Denis Legault's 2004 Messier Marathon

March 13, 2004

This year I decided to try a totally different kind of Messier Marathon. Instead of doing the marathon only visually, I wanted to add an extra challenge to it that I believe has never been done before. This new type of Messier Marathon consists of observing and imaging all the Messier objects using a CCD video camera. With the proper camera, this can even be done from the city. I gave this a try on the night of March 13 to March 14, 2004. I successfully imaged 109 Messier objects from Ottawa, Ontario missing only M30.

This Messier Marathon was done from the comfort of my own home. Last year I constructed an observatory in the attic of my house. It was designed specially for astronomical video observing. From my office room I added an attic door. Then I built a floor above the insulation in the attic, added walls and cut a hole of 4.5 feet long between two trusses of the roof. The telescope is moved up and down between the two trusses by a 55-inch drill press stand. When the telescope is fully outside, I can observe above all the rooftops of my neighbourhood with an almost perfect 360 degrees horizon. All my observations are done from inside the house from my computer and a video monitor. The name of my observatory is CPO, which stands for Couch Potato Observatory.

The telescope I use is a Meade LX200 10-inch, which is controlled by the computer. The camera is the MallinCam 1 video CCD observational system designed by Rock Mallin of ProCom Electronics. This camera is so sensitive that it allowed me to image galaxies with magnitude as low as 17.6 from a suburb of Ottawa where the visual magnitude is usually around 4.5. My location is at longitude 75.2 degrees West and latitude 45.5 degrees North. With this set-up, I imaged over 1,500 deep sky objects since last July.

The MallinCam 1 takes 30 shots every half second, stacks them and sends them out as a video signal. Every half second, the video image is refreshed. Images are captured on a Sony Digital Handycam that has a video line IN. Each shot is a JPG file of about 180K which is stored on a memory stick. The images are then transferred to the computer to be stacked with Registax II.

The night of the Messier Marathon was ideal for observing. The temperature varies between -4° C (25° F) in the evening down to -8° C (18° F) the next morning. The humidity was low and it was clear almost all night. A few scattered clouds were in the way between 3:30 and 4am. The telescope did not dew up at all that night.

At 7:30pm I opened the roof door, set-up the telescope on the drill press stand and raised it outside the roof. Then I did my 2 star alignment and went back inside before 8pm ready for observing. The official astronomical night was from 7:41pm until 4:42am. The Moon was rising at 2:42am and did not interfere with the observing.

I took my first image (M74) at 8:07pm. The first 2 objects (M74 and M77) were very close to the horizon. They were also in the strong city glow from downtown Ottawa. No stars are visible under 20 degrees off the western horizon. Still, the core of M74 showed up on the screen.

I averaged about 4 to 5 minutes per object. This time included moving to the objects, confirming the star pattern with astronomical and recording an average of 40 video frames onto the memory stick of my Sony Digital Handycam.

From 8pm to 9pm, I imaged 14 objects (M74, M77, M33, M79, M31, M32, M110, M52, M103, M76, M34, M45, M42 & M43). From 9pm to 10pm, I imaged another 14 objects (M78, M41, M93, M108, M97, M109, M40, M106, M82, M81, M47, M46, M50 & M1). Only 7 objects (M48, M94, M63, M51, M101, M102 & M3) were imaged from 10pm to 11pm. At 10:20pm one of the cables got stuck and pulled a bit too much on the telescope. It messed up the alignment. I had to realign again. This rarely happens but that night the telescope was moving from one side of the sky to other quite often.

The imaging went on with 17 objects (M35, M37, M38, M36, M44, M67, M95, M96, M105, M65, M66, M68, M104, M61, M49, M98 & M99) from 11pm to midnight, 15 objects (M100, M85, M91, M88, M84, M86, M87, M89, M90, M58, M59, M60, M83, M53 & M64) from midnight to 1am, 10 objects (M13, M92, M5, M12, M57, M10, M14, M56, M29 & M39) from 1am to 2am, another 10 objects (M27, M71, M107, M80, M4, M9, M19, M11, M26 & M16) from 2am to 3am and 9 more objects (M23, M62, M17, M18, M24, M25, M21, M20 & M8) from 3am to 4am. From 3:30am until 4am, I was bothered by clouds when I was imaging M21, M20 and M8. Luckily it was only a small setback and I was able to go on.

At 4am I had 96 objects done with only 14 left. There was only 42 minutes left of astronomical night. So, between 4am and 4:42am, I imaged another 9 objects (M28, M22, M15, M6, M7, M69, M54, M70 & M2). Now I had 5 objects left and the astronomical night was over. I had to wait for the other objects to move 4 to 5 degrees above the horizon to get a descent view. I imaged M75 at 4:49am, M72 at 4:52am and M73 at 4:54am. At this point I had equated the observed record of 108 Messier objects observed in one night on Canadian soil. I established this record in 2002 using a 14-inch Discovery dobsonian.

M55 and M30 were the only 2 objects left. I did not have much hope for M30 since the Sun would be up by the time it gets high enough. March 14 was too early for M30 but M55 was within reach. I first attempted M55 at 5am. It was too low. My second attempt was 5:05am. Still M55 was too close to the horizon. At 5:10am during my third attempt, I detected just a few stars of M55 but it was not good enough to recognise a pattern to confirm it. I took about 20 frames but they were not good enough. At 5:15am, almost 35 minutes after the end of astronomical night, I did my forth attempt. M55 was barely visible on the screen. I saw just enough stars to confirm it. I took 38 still frames and about 20 of them were good enough to stack. The camera could barely stay engaged in its digital half-second stacking mode. If the camera had disengaged from its largest stacking, M55 would not have been visible in the strong Sun glow at that time. I tried a fifth attempt at 5:20am. The camera would not engage in its high digital mode anymore. M55 was no longer visible. The Sun glow was just too bright.

M30 rose at 5:52am. It would have been just under 3 degrees above the horizon at Sunrise at 6:17am. No attempts were made. M30 might have been possible using the MallinCam 2+ which is even more sensitive. The MallinCam 2+ was successful in the past in seeing some of the stars inside M5 when the Sun was at the horizon.

All my Messier Marathon images are found on the web site inside the astro photography gallery section. Here is the URL to get directly to the gallery From the gallery look for folder Denis Legault and subfolder Messier Marathon Imaged March 13-14, 2004. Photos of my observatory are also found under my personal folder. Those are inside subfolder Home Observatory.

This Messier Marathon was a lot of fun. It was very different from any Messier Marathons I did before. Special thanks to Nathalie Legault, Jean-Sébastien Loyer and Jean Mantha who joined me that night. My next Messier Marathon challenge is to use my Discovery dobsonian with the MallinCam, find all objects with the Telrad and image them all again.


Denis Legault