The Messier Marathon

1997 Mar 8

Chariots of Photons (confessions of a Messier Marathoner)

A Messier Marathon? What a silly idea! Isn't that some kind of competitive thing where you have to knock yourself out in a whirlwind tour ("If this is 11:20, this must be M97") where you don't get time to enjoy looking at any object before rushing on to the next? And how'd I let myself get talked into trying it?

The March 8, 1997 TAC Messier Marathoners arrived at Henry Coe State Park in Morgan Hill, California in rare clear weather, which turned cloudy and windy as sunset approached. Spirits remained high, though, among the 25-plus marathoners as we searched the northeastern horizon for the first sign of Comet Hale-Bopp, a welcome beginning and ending to this year's Marathon. Eventually an LX200 owner took pity on all the poor binocular users and located the comet the high-tech way. The evening Hale-Bopp is still unimpressive compared to its morning appearance, but its sight was welcomed by a horde of astronomers eager to stop getting up at 5am to follow Hale-Bopp's development.

Soon the sky darkened, the clouds and wind vanished, and the Marathon began. I was using my 6" f/8 Cave reflector on a homebuilt Dobsonian mount, set up next to a friend using a 14" Dobsonian. We had spent the previous few weeks heatedly debating the impact of aperture when performing a Messier marathon; based on the results, I think the conclusion is that it doesn't make much difference, and that nearly any instrument is suitable for viewing Messier objects. (I suppose we all knew that anyway.) Equipment used at this TAC Marathon ranged from handheld binoculars to a one-day-old 18" Obsession seeing first light.

The one object for which aperture may have helped was M74, which I was unable to find in the evening twilight with the 6". Once the sky darkened, the rest of the early Messier objects were easy, and we had plenty of time to talk, share views of the same object through different instruments, and compare notes on finding objects. I had recently added a Daisy unit-power sight to my 6"'s usual 6x30 finder, and I was struck by the way some objects were much easier to locate with the reflex sight, while some were much easier using a magnifying finder. It's definitely worthwhile to have both options available.

Coe isn't a particularly dark site, with the lights of San Jose in direct view to the northwest and to the southwest, but this was a good night, with the zodiacal light visible and excellent transparency, and even in the 6", the Messier galaxies in Leo and Virgo were accompanied by a host of fainter NGC neighbors. At one point, I counted seven galaxies visible in one roughly 1-degree field in the 6".

Identifying the galaxies, of course, is the trick, and several hours were spent galaxy-hopping through Virgo and Coma Berenices. Teamwork proved helpful at this point; I became stuck on M90, and some suggestions for different approaches, as well as some moral support, helped. (Taking a short break to eat something and go paw and drool on, I mean look through, the 18" Obsession helped as well.) A Messier Marathon would be pretty grim as a solo endeavor, but it's fun as a team exercise. Galaxy hopping is interesting and fun, though sometimes frustrating.

It's especially frustrating when your flashlight batteries run out halfway through Virgo and you haven't had the foresight to bring spares. It doesn't help when, after a good samaritan offers you some double-A's, you somehow manage to break the flashlight bulb in the process of changing batteries. Fortunately another good samaritan was more prepared than I, and loaned me his extra flashlight. I'll be better prepared with a spare next time.

Near the end of the Virgo ordeal, someone called out that he'd found Omega Centauri, and several of us trooped over to look. I'd been looking forward to seeing NGC 5128 (Centaurus A, the elliptical galaxy with the odd dust lane and the strong radio emissions), which I'd seen as a teenager from the southern California desert, but not since. 5128 is farther north than Omega Cen, so I lugged my 'scope over to a spot with a clearer southern horizon (there are some definite advantages to small telescopes) and tried. Finding it was easy; seeing detail in the 6" in an object so low on the horizon was not. Later, it was found in several larger 'scopes which showed more detail, and was dubbed the "Hamburger Galaxy".

Scorpius and then Sagittarius rose, to a chorus of coyotes singing to each other several ridges west of us. We wondered whether, like ourselves, they were waiting for Hale-Bopp, as we scanned the northeastern hillsides with binoculars in between checking off Messier globulars.

One binocular searcher finally called out that he thought he saw Hale-Bopp's tail rising. He was ridiculed by everyone else: obviously the bright light he saw was a headlight from a car headed down from some other part of the park, or even a searchlight. We'd all seen Hale-Bopp from town, and knew that it couldn't possibly have a tail that looked like a searchlight beam. But the "searchlight beam" was indeed Hale-Bopp, and what a sight from dark skies! The jet structure of the nucleus is clearly visible to the naked eye; the overall brightness exceeds Deneb's; I traced out over twenty degrees of tail with my 8x42 binoculars; and the helical structure was fabulous at high magnification (the best view I saw was in an 18" Dob).

I, like many other observers present, abandoned the Marathon at this point to concentrate on Hale-Bopp. Every instrument and every magnification gives a different and equally wonderful view of this comet, and I had photographs to take, as well. By the time I was able to wrest my attention from the comet, twilight had begun -- and in less than ten minutes, the sky was so bright that no one save the DSC owners were able to find any remaining objects. (M30 was too low even for the DSC observers.)

Score: 102 Messier objects found, 8 objects missed (one in evening twilight, the rest in morning twilight); one hamburger galaxy; one world-class comet; lots of photographs (as yet unseen), one great night of observing and camaraderie, and no regrets about the objects missed in order to watch Hale-Bopp.

--- Akkana

There were probably close to two dozen observers at the site, most of whom were there for the marathon. Some came-and-went, and others just did their own thing. The evening started out quite windy and hazy, but both improved somewhat after sunset. We had low haze all night with occasional high, thin clouds passing through. Wind and seeing was quite variable throughout the night, and low objects were always difficult due to the haze.

This was my first time participating in a Messier Marathon, and I had a lot of fun -- especially with all the other active observers around.

For each object, I first attempted to glimpse them "naked eye". My main instrument for the marathon was my 10x50 Orion Ultraview binocular. But in the event that the 10x50s were not sufficient for confirmed detection, I used my Telrad and finder scope in conjunction with the manual controls of my 8" f/10 LX-200 to do a conventional star hop.

For objects which I was unable to locate manually, I used my LX-200's computer to automatically slew to them so that I could at least see each Messier object before morning. I don't count these as "finds"; I simply wanted to have seen all of the objects by morning.

I used the LX-200's computer for confirmation of M77 after a suspected binocular detection (which turned out to be a real "find"). Beyond that, the computer was used to find some of the Coma/Virgo objects for which I ran out of steam and/or time, and for a few dim objects near the end of the list which were too difficult for my manual search in the morning glow. And of course I also used the computer for quick diversions during lulls in the hunt, and to get better views of my favorite Messiers after finding them manually with the binos.

In addition to seeing most of the Messier objects that night, the night also included two views of comet Hale-Bopp; once as an evening object, and then again in the morning. The comet (as usual lately) was spectacular. I suspect that it was into the negative magnitudes at this time.

Also seen during the marathon were Mars (which was almost too bright to look at, being at opposition) and Jupiter (which was very "mushy" in the dawn sky)

I expect that I would have had eight additional finds to report, had I taken the time to study and practice on the Virgo and Coma galaxies in advance. I'll be ready for them next year!

Messier Score Card

Total number of "finds" was 97:

   Naked Eye (10 objects): 
     31, 45, 42/43, 35, 38, 44, 13, 20, 8
     (I've also seen 4, 6, 7, 10, 12, 33 and a few others "naked eye" on 
     better nights, but this particular night was not transparent enough
     at the elevations I was working with)

   10x50 Orion Ultraview Binocular (76 objects): 
      77, 74, 33, 52, 103, 76, 34, 79, 78, 1, 37, 36, 41, 93, 47, 46, 50, 
      48, 67, 95, 96, 105, 65, 66, 81, 82, 97, 108, 109, 40, 106, 94, 63, 
      51, 101, 102(=ngc5866), 53, 64, 3, 49, 61, 104, 68, 83, 5, 92, 57, 
      56, 29, 39, 27, 71, 107, 12, 10, 14, 9, 4, 80, 19, 62, 6, 7, 11, 26, 
      16, 17, 18, 24, 25, 23, 21, 28, 22, 55, 15

   8" SCT w/Telrad and 8x56 finder scope (11 objects): 
      32, 110, 98, 99, 100, 85, 84, 86, 69, 70, 54

Total number of "misses" was 13:

   LX-200 computer-controlled slews (12 objects):
      87, 89, 90, 88, 91, 58, 59, 60, 75, 2, 72, 73

   Too washed out by sunlight (1 object):

--- Mark Taylor

It was fun doing the Messier marathon with a smallish scope. With my A-P 130mm f/8 EDT refractor it was much easier than I thought even with the not so bright objects on the list. In the early evening glow I missed M74 and found M110 and M33 quite difficult, although M33 was easy in 9x63 binoculars. The other misses were in the dawn, M2, M72, M73 and M30. Actually I forgot to try M2 because I was working so hard to find M72 and M73. My total was 105 Messier objects for the night. There were bands of high, thin clouds moving across the sky in the early evening and morning and most likely much of the night too.

I used a Telrad finder and an 8x50 correct viewing finder on the 130 EDT. Many of the objects I could find with just the Telrad and a 26mm plossl in the main scope. I started with a 32mm plossl but found using a 26mm 26mm made seeing the objcts a little easier (40x).

The 130mm EDT showed detail in a number of the Messier objects. It resolved the brighter of the globular clusters into "countless" fine points of light. Several of the galaxies and brighter emission nebulae were very interesting.

Don Machholz's book Messier Marathon Observer's Guide Handbook and Atlas was very easy to use. I just followed it page by page and checked off the objects, once or twice I found it easier to jump ahead to another page and come back and finish the earlier page. The charts in Don's book are super.

Comet Hale-Bopp was a very pleasant distraction from the marathon. We got a to see H-B in the evening and again and much better in the morning (Mar 9th). With the 130mm scope and about 80x it was easy to see two or three arcs of light infront of the false nucleas but a little to one side. There was a large split in the comets tail. H-B was very easy to see it was obviously brighter than Deneb.

--- Rich Neuschaefer

I used my computerized GOTO Meade LX200 to its fullest. Some say that's cheating. I say it was fun.

--- Bill Arnett

For more about the marathon see The Messier Marathon, part of Hartmut Frommert's extensive and excellent Messier site.

Bill Arnett; last updated: 1997 Mar 11