The Messier Marathon
By John Reed
I rolled up in my van at about 5:30 wondering if I might be too early and therefore locked Out. However, my concerns were unfounded as the parking lot was nearly full! Charcoal cookers were already going and telescopes were already set up and ready. My 5 year old, 'I'aylor, was with me and soon had a warm hot dog stuck in his mouth.
The sky was pristine, it was a perfect night. Someone passed out a paper entitled "Messier Marathon Search Sequence". This list turned out to be a life saver as it listed the objects in order of right ascension so one could observe them in the proper sequence. Something that turned out to be a real help was the list of chart numbers included on the form that indicated on which chart a particular object could be found. This saved a lot of time fussing with charts. (I am a star-hopper having no computer or setting circles.)
As darkness fell everyone began trying to pick out stars in the west. the first object was M-74 in Pisces, a dim galaxy all but lost in the twilight glow. Neither Mark Habenicht nor I ever found it, however several did. I commend them. Several observers were using setting circles and had better luck with this one. I was never sure I was even on the right guide star.
I soon forgot about the galaxy when I realized that it was more than the twilight glow that was making deep sky observing difficult. During the time I spent looking through the telescope it had gotten dark enough that a huge pyramid of light became visible which spanned fully one third the vault of the sky. The Zodiacal Light. It was a pale gray glow with its broad base on the western horizon and its peak near the Pleiades. A marvelous sight. I spent several long moments studying it.
I realized why it was so good at that time after giving it some thought. First, the Zodiacal Light is a faint thing so it requires dark skies to even have a chance to see it. Second, it is always close to the horizon, so the weather must be very clear, the sky transparent. Third, to see it well late February or March is the very best time. Only in spring does the ecliptic make an almost right angle with the western horizon. It is no wonder most people rarely see it! (As an aside, it is also best seen before sunrise in the fall.)
After trying to see M-74 and 77 and failing the objects ticked off like clock-work M-31, 32, 110 (the Andromeda galaxy and her family). Then faint M-33 in Triangulum. M-33 is a large faint face-on spiral galaxy that is often over looked because of its size. Then came M-34, 76 (little dumbbell), 45 (most found this one).
I have never worked so hard at playing, and yet never
had so much fun observing. Mark and I soon picked up a rhythm and
we worked our way east across the sky. It seemed like we were making
really good progress. Yet when I checked my watch it was one-o'clock
in the morning and I was dead tired. Taylor had long since crashed
in the van. I was at M-l0l. Mark wanted to finish the first
page. I informed him he would be finishing alone as I was throwing
in the towel. I know that several others made a good inroad into
the second page which meant they made it well into the fifty's and sixty's.
I know that Harry Jameson was one of those. I myself saw a grand
total of 41 objects (counting the double star M-40 and non-existent M-102).
This is not going to win any awards, but it is surely more objects than
I have ever observed in one night.
As far as I can tell nearly everyone had as much fun as I did, even if they didn't pursue the elusive deep sky. It was a truly fantastic night!