1999 NHAS Messier Marathon March 20th, 1999

Ed Ting 1999 Messier Marathon Photo

It's Messier Marathon time again, and this year, I have an ususual strategy for dealing with these 110 objects. After having committed to print (Amateur Astronomy #21, Spring 1999) and having said so at my Messier Marathon talk for the club that a TeleVue Ranger or an Orion Short Tube is "ideal" for an MM, I'm putting my money where my mouth is and bringing my Ranger. A high-quality, short focal length telescope makes for a great Messier instrument. I'm firmly convinced that a wide-field, alt-az telescope is the way to go for a Marathon. The last thing you want to do is deal with a narrow FOV scope on a complicated equatorial mount with lots of locks and levers at 4 AM. Now that I've said that, I'll admit that I brought along my 10" Meade Starfinder Dob as a backup. Before you pelt me with tomatoes, keep in mind that I had other goals this night as well, including searching for some elusive NGC gal- axies for my Herschel 400 survey. There was a palpable sense of excitement this evening. After three months of heavy rainstorms in New England, the afternoon of the 20th remained clear, cool, and crisp. At sunset, there was virtually no color in the sky on the horizon. I arrived early, surveyed the observing field, and set down my scopes on a choice location. Everyone is talking about the clarity of the sky, and as a result, some are determined to find elusive M74 in the dusk twilight. Soon Sirius, Venus, Saturn, and the 3-day old moon appear, and the Marathon's officially on. Early Evening: The Winter Objects Right away, I've got problems. My "choice" observing location puts a large tree trunk -the only one on the western horizon- right in the path of M74 and M77. I don't feel like picking up and moving all my gear, so I grab the Ranger and head off up the hill. This turns out to be a bad move, since I can't push the Ranger to high enough powers to bring out the M77, despite the tight galaxy's relatively high surface brightness. As a result, I waste close to 45 minutes searching for M77. I fall way behind schedule, a beginner's mistake. Finally, I grit my teeth, head back down the hill, and give up on the tiny galaxy. I play catch-up, picking off the easy winter stuff, working west to east, south to north. Soon I'm actually ahead of schedule, as the Ranger's nose slowly works its way east. It would stay there the rest of the night. For now, it looks like my strategy is paying off. Late Evening: The Big Dipper and Leo Despite search sequences showing the contrary, I always take the Ursa Major stuff first. They're brighter and slightly easier, which gives me a gauge on conditions. If M51 shows poorly, for example, I know I'm in for a rough night. Fortunately, M51 does not show poorly tonight. Even in the Ranger, I can easily make out the two components. The view is so good that I spend some quality time with the Dob, studying the famous galaxy. I'm finished with the objects so quickly that I have lots of time to help some of the first-timers (ie, "You mean that's the Crab Nebula? It's so dim!") The Virgo Cluster This area of the sky has become something of a specialty for me. I worked hard last summer familiarizing myself with the Realm of the Galaxies, and can now find all of the Messier objects in the area within about 90 seconds. This leaves me time to help beginners, although at this point, some are still way back in Auriga and Canis Major. I chat with Dan and Mike, who are set up next to me. Are we really that far ahead? With spare time on my hands, I check out some of the other scopes in the field. 20" and 24" Dobs are present, and I snatch a peek through each. The aforementioned M51 looks like it does in photographs, and I can split the Siamese Twins in the 20." Neat. After Midnight: Hercules, Lyra, Cygnus, and Ophiuchus No matter how well I prepare for a Messier Marathon, the lull after the Virgo Cluster always catches me by surprise. At this point, it's just after midnight, and the earlier excitement of the event is rapidly wearing off. Many have packed up and left. A wave of drowsiness hits me, and I settle down for for a quick nap. Sleep is fitful, however, and I awaken feeling slow. Food and a Coke do not help. I'm not having a good time any longer. This is not good. A fellow marathoner, taking a break inside the house, takes one look at me and says, "You don't look so hot." Even though there aren't many new objects to locate, I wander outside to the observing field for a breath of air. Slowly, my senses return. A couple of friends are taking advantage of the unusually clear skies and are hunting down obscure NGC galaxies. This gets my interest going. In no time at all, I'm back at it again and feeling fine. I pick out M68 and M83, two of the most southerly targets of the night. The objects in Hercules, Lyra, and Cygnus are easy and get added to my tally within minutes. Early Morning: Scorpius and Sagittarius You can tell a lot about a Messier Marathoner's progress by looking at their scopes. Beginners tend to have their scopes pointed west, as they struggle to catch objects before they set. Another, smaller contingent will have their scopes pointed due east. These are the more advanced observers, the ones looking for something to do. I'm not sure what this means, but I'm usually in the latter group. Whatever peace existed in the earlier hours is immediately shattered by the appearance of Scorpius on the eastern horizon. In New England, you are fighting three enemies during this part of the evening: 1) You are really tired, and perhaps a dopey. 2) You need to locate some 25 objects in a short period of time. 3) In this part of the country, the sun rises very early. By 4 AM, there is a noticable brightening on the eastern horizon. The Dob's bearings are frozen, so it's just me and the Ranger for the duration. Luckily, most of these objects are easy and bright. However, by the time the teapot of Sagittarius is even visible, the sky behind it is a deep, dark blue. I make a mental note to forget about M72, M73, and M30. Especially M30, which seems like a cruel joke. Everyone scrambles to finish off the summer targets, and then the skies turn blue. There is a huge sigh from the remaining marathoners. Wow -- it's only 4:30 in the morning, and we're packing up! Postscript Later that morning, after a few hours of sleep, I'm on the phone again, talking to fellow observers. My tally was 98 out of 110 (I found NGC5866 as a substitute for M102) which was about average. After M77, I didn't miss anything again until the early morning hours, where I began to fall apart. And what of my new strategy? Adding up the tally, I found 49 objects with the Ranger, and 49 with the 10" Dob. This was a real surprise -- It felt as if I had been using the Ranger all night long. So much for impressions. All during the next day, I'm tired, and take short naps. A couple of us get together later in the day and talk about the Marathon. My friend Mike summarized it best: "That was fun. I'm glad we don't do it every weekend." End 1999 Messier Marathon Summary
Back to Home Page