My Successful Messier Marathon by Guy Nason


Rancho Hidalgo near Animas, New Mexico, March 22, 2012 18:42 MDT


Tonight, March 22/23, 2012, I shall attempt my second ever Messier Marathon. Paul Markov and Steve Keefer will recall the first, when we three gave it a go from a hilltop known as Richardson's Lookout east of Kirby, ON in 1996. On that occasion I "bagged" 104 of the 110 Messier Objects as describe in the RASC Observer's Handbook.  The missing 5 Messiers were lost in evening or morning twilight, mainly because of our relatively high latitude of 44+ degrees. At the time I claimed the most ever seen in one night from Canadian soil. I was wrong. In 1994 David Lane and Bill Lucas spotted 106 and 105, respectively, from Nova Scotia; and the year before, Tom Cameron saw 104 from near Calgary, AB. So Steve Keefer and I managed to tie for third (Paul Markov spotted 103 with his smaller telescope).


That was then. Now I'm under a clear Moonless sky in south-western New Mexico eleven degrees of latitude farther south than we were in 1996. I decided to take advantage of this good opportunity to make amends and collect all 110 Messier objects in the modern catalogue in one night. My latitude here is 31 57' North -- low enough that the tough ones like M74 and M77 (evening) and M30, M72 and M73 (predawn) are do-able. In fact, yesterday, I did a dry run using only my 15x70 to see if I should even bother. Well, the answer is a resounding "Yes". M77 was easy and although I couldn't see M74, I'm convinced that the sky around it will be dark enough for my 12.5-inch Newtonian telescope to pull it out of the background. 


Thus encouraged, I continued down the list all the way to the Virgo galaxies using only the binoculars or my unaided eyes. Some of the Virgo galaxies were detectable in the binocs and some weren't, but prior to that celestial minefield, and aside from M74, the only M's I couldn't see with the binoculars were the companions to the Andromeda Galaxy, M32 and M110. By the time I got to Virgo it was 01:00 MDT and that's when I hit the wall and called it a highly successful practice run. I wasn't prepared to go Messier hunting with such tenacity when I started out and I was practically falling asleep on my feet by then.


Tonight, however, should be a different story. I slept in this morning and had an afternoon nap, so I should be good to go the distance. Also, I added a few notes to Larry McNish's Messier Marathon Planner that I downloaded yesterday, which should help make the hunt more efficient. Most importantly, I wrote in the page number of Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas on which each object was best represented. 


Anyway, conditions are shaping up to be excellent here tonight. Oh yes; the equipment: The binoculars are Celestron SkyMaster 15x70's mounted on a photo-type tripod. The telescope is a Parks 12.5 inch f/5 Newtonian with a 30mm 2-inch eyepiece, yielding a magnification of 53x and a true field of 1.3 degrees. The scope is fitted with a 50mm finder scope and a Telrad one-power finder. My eyes are 65-year-old blue one-power bino-viewers. Not as sensitive as they once were, but still able to pick out 6th magnitude stars in a dark sky.


Taking a Break at 23:15


So far so good. I bagged my first object, M31 at 20:18 MDT with the binoculars. Numbers 2 and 3 (77 & 33, respectively) followed in quick succession, also with binocs, while I waited for M74 to emerge from the background glow. Got it with the telescope at 20:54. Then I swung the scope over to M31 to pick up M32 and M110 before they set. After that, things were less urgent and the hunt settled down to a comfortable routine. I had a visitor, Mark Somebody (sorry, Mark, I didn't catch your last name) who just arrived from Ohio and he and I chatted while the Messiers fell, one by one, or sometimes two by two as in M42 & 43; 36 & 38; 81 & 82, etc.  I now have 47 in the bag and I'm about to brave the Virgo Jungle, so I figured this would be a good time to take a break.



Now back to the task at hand!


Break #2 at 02:00 AM


I survived the Virgo Cluster and more besides and now I'm waiting for Scorpius and Cygnus to rise above the murk, of which there is not much. In fact, the sky is so clear right down to the horizon that I was able to detect M9 and M19 with binoculars when they were only a degree or two above the ground. Eighty-one Messiers have now bit the dust, so I "only" have 29 more to go. However, Sagittarius is going to be tough sledding, I think, especially as dawn approaches. 


It has really cooled down in the last hour or two, so I came inside to put on more clothes and heat up a cup of coffee. I'm feeling much better now, so it's time to get back at it.


Whoo-hoo! at 06:00


The hop through and around Sagittarius wasn't as tough as I thought it would be. Most of those Messiers are really bright, so I was able to stick to the binoculars even though they were low in the SE at the time (the M's, not the binocs). The last 7 or 8 beasties were slo-o-o-o-w to appear over the horizon, so I had lots of time to figure out the star-hops and then ambush them as soon as they peeped over the distant hills. M30 in Capricornus was the last to appear, as always, and I bagged it with the telescope in astronomical twilight at exactly 06:00. 


So: from M31 at 20:18 Thursday until M30 at 06:00 Friday, it took me 9 hours 42 minutes to find and record all 110 Messier objects. I found two Messiers with my unaided eyes (M44 and M45); 47 with the telescope; and 61 with the binoculars. I also added one Bonus Deep Sky Object, Omega Centauri, that I squeezed in between M21 and M70 at 03:48. Including Omega, that works out to one object every 5 minutes, 14.58 seconds, which is a very leisurely pace, actually. And I enjoyed every bit of it. What fun!


I remember hearing a talk at the Winter Star Party back in the early 1990's, in which the speaker said that Messier Marathons are supposed to be fun social events and that anyone who does one alone should have his/her head examined. Hmm. Can anyone recommend a good shrink?


Guy Nason, RASC Toronto Centre, reporting from New Mexico.