-but-left-right-reversed view through the Mak, and it took an embarrassing amount of faffing about to find it. M74 is legendarily tough: a fairly faint galaxy that is the closest Messier object to the horizon during the spring marathon season. I did finally find it, thanks to the detailed finder charts in Pennington’s Field Guide, a lot of looking, all the dark adaptation I could muster on short notice, and strategic ue of averted vision. I finally spotted an extremely dim glow, but I couldn’t hold it even in averted vision. I noted the position of the suspected glow with respect to some field stars and switched eyepieces. I fine-tuned my aim, looked away from the target point, and caught the glow in the same spot in averted vision. That’s all I needed.

A Second Evening Rush

By 7:40 I’d caught the eight evening rush targets and bought myself some breathing room, so I knocked off for a bit. London and I cooked some hotdogs over the campfire and got our camp arranged a bit more satisfactorily. We’d pretty much just been throwing stuff around when we first arrived, so I could get set up and start logging objects.

My second session was short but extremely productive: between 8:36 and 8:52 I logged 17 objects. After a short break, I nailed M52 at 9:06, and bought myself a long break. Time for toasted marshmalllows, s’mores, and curling up together in the lounge chair to look for shooting stars and tell stories.

London with the Orion 20x50 compact spotting scope he got for his birthday. More on that scope in a future post (but if you're impatient, it's solid).

London with the Orion 20×50 compact spotting scope he got for his birthday. More on that scope in a future post (but if you’re impatient, it’s solid).

The Long Mid-Game

London sacked out a little after 10:30 and I got back to work. There were really only three notable mid-game events. First, it took me 17 minutes to get through the 16 galaxies in Virgo and Coma using only the scope–one more minute than last time, when I used only binoculars. Second, at some point in the early morning I got my first look at Saturn this year. The seeing was rotten, but it was still breathtaking. Third, a little after three I noticed that Centaurus was over the horizon so I grabbed the binoculars and swept up Omega Centauri, by far the largest of the Milky Way’s known globular clusters, which is atmospherically dimmed at this latitude but still a majestic sight.

Except for a couple of shortish breaks, I was observing pretty steadily from about 11:15 to about 3:45. I pushed much farther into the morning rush objects than I usually do before I took my siesta. When I knocked off at 3:40, I had 104 objects logged, so I was already in personal best territory (my previous record was 103, from late April, 2011). I figured I could afford 45 minutes of rest while the last few objects crawled over the horizon, so I set my alarm for 4:25 and got flat. As usual on marathon siestas, true sleep eluded me, but I did at least drift a bit.

Morning Rush

Aye-yi-yi. Somehow I always underestimate just how brutal the morning rush is. When I got up and got myself sorted, my first target was M15, which was dead easy. M75 didn’t put up much of a fight, either. But then I went into Capricorn, after M72 and M73. M72 is a glob, like M75, and theoretically it shouldn’t have been that hard, but no matter what I tried I just could not see it. Maybe the atmospheric extinction near the horizon was just worse than I thought, because I had the scope bang on the exact spot, but there was nothing in the eyepiece.

At 4:50 I noticed something alarming: the sky was getting noticeably brighter in the east. Not good! I popped down to M73 and got it easily. Then I started trying for M2, which was right behind a palm tree, so I started waltzing the scope around in what was now obviously getting on toward dawn. Fortunately M2 is pretty bright and it was an easy catch at 4:57. It was also my last catch. I did one last scan for M72 and took a token pass at M30, but neither were showing, so that was that.

March 2013 Messier marathon log

Post-Game

I ended with 108 objects. I logged 72 objects only with one or both telescopes, 19 with binoculars only, and 17 with both the bins and one or both of the scopes.

How do I feel about the outcome? Well, there is no question that I could have logged M15 and M2 earlier than I did, which would have left more time for M72 and M30. Maybe if I hadn’t felt rushed I could have brought the full suite of techniques to bear on M72 that I did on M74, but the fact is that I was in a hurry and scattered and just less methodical. Whether that would have helped or not, I don’t know. It certainly woulnd’t have hurt, but I seriously wonder if the sky conditions were good enough. March 9 is pretty early in the season for a marathon–according to Harvard Pennington, the very best chances are new moon nights between March 30 and April 3, which obviously don’t happen every year. This early in the season, all the evening rush objects are higher in the sky and therefore easier, but the morning rush objects are lower and therefore harder. (How much difference does that make? Well, there are 12 months in a year, so if I try again next month, everything will be 1/12th of the way around the sky, relative to the sun, from where it was this weekend. That’s a lot of celestial real estate.) I think M30 was probably impossible, this early in the season and given the imperfect near-horizon sky conditions–but I’d kill to have gotten on target for a try before the brightening sky made it a definite impossibility.

Still, I am pretty darned happy. I missed getting the full slate of 110, but I didn’t miss it by much, and 108 feels much more like Messier Marathon success than 103 did. Heck, the guys who invented the Messier Marathon were stuck at 108 for a year (1979) and then 109 for several years before they finally sealed the deal in 1985 (for more about that history, see Pennington’s Field Guide and this awesome page). I feel like I’ve graduated into the ranks of Marathoners who have only been beaten by the legitimately gnarly nature of the quest.

And I’m spoiling for a rematch. April 6 will be close enough to new moon as makes no difference, so if the weather is good, maybe I’ll get another crack at bagging the whole enchilada.

The tape stripe marks the balance point of the whole rig with eyepieces and without lens caps, so I can mount it correctly every time.

The tape stripe marks the balance point of the whole rig with eyepieces and without lens caps, so I can mount it correctly every time.

Gear, Redux

I used binoculars a lot less this year than in previous marathons. That’s down to two things. First, I forgot my 15x70s, so I was rolling with the old Celestron 10x50s that I now keep in the car on a permanent basis. They’re fine, they just don’t pull in nearly as much light as the 15x70s, and they lose some attractiveness for that reason. Second, having the SV50 mounted alongside the Apex 127 was like having a high-end binocular I could park. I was using the 23mm eyepiece that came with the scope, so only 8.9x, but I often could see things in the SV50 that I couldn’t see in the 10x50s, so as the evening wore on I gravitated more and more to using the SV50 and skipping the bins entirely. I’m super-happy with the tandem scope setup; it is working out exactly as I’d hoped.

Where You Been, Flake?

Not-quite-finally, I’m sorry to those of you who have commented or emailed lately and not gotten a response. Paleontology has kept me cuh-ray-zee busy this spring, as it did last spring–my coauthor Mike Taylor and I had a paper published last month (free to read here), we have another due out any day now, and we have two more due to the publisher at the end of this month. So that’s where I’ve been. I am sorry for going so completely AWOL and especially for falling behind on my correspondence. If you’re a regular, thanks for not giving up on 10MA while I’ve been on hiatus (and if you’re new here, welcome, and expect periodic delays!).

Welcome to the Club!

Really finally, there’s a new addition to the blogroll on the sidebar. The Thwarted Astronomer is the stargazing blog of my friend Fiona Taylor (spouse of the Mike Taylor I do dinosaur research with and blog with), who lives in England, in the village of Ruardean, near the border of Wales. I have been to Ruardean to visit Fiona and Mike many times, and I can attest that their skies are freaking amazing, when (operative bit) there are no clouds. Which is not often. So, long story short, Fiona has caught the astronomy bug, but the lack of observing opportunities is getting her down. Since we have some regulars here who probably have it even worse, like Doug Rennie up in Oregon, I was hoping maybe y’all could cheer her up.

All right, that’s it for now. See you back here before another month is up, I promise.

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Double star marathon?

February 20, 2012

An invaluable aid to me when I am working on an observing program is an all-sky map showing the distribution of the things I’m trying to find. The maps of the Messier objects and Caldwell objects from Wikipedia are my constant companions when observing: I printed them in color on 11×17 paper, folded them in half, and stuffed them in sheet protectors.

When I started on the Astronomical League’s Double Star list there was no similar all-sky chart for the 100 double and multiple stars on the list,  so I made one, using the Wikipedia Messier sky chart as the basis:

When I had them all mapped, I noticed that by and large they follow the distribution of the Messier objects, especially in having a big gap to the south between 22 hours and 5 hours right ascension–just the area blocked by the sun and horizons in March and April. I fired up Stellarium and drew on the sunset and sunrise horizons for southern California around the end of March:

Only one of the 100 double stars on the AL list is below the horizon at that time. So during Messier Marathon season it should be possible to do a double star marathon as well, and try to split 99 of the 100 AL doubles in one night.

A double star marathon would bring interesting opportunities and challenges. With Messier marathons, the primary enemy is the moon: you have to go within a very few days on either side of the new moon, or the moonlight will drown out some of the fainter objects. But the relatively bright double stars on the AL list would punch through a fair amount of moonlight. You still wouldn’t want to go between first quarter and last quarter, probably, or the moonlight would wash out some of the guide stars you’d need to find your way, but the window of opportunity should open from six or seven days around new moon to about two weeks.

On the flip side, in a Messier marathon the seeing isn’t that crucial because you’re observing big, extended objects, and just trying to log them, not necessarily tease out details. But to split some of the tighter double stars requires reasonably good seeing, and there’s no way to predict that in advance, sometimes not even from early evening to midnight or midnight to dawn. So the Messier marathon has a tighter constraint from the moon, but it’s predictable, whereas the one sky condition that could make or break a double star marathon (at least for a crucial few of the tightest doubles) can’t be predicted in advance.

I first raised the possibility of a double star marathon a couple of years ago on Cloudy Nights. As far as I know, no one has attempted one. I haven’t, for a couple of reasons. First, if I get to a dark site at Messier marathon time and can afford to stay up all night, I’m going to run a Messier marathon. Second, it’s precisely because double stars punch through light pollution so well that I tend to save them for observing from home–no need to waste my dark sky time on something I can see from my driveway, and my driveway does not have good enough horizons to attempt a marathon of any kind. But I suppose I could head up to the top of the local parking garage and try a double star marathon from there. It wouldn’t require a long drive to dark skies, just a free night followed by a day with few responsibilities.

If I ever get around to it, I’ll let you know.

Related: my free logbook for the AL Double Star Club is on this page, and I have a bunch of Messier Marathon tools here.

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Observing Report: Messier Marathon at the Salton Sea

May 11, 2011

Okay, clearly I am a little obsessed with Messier marathons. Last spring I got 98 of the 110 Messiers in my first marathon. Last month Andy and I only got 80, but that’s because we got clouded out for the nearly 30 predawn Messiers. I had planned to hang up my spurs and wait until next spring to try again, but I just had to have one more go. I really wanted to crack into triple digits, and checking Stellarium I saw that late April was not a bad time for marathoning, with at least 105 of the Messiers potentially visible. So on Friday, April 29, London and I headed down to the Salton Sea for another go.

Evening Rush

It was a much more relaxing start than my beginning-of-April marathon. That evening, I had been running around for about an hour trying to snag a bunch of fuzzies before they dipped below the horizon. This time I knew that some of the objects were just flatly impossible, and they tended to be the faint galaxies that one sweats over in a spring marathon: M33, M74, and M77. M79, the little glob in Lepus, was also out of the running. The only ones that were particularly timely were the nebulae in Orion (M42, M43, M78) and Taurus (M1). I started about 8:20 and in half an hour I had bagged all of the Messiers west of Leo–17 in total–so I could take a nice long break. I set out a lounge chair, London climbed up in my lap, and we spent an hour looking for satellites (we found 3) and shooting stars (9). Then I got him settled in his sleeping bag, had a snack and a big drink of water, and got started on the springtime galaxies.

Methods

I should break here and mention what tools I was using. For speed and ease of use, I made most of the observations with a 15×70 binocular (this one, in fact). Under dark skies, binos that size can reel in most of the Messiers without breaking a sweat, and the point-and-shoot simplicity and lack of stuff to fiddle with really makes the instrument disappear. For backup, and for hunting down some interesting non-Messiers, I had along the XT10. For finding, the Pocket Sky Atlas. To keep track of what I had seen, I used a one-page checklist and a map (both available here), noting the time of each observation and the instrument used (B or T) on the checklist and crossing out each object on the map.

Realm of the Galaxies

The Leo galaxies were a cinch, and I started in on the Virgo-Coma “clutter” at 10:36. Depending on how you draw the boundaries, there are at least 13 galaxies in this small patch of sky, and maybe more. I tend to count M49 and M61 in addition to the core 13 since they’re the next closest targets and also galaxies. I had never made it through the clutter with binos alone. Last year I got all of them but one with both binos and scope, but this time I really wanted to sweep the whole area without using the scope at all. And I did, although M91 and M98 were both devilishly hard. I had to pull my hood up around my face to block peripheral light and use averted vision to get them, but they were definitely there. M91 was my last object in this part of the sky, at 10:52. During my last marathon, the Realm of the Galaxies took an hour and a half. Last time out, I got through in what felt like a blistering 23 minutes, using a 5-inch reflector. This time I dropped my aperture considerably and still got through faster, in only 16 minutes.

(Before anyone chides me for not taking time to “appreciate” each beautiful and unique cosmic snowflake: I know, I know. This has been the perennial criticism of astronomical marathons. And here’s the perennial response: I have the other 364 nights of the year to savor every detail. The marathon is, explicitly, a race. Getting through 15 galaxies in 16 minutes is a personal achievement in celestial orienteering, not visual study. It means that next time out I’ll spend less time finding NGC Umptysquat and more time looking.)

To the Edge of Forever

One of the benefits of doing a “late season” marathon is that so much more stuff is up in the eastern sky. After getting through the Virgo-Coma galaxies I swept through all of the goodies in Ursa Major and Canes Venatici, the globs in Ophiuchus, and the northern reaches of the summer Milky Way. By a quarter after midnight I had 72 objects logged. Sagittarius was just starting to crawl over the eastern horizon and its Messiers wouldn’t be clear of the near-horizon murk for a while, and I had other things to try for. I wanted to see some quasars.

Er, say what now?

Yes, believe it or not, several quasars–the fiery hearts of long ago, far-off galaxies–are within reach of small-to-middlin’ amateur telescopes. Quasars were mysterious for decades, appearing as star-like points of light with highly redshifted spectra and usually massive output in the radio portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. They are now understood to be caused by energy emitted from the accretion disks that form around the supermassive black holes at the centers of most galaxies. As matter spirals into the accretion disk, there is tremendous friction. Imagine rubbing your palms together…at relativistic velocities! Friction in the accretion disk heats it to unimaginable temperatures, and that heat is radiated away as light and other electromagnetic waves.

The brightest quasar as seen from Earth is 3C 273 in Virgo. From a distance of 33 light years, it would shine as brightly as the sun in our skies. A planet in the core of the host galaxy would have at least two “suns”: the star around which it orbits, and the quasar shining equally brightly in the sky. I don’t know if anyone would be around to see it–it seems quite likely that any planets close enough to see the quasar as a sun would be heavily irradiated by it.

I didn’t know any of this just a month ago, beyond having a nodding acquaintance with the nature of quasars. I assumed that they were simply well beyond the reach of my telescopes. But a couple of posts at the blog Washed-Out Astronomy set me straight: “3C 273: Quasars are Easy” and “A Fist Full of Quasars“. Definitely worth checking out!

The aforementioned 3C 273 in Virgo is the brightest and easiest quasar, shining at magnitude 12.8. It’s also quite impressively distant, about 2.5 billion light years away. So the light from this quasar is more than half as old as the Earth itself; when these photons started their journey, our planet’s most advanced life-forms, bacteria, were still working up to producing an oxygen atmosphere, a task they would not complete for another 800 million years. Markarian 421 in Ursa Major and Markarian 501 in Hercules are magnitude 13.2 and 13.9, respectively, but they are much closer at 400 million and 500 million light years, respectively (why, our fishy ancestors had already evolved backbones by then!). Among the easy quasars, OJ 287 in Cancer is the most distant at 3.5 billion light years, but still not punishingly faint at magnitude 14.2. Finder charts for all four of these quasars are available at the links above.

3C 273 was an easy catch, just below an M-shaped asterism of faint stars not far from Porrima (Gamma Virginis, one of the bright stars of Virgo). Markarian 421, in Ursa Major, was even easier to find, since it sits right off the shoulder of a bright, 6th magnitude star. I made both observations with the XT10, but the quasars would have been visible in much smaller scopes; even a 4” ought to show them clearly. OJ 287 had set by the time I switched from Messier-hunting to quasar-hunting, and I skipped Markarian 501 because the rising wind was visibly rocking my vehicle and throwing sand horizontally through the air. It was time to get back to Messiers.

The Home Stretch

The string of clusters and nebulae that comprise the “steam” from the teapot of Sagittarius were easy prey for the 15x70s; it took more time to correlate the sky view with the atlas and figure out which was which, than it did to find them. The little globs along the bottom of the teapot–M54, M69, and M70, were tougher, and required the telescope, as did the globs and other Messiers just cresting the eastern horizon. At 2:25 I logged the last visible Messier–M15, a very nice glob off the nose of Pegasus–secured the telescope against the very impressive wind howling through the campground, and crawled into the back of the Mazda for some rack. M15 was my 100th Messier of the evening, so I knew that I had at least made my proximate goal of getting into triple digits. But there would be more Messiers up before dawn, and naturally I wanted to see how many of them I could add to the tally. I set an alarm for 4:00 and sacked out.

Knowing that I already had 100 in the bag dulled my ambitions a bit, and I snoozed until 4:30. I was not anxious to get back out in the wind–it was cold and uncomfortable. But needs must when the devil drives, so I dragged my tail out of the vehicle, parked a folding chair right up against the lee side, and got back to work. M30, a glob in Capricorn, was dead easy, as were the Andromeda galaxy, M31, and its satellite galaxy M32. I tried and tried for M110, M31’s dimmer satellite, and a couple of times I suspected a faint glow at about the right place, but it wasn’t good enough to log for certain. I gave up at 4:47–the sun wasn’t going to be up for almost another hour, but the eastern sky was already bright enough to make further observations impossible. So I finished with a total of 103.

Two more that might just have been possible are the open cluster M34 and the planetary nebula M76. Actually, I’m dead certain that M76 would have been possible in the XT10, but I didn’t fancy opening the scope and letting the wind sand-blast the mirrors, so I let that one go. M34 is iffy–it was definitely over the horizon before sunrise, but not by much, and I have real doubts about its visibility, scope or no scope. If M34 was not possible, then there were 105 Messiers visible that night, of which I found and logged 103, missing only M76 and M110.

Of the 103, I logged one with naked eyes only (M44, the Beehive cluster, in Cancer), one with the 9×50 finder on the telescope (M54, a glob in Sagittarius), 12 with the scope only, and 89 with the binos (I did go back and re-observe 19 of those 89 with the scope as well, just because I had time and wanted to see them). Except M74 and M77, I saw all of the Messier objects during the month of April. Also, I believe that M74 is the only Messier that I’ve never observed with binoculars–I should rectify that in a couple of months when it’s up before dawn.

What’s next? I should probably get back to the Herschel 400 one of these days. But part of me is already looking forward to next spring, and my next shot at getting all 110 Messiers. Stay tuned.

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Observing Report: Messier Marathon at Owl Canyon

April 3, 2011

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.

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Observing Report: Messier Marathon!

February 14, 2010

Inspiration

My parents got me Harvard Pennington’s The Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide this past Christmas, and I have been obsessed with Messier Marathons ever since. I’d never run one; before last night I’d seen fewer than half of the Messier objects (54/110).

(A Messier Marathon is an attempt to see as many of the 110 Messier objects as possible in one night. Although Messier’s list has been around since the late 1700s, no one had realized that it was possible to see all of the objects in one night until the 1970s, and no one succeeded in getting all 110 in one night until 1985. Loads more info here.)

Pennington subverts a lot of conventional wisdom in the book. Before reading the book, I figured I might attempt a marathon some day after I’d seen all the Messiers and knew my way around the sky a little better. Pennington argues forcefully that running a marathon is the best way to learn the sky, build observing skills, and build confidence. In other words, it’s not something you have to work up to, it’s the way you work up to a good working knowledge of the sky.

Also, before reading the book I’d only heard of people attempting marathons in March and April when it’s possible to get all 110 objects. In Pennington’s words (page 3):

Some people go Marathoning only in March…. That is silly. The very next dark of the moon is the best time for you to run your first Messier Marathon.

Planning

One of my local clubs, the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers, was heading to Death Valley for a big star party this weekend. For various reasons, I was looking for something a little closer to home. Last month the PVAA star party was down at the Salton Sea, but we got clouded out after just a couple of hours. I knew that fellow PVAA member Ken Crowder was also looking for a closer spot and thinking of returning to the Salton Sea, and we planned to meet there yesterday evening. Ken was going primarily for astrophotography, and I was going to attempt a Messier Marathon.

Pennington’s Field Guide was my inspiration and how-to guide. I also wanted an all-sky map showing all of the Messiers that I could use as a roadmap. I found this one on WikiMedia Commons and printed out a color copy on 11×17 paper.* Finally, I used Stellarium to figure out where the horizon would be at sunset and sunrise, to determine which Messiers would be easy, which ones tricky at dusk and dawn, and which ones impossible. I used a black marker to draw the horizon lines on my all-sky printout, and used the marked-up map to figure out a search sequence.

In this I departed a bit from the Field Guide, which has built-in search sequences for every month of the year. These are good and helpful, but in places counterintuitive. Search sequences are critical for catching those objects that are only visible in short windows at dawn and dusk. For the rest of the night, it makes sense to work from west to east in strips and from south to north within a strip (because more southerly objects set sooner than northerly objects at the same right ascension, or sky “longitude”), but the exact order is less important. My decision to depart from the Field Guide sequence was not without consequence.

Strategies for Starting and Finishing

For the twilight rush, I wanted to start with M39, an open cluster near the bright star Deneb in Cygnus. It was the lowest Messier object in the sky at sunset, and thus the hardest to pick out of the twilight glow before it set. I wasn’t too worried about getting M39, because it’s fairly far north and would rise again a couple of hours before dawn. Still, it would be nice to get off to a strong start by picking it up the first time.

After M39, the twilight rush was full of galaxies: M74, M77, the Andromeda galaxy (M31) and its bright satellite galaxies M32 and M110, and fellow Local Group member M33. I was worried about these because galaxies are notoriously difficult in bright skies, and I’d never seen half of them, including the crucial M74 and M77.

At the other end of the night, I was anxious to see how many of the clusters and nebulae I’d be able to fish out of the sky around Sagittarius. This was a special concern because the area around Sagittarius and Ophiuchus holds the densest concentration of Messier objects in the sky–almost a third of the Messiers, in a patch of sky about as big as two outstretched hands. On top of that, they’d be rising just before sunrise. At best, I’d go into the Sagittarius region with 70-odd objects logged; the outcome of the marathon would largely depend on how well I fared that area, at the end of an all-night observing session, racing against the sunrise.

I knew from Stellarium that at least four objects were flatly impossible, because they would never be above the horizon without the sun: M72, M73, M30, and M2. Three more were pretty iffy; M55, M75, and M15 would be flirting with the horizon but deep in the morning twilight. A final three I felt pretty good about; M54, M69, and M70 are at the bottom of the Sagittarius “teapot” and I thought they’d be tough but doable. All told I figured the maximum possible outcome would be 100 objects definitely, 103 probably, and 106 at the very outside.

Setting Up and Getting Going

I got down to the Salton Sea just before sunset and found Ken set up in a parking lot near the campground. I set out my 6-inch Dob and 15×70 binoculars. I’m working on the Astronomical League’s Messier and Binocular Messier observing programs, and I wanted to bag as many Messiers as possible with both instruments (please be aware that the AL does not accept marathon observations for the Messier Club; nevertheless, running a marathon is still good practice and makes finishing the AL observations easier). I also brought a folding chair for seated observing at the scope, a tray table for maps and charts, a camp chair for visitors (which ended up holding the binoculars between looks), and a tripod for the binoculars. Normally I prefer to use the binoculars freehand, and in fact that is how I used them for most of the night, but when searching for tough stuff in the twilight it’s nice to be able to point them in one place and have them stay. I also brought along the basic creature comforts: warm clothing, snacks, and plenty to drink, both water to stay hydrated and energy drinks to stay awake.

The evening rush turned out to be surprisingly easy. M39 was an easy catch in both binos and scope. I couldn’t get M74 in the binos but it was fairly easy in the scope with averted vision. On the flip side, M33–a big, dim, face-on spiral galaxy–was easy prey for the binos and I didn’t try for it with the scope. In retrospect, I think I should have at least tried, but at the time I didn’t want to take any time out of the evening rush for such a notoriously tough catch.

Soon I settled into a rhythm. I used the all-sky map to figure out what to hit next and the Pocket Sky Atlas to figure out how to get there.** I tended to seek isolated targets with the binoculars first and then the scope. For objects in clusters or chains, I needed to be able to leave an instrument on a landmark I could get back to, so I worked out the star-hops with the scope and then chased them up in the binos.

The Realm of the Galaxies

Heading into the marathon, I was sweating the Virgo-Coma Cluster more than Sagittarius, for two reasons. I’d been through most of Sagittarius before, and it’s almost all globular clusters, which are usually easy. Virgo and Coma only have about half as many Messiers as the Sagittarius/Ophiuchus area, but they’re ALL galaxies, very tightly packed and with few bright stars for finding one’s way. Both the Field Guide and the Pocket Sky Atlas have special charts just for the Virgo-Coma “clutter”.

It turned out to be surprisingly nonproblematic. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been doing so many star-hops with binoculars from my driveway, but under the reasonably dark skies at the Salton Sea I found enough stars to guide me through the clutter. It wasn’t fast or fun–including 15 minutes off for a snack and a bathroom break, it took me almost an hour and a half to track down the 16 galaxies in that part of the sky–but I got them all. And all but one with the binoculars, after having found my path with the scope.

A Break

In any Messier Marathon in or around March, there is a spot after the Virgo-Coma Cluster when you’ve seen everything that’s above the horizon, and you might as well knock off for an hour or two while you wait for Ophiuchus and Sagittarius to crawl over the eastern horizon. In the quarter hour leading up to 2:00 AM I fished M12, M10, and M107 out of the dense atmosphere near the horizon, and then decided to call it for a while. I packed everything up and crawled into the car for a nap.

I couldn’t sleep until I had double-checked that I was on track, so I pulled out the all-sky map and started checking off targets based on my log. I had 73 down, but try as I might I could not find more than 36 unseen targets on the map. Somewhere I had missed something. And I had a nagging feeling that the one I had missed was one of Messier’s “mistakes”–a multiple star rather than a cluster. Fortunately, the Field Guide breaks down all of the Messiers by type and includes a special section on these. And there it was, M40, a double star in Ursa Major. I had completely missed it while sweeping up the Great Bear’s galaxies in the early evening. Fortunately it would be high in the sky for the rest of the night so I’d get another shot, but it illustrates the risk of not sticking to a strict, written observing program (M40 was on my map, I’d just cruised right past it).

Sorting that out took the better part of an hour. I planned to get back at it at 4:00. I set my alarm, closed my eyes, and…failed to sleep. Too keyed up, too anxious about Sagittarius. But I did rest.

Finishing

I got a bit of a late start. After rousing at 4:00, taking a biology break, and re-setting up all of my gear, I didn’t cross off M40 until 4:22. Then I knocked out M57, M56, M29, M27, and M71 in the area around Lyra and Cygnus–the last five objects outside of the Sagittarius snarl. I was back in the groove and went into Ophiuchus and Sagittarius crossing off an object every three minutes.

It wasn’t enough.

Having never seen a sunrise at the Salton Sea–and having seen only a couple of sunrises from any observing field–I had tried to guesstimate how late I could go from Stellarium. I knew the sun would come up at 6:40 AM, and I figured I could push through to about 6:00. Imagine my distress when at 5:20 I saw the sky getting bright in the east. I trucked on through the “steam” rising from the Sagittarius teapot, but I was getting desperate. Shooting up to Scutum and the “tail” of Aquila, the Eagle, I could not find M26 in the brightening sky. My final object was M11, the Wild Duck Cluster, which was an easy catch in binoculars at 5:38. I wanted to get it in the scope, too, but with so few stars showing in the sky I couldn’t figure out how to get there. I finally had to start at the other end of the Eagle, with Altair, and hop down the bright stars of the backbone. I got to the right spot, and couldn’t see a thing in the low power eyepiece. I had to boost the magnification to 120x to darken the sky sufficiently to pick up the dim outlines of the cluster, finally bagging it at 5:44. And that was it.

Results

I am pretty certain now that M55, M75, and M15 were too far down to be possible. I still think that M54, M69, and M70 might have been possible at the base of the teapot, but by the time I got to them they were history. I missed M26 and later realized that I’d passed by M23 in my Sagittarius blitz.

I ended the night with 98 objects. I got M74, M109, and M98 in the scope only, M33 in the binoculars only, and the other 94 with both instruments. I also wrote down a one-line description of each object. As stated above, marathon observations don’t count for the Messier Club, but it was still useful to scribble down a brief description. It will make re-observing the objects easier and more interesting, since I’ll be able to compare my thoughts from a more leisurely look to my brief impressions on marathon night. And it is nice to have a physical memento of the night; I’ve reread my notes a couple of times already and have a feeling that I’ll return to them a lot in the future.

On one hand, I am frustrated that I ran out of time. M23 and M26 should have been easy prey–they were way up in the sky compared to some of the other home-stretch targets–I just never got to them. A rookie mistake, fairly small in the big scheme of things, but it kept me from that magical three-digit number.

On the other hand, 98 objects is still a great score for my first marathon, especially an “off season” marathon in which fewer than 110 objects were possible to begin with. It was a huge confidence builder and a heck of a lot of fun. I learned a ton about what works and what to avoid. And I’ll definitely be back for more.

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* The printable version of this chart is now on the “Messier Marathon tools” page on the sidebar, along with a streamlined checklist for marathon night and other goodies.

** It occurred to me after I wrote this that it might sound a little odd. On one hand, I have been singing the praises of the Year-Round Messier Marathon Field Guide, which includes both a search sequence and charts for each object. On the other hand, I used a free star map to figure out my sequence and the Pocket Sky Atlas for actual finding. So you may be wondering if I used the Field Guide from the field at all.

The answer is that frankly I didn’t use it that much. The Field Guide charts are great, especially for people who don’t have an all-sky atlas or who  are looking for one-stop shopping for the Messiers. But from working on the AL Binocular Deep Sky and Urban Observing lists this spring I’ve gotten used to using the trio of (1) an observing list, (2) the PSA, and (3) a logbook for taking notes. I have used the Field Guide once or twice in the field, but I’m so used to the PSA now that it just feels more reflexive to reach for that instead. And I knew that on marathon night I needed to use what worked best for me.

That said, I did use the Field Guide to find the one that I’d missed (M40), to double-check that I’d gotten everything in the Virgo-Coma clutter (even though I used the PSA for the actual slog), and to work out a couple of the twilight rush star-hops. The Field Guide was most important for giving me the inspiration and confidence to tackle a marathon in the first place, and I definitely wouldn’t have been without it  by my side. It’s a great book and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in deep sky observing.