2001 Messier Marathon from Maryland

By Paul Gray, RASC Halifax Centre

Again this year we had new moon during the last week of March, which means Messier Marathon time! I first tried a marathon close to 10 years ago in Digby with 4 members of the Halifax centre. Since then I made three more attempts with Dave Lane only to be clouded out on all tries. With my move to Maryland three years ago now I finally had a chance to attempt the marathon from a location farther south and a little warmer both of which will make it easier.

The best weekend this year was the 23rd to 25th of March and the weather did not look good. Friday came and it was clear with the forecast for Saturday being cloudy with showers. Luckily Friday after noon we had some warm weather and fair weather clouds brought afternoon showers and then began to disappear. By 6pm it was mostly clear and getting better with only a few clouds left in the west and south. The night was not the best I had seen with the MVM at 5.8 but it was warm. There was frost by morning but only on the scope and none on the car thanks to the –2C temp and light breeze now and then.

I arrived at our observing site at 6:30pm to find the only cloud left blocking my view of M74 and M77. With an hour to go before I had to observe these objects was there a chance the cloud would move for me? Tuckahoe State Park where we observe from is located on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. At 39 degrees north and 76 degrees west it is an hour and half from Washington DC but gets very dark due to the Chesapeake bay acting like a buffer of area that cannot be polluted by light.

Nautical twilight would end at 7:21pm so observing began at 7:15. I was out 5 days earlier to practice the evening objects and it paid off. I saw M77 at 7:17 and then located the field for m74 and saw it at 7:40 when it was still over 8 degrees high. The race had begun and I was of to a good start. The evening objects were seen as in the chart.

Object Time Altitude
M77 7:17 16 degrees 5’
M74 7:40 8 degrees 51’
M31,32,110 7:44 14 degrees 49’
M33 7:47 16 degrees 49’


The rest of the evening objects easily were observed. All were seen with my 12.5" F5 dobsonion except for M45,36,37,38 which were done with Binos. The Virgo cluster was easy and I only got lost on the way to M49, the last one of the cluster. I was finished the Virgo cluster and spring galaxies by 10:16. The only object not found was M83, which had not risen yet. That would have to wait till later.

I then used this time to go on and find more of the finest NGC’s as well as some of the Herschel 400 objects. By 11:30 it was time to get M83, then take a break. During this time I did visit with Don Surles who I the Delmarva Stargazers club president and his 25" F5 Obsession. We spent a good time looking at the Eskimo nebulae (NGC 2392) with a 9mm Nagler and OIII filter. WOW! At 352x on a 25-inch telescope the view was amazing! More detail in both the outer shell and inner shell than I have ever seen!

My observing partner who confirmed my observations, Doug Norton and I then left our gear set up with the dozen other club members and we drove 15miles to the nearest truck stop. We had some food, got warm and rested our eyes. An hour later we were back at the site ready to keep going. The rest does amazing things!

Before going on with the marathon it was time to swing the scope low in the south and look at NGC 5128 and Omega Centauri. Wow that is huge! It was my first time observing it and even though only a few degrees high it was still amazing! After a good look it was back to the hunt. Many say that you can break till 2 or so but I felt that if you go out and get ahead and stay ahead and that would give you more time for those hard objects in the morning. Well it paid off.

I began at 1:29 with M5 and hunted everything low on the horizon as it rose so that by 3:07am all that was left was the 10 hard morning objects!

Again a short break with drink and food that I brought refreshed me for the morning dash to the line. At 3:30 I began hunting M69,70,54 in the bottom of the teapot. Many will know how tough these can be and with the use of a club member’s 25" F5 obsession I was able to see these easily. These were the only other objects that I did not use my 12.5" telescope to find. M15 was then easy at 3:50.

At 4:00am I started the search for M72 and 73. Both were seen at 4:09 and 4:12. M55 was then searched for and finally was seen at 4:21am and then a quick hop to M75 at 4:26. This was out of order but due to trees it was best to be done this way. Quickly starting to run out of time now as astronomical twilight began at 4:30 so quickly I jumped over and hopped in to find M2 and with that I had 109!

So at 4:30am I started the star hop to find M30. I felt before beginning that this was hopeless. As the morning dark gave to light I watched the star patterns of my star hop rise out of the trees and by 4:45 I was still a couple degrees from M30. It would not be on the horizon till 4:58am and nautical twilight started at 5:02! At 5:10 am when I could not see stars under 6th magnitude and was still 1 degree from M30 I gave up.

So, after 9 hours and 45 minutes of searching, napping and eating to stay awake I had bagged 109 of the 110 Messier's. I was asked if I would do this again? If I am at a location farther south where M30 is possible and all 110 can be seen I may try it again. But from here or farther north not likely now that I have done 109. It is a long night and you don’t get much time to enjoy looking at objects. I prefer the relaxed pace of a slow observing session where you can take in all the views and study the objects.


Paul Gray has been a member since 1987 and is also now a member of the Delmarva Stargazers on the Maryland, Delaware, Virginia peninsula for 3 years. Their web site is http://www.delmarvastargazers.org and Paul’s astronomy page is http://members.bellatlantic.net/~perser/hp02.htm