1998 NHAS Messier Marathon March 27th, 1998

Ed Ting MM1998 Photo

This was my first attempt at a Messier Marathon. A quick tally revealed that I had never found close to one-third of Charles Messier's famous objects. It was high time to remedy this. I arrived at Larry's hilltop house in twilight, and found that several club members were already setting up. It had been overcast all day, but -wonder of wonders- the clouds simply vanished when sunset approached. The temperature had hit a record high earlier that afternoon, and it was obvious that this would NOT be one of New Hampshire's famous Freeze Marathons. As a result, everyone was in good spirits. I had planned to bring only my Takahashi FS102 and the Ranger, but in a last-minute fit of aperture envy, I asked to borrow a friend's 8" LX10. With the two scopes in hand, I decided against bringing the Ranger (I was rapidly running out of space and willingness to lug three scopes around.) As it turns out, the choice of scopes was to have implications later on that evening. 6:40 PM to 8:00 PM (M42, M45, M43, M41, M34, M77, M33, M31, M32, M1, M50, M35, M36, M36, M38, M47, M46, M78, M93) As the sun set, there was an informal race to see who could find M42 first in the darkening blue sky. M74 is, of course, notorious, but I gave it a shot anyway. Someone with a computer calculated that the infamous galaxy was only 9 degrees above the horizon. It wasn't even dark yet! We threw up our arms and just gave up. Surprisingly, I later found M77 almost a half hour later, just over the horizon. I made quick work of the easy winter stuff, but even then, time passed quickly. I stupidly missed M79, which set before I knew it. Along with M76 and the afore- mentioned M74, they were the only objects I missed in the early going. I vowed not to make any more stupid mistakes, and I was right. I would not miss anything else until the Virgo Cluster. 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM (M103, M52, M81, M82, M48, M44, M67, M95, M96, M65, M66, M97, M108, M109, M40, M106, M51, M101, M63, M94) Ursa Major and Leo are two specialties of mine, and I dispose of the galaxies with enough time to help some of the newer members with them. Time and time again I tell them they're looking for something smaller and dimmer than they think. I have the smallest aperture (4") here but the Takahashi is coping with the high haze better than most of the larger Schmidt Cassegrains. I set up a small assembly line, letting people look through the Tak, as I move on to the next object using the LX10. The Meade gathers a lot more light, but its contrast seems worse than usual tonight. In fact, there seems to be an inverse correlation between aperture and ease-of-viewing, at least with me. I'm beginning to regret not having brought the Ranger along. Happily, though, there's an "abandoned" Brandon 80mm nearby -the owner was inside- and I make some use of it. I'm tired after all this. There's a break before Virgo rises, so I head in for a quick snack. As I walk up the hill, not fifty feet away from the scopes, a wave of heat and humidity hits me. It's warmer up here. And I wonder what effect this hot/cold situation has on the seeing. 10:00 PM to Midnight (M63, M94, M99, M98, M100, M53, M64, M85, M59, M60, M104) Between Vindemiatrix and Denebola, the inside and outside edges of Virgo and Leo, respectively, lies a tiny region of sky about the size out your outstretched hand. In it lies 14 objects, all of them galaxies. The "Virgo Clutter" has traditionally been the part of the Messier Marathon that separates the men from the boys. By this time, there are only five of us still observing; the rest have left or are chatting inside the house. The "normal" way to view the Virgo Cluster is to start at Vindemiatrix and work east towards Denebola in Leo. I guess I'm strange; I start at a "T" asterism near Denebola (M98, M99, and M100 form the ends of the "T" - try it sometime) and work back towards Virgo. It's tough going. M99 is barely visible. I can't seem to do my normal hop between galaxies. I give up and begin again the "normal" way, starting with M59/M60. I can't believe how dim they are, I have to ask someone to confirm the pair in the Takahashi. I try the LX10. There are more stars in the field but the galaxies themselves are invisible. I look up. A band of herringbone clouds has appeared. It seems hopeless, but there's a tiny patch of clearing to the south, and I pick up the Sombrero Galaxy, M104, just before it closes up. Midnight to 1:37 AM (M49, M68, M13, M105, M92, M57, M29) "I can't see Corvus," remarks one of us. He's right. The south is completely socked in, and the clouds are thickening. Whatever weird weather phenomenon I experienced a few hours before is now wreaking havoc on our observing. We can see stars with the naked eye, but the scopes aren't showing us anything. So while everyone is still trying to pick out dim galaxies, I'm looking for easy stuff. I get the globulars in Hercules and the Ring Nebula. According to our computers, Ophiuchus is staring us right in the face. We can't see anything. Frustrated, we retire inside, and a wave of exhaustion hits me. I want to take a nap, but I know if I sleep now, I'm finished for the night. So I stay up. I drink Coke. We sit around the kitchen table and read The Starry Messenger. We talk about our scopes. Finally, one of us goes outside. "It's completely overcast," he says, upon returning. As a last ditch effort, we log on to the internet to get the latest satellite feeds and weather station reports. It doesn't look good. I can't believe it. It's over for another year. My Messier Marathon is frozen in midstream. I got in around 4:30 AM. Wouldn't you know it, the clouds are breaking up. Postscript Astronomy teaches you patience and humility. You do a lot of waiting in his hobby. You wait for your scope to arrive from its manufacturer. You wait for a clear night. You wait for the Moon to get out of your way (or you wait for it to come back, depending on your point of view.) You wait for your favorite objects to rise so you can look at them. What I love about astronomers is how undaunted they are by all of this. The next morning, we're already talking about next year's Marathon. As it turned out, I bagged the most objects at 55. And I'd already gotten most of the hard stuff. If the skies had held I had a good chance to score over 100. So I guess I get the bragging rights until next year. It's late the next afternoon as I type this. I've gotten all of three hours sleep and haven't completely unpacked yet, but the herringbone skies from last night are breaking up. My phone rings. Do I want to go observing? Well, funny that you asked...
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