Messier Hunting from Palo Alto

1997 Nov 23

Anxious to take advantage of a break in a long run of wet weather, I hauled an 80 mm f/11.3 Celestron refractor into my yard in Palo Alto, California, on the evening of Sunday, 23 November, 1997, for a round of Messier hunting. The rain-washed sky was quite transparent, hence the lights of suburbia were less bother than usual. At 32x, I started ambitiously with M74, perhaps the most difficult Messier galaxy, on grounds of low surface brightness and small size. It took averted vision to hold it, but it was there. M77, not far away, was much easier, and M76 -- faint but of higher surface brightness -- showed its well-known two-lobed shape.

M33 was much easier than M74 had been. Still at 32x, I could hold it with direct vision, though it was tenuous. M1 was not difficult, and hinted of asymmetric shape. The clusters M34, M35, M36, M37 and M38 were all easily resolved, as were the Pleiades. I saw no hint of nebulosity in the latter. Dropping to Lepus, I found the fuzzy spot of globular M79, well down in the haze. M78, in Orion, showed two stars embedded in a stubby comet-shaped patch of nebulosity, and M42/43 were gloriously detailed, but revealed no color to my eye with this aperture on this evening.

My 80 mm Celestron is one of the older models, made by Vixen in Japan, It has very nice optics, which are well baffled. The mounting is the kind of altazimuth that both Celestron and Meade have sold with refractors of similar sizes; it takes a lot of fiddling with wrenches and screwdrivers to keep the slop to manageable proportions, but it is a light, inexpensive altazimuth mounting that does work -- the whole telescope, together with a small pouch of eyepieces, is a one-hand carry out to my yard.

How nice to be reminded that amateur astronomy which is interesting, and perhaps even subtle, can be done with small aperture from a suburban location. The rewards are particularly pleasant when the weather conspires against better-planned trips to darker sites, as they have been for almost a month. And tonight, it is pouring again....

Jay Reynolds Freeman; 1997 Nov 3