The Regina Messier Marathon 2001
By Vance Petriew
The evening of March 24th, 2001 was a busy scene throughout the amateur astronomy community. All over the world, astronomers were trying their star hopping skills and testing their eyesight in an attempt to complete the annual Messier Marathon. It is the one time of the year, when the sun is in the constellation Pisces, that all 110 (the number is still debated) objects in Charles Messier's catalogue can be viewed in one evening. So what was the scene like in Regina?
This was my first attempt at a Messier Marathon. I had been working at finding many of the objects in the weeks leading up to the marathon and enjoyed navigating the Virgo cluster. Two days before, I was on the Internet searching through the weather sites for the most promising weather forecasts! As it turned out, the Friday night and the Saturday night were clear thanks to the massive cold front pushing down from Hudson's Bay. More
on that later! Steve Meister graciously allowed us to use the driveway on his farm north of Regina and the club members started showing up around 7:30 PM to set up their scopes. All tolled, seven telescopes were set up under the stars and eleven members came out for some viewing. Projected low: -20 degrees Celsius. :o(
The sky was clear and the glow from Regina was subdued. This was going to be fun! The first objects were M77 and M74. After trying for a good 20 minutes, M74 was lost in the sunset. M77 was also in the sunset and I thought I had found it but after consulting a more accurate start chart at home, I had it wrong. Oh well, 0 for 2! Next was M33 in Triangulum. I had found this many times before but for some reason, it proved more difficult and it kept creeping to the horizon. I finally gave up on it and went on to the Andromeda galaxy (M31) which was visible to the naked eye. So the first object was found at 8:54 PM. M32, M110 came into view quite easily with the 8" F/6 telescope. Those were easy so I decided to go back to M33 and found it pretty quickly. In Cassiopeia, I found M103 and M52. It took a little bit of work to confirm I was looking at M52 and not one of the other open clusters in the area. Next was the beautiful open cluster M34 in Perseus. After that came one of the faintest objects in Messier's catalogue, the Little Dumbbell M76 in Perseus. It didn't show the dumbbell shape but it was visible as a faint smudge even though the sky wasn't totally dark yet at 9:27 PM. That concluded the quick setting objects or so I thought. I went star hopping to M79 but to my amazement, it had set already. Bummer... 3 gone and a mental note for next year! I quickly jumped into Orion for M78, M42 and M43. The Crab Nebula (M1) was also an easy target. The stars in Auriga seemed a lot brighter than I remembered which made it more difficult to star hop through M36, M37 and M38. Next was one of my recently found favorites, the open cluster M35 in Gemini with its companion cluster NGC2158. After surveying the sky for a minute, I realized that I had better get cracking because Puppis was sinking fast. Another close call came with M41. I managed to find it before it ducked behind the big pine tree (even the branches of the tree were visible in the same field of view). I then located M93 in the glare of Regina and proceeded to M50 in Monoceros. M46 and nearby M47 were the next logical targets and were found quite easily. The glow of Regina reduced the sky contrast to the point where the planetary nebula NGC2438, was barely visible in M46. Definitely not one of the better views of this cluster! Must press on....
Next were the open clusters M67, M48 and M44. No problem finding these. Some of the club members were ready for a break but I stayed to test out the galaxy situation in Leo. I found M95 and M96 at 10:37 PM and M105 right after that. I proceeded to search for M65 and M66 because I wanted to find these before taking a break. I found my guide star and proceeded to star hop to M65. There it was, cool! I moved over to look for M66 but it was not there. What was wrong? I scanned the region around the galaxy but to no avail. The contrast was not the greatest so maybe it was just too faint. After 10 minutes of star hopping, sky scanning and star chart consulting, I decided it was time for a break. Besides, it was 11:00 PM and the feet were getting tired after the first stretch.!
The gang was already warming up in the garage so I proceeded there with my new, stainless steel thermos that my wife bought especially for this occasion. She makes the best hot chocolate! By this time there were only four members left observing so we all huddled around the radiant heater absorbing as many heat waves through our snowmobile suits as we could. The garage door was open so we were able to see another space spectacular starting to the north. The faint flow of the aurora began quietly and slowly grew into a bright band stretching three-quarters of the way across the sky. As all astronomers know, the aurora can show up like an un-invited guest and stir differing feelings inside. Feelings of fear: will it ruin our evening of viewing? Feelings of indifference: nice but let's get on with the marathon. Feelings of wonderment: wow, what an amazing site! For me, the first and second feelings more suited the evening auroral display.
After a great visit, it was time to start viewing again. At 11:30 PM, I went back to M65 and realized that I had started with the wrong guide star! Doh! If the object was not M65 then what was it? Checking the star charts solved the mystery and the object was correctly identified as NGC3705, a 12.2 magnitude galaxy south of M65. Cool! Hadn't seen that one before! Anyways, back to the correct guide star and boom, there was M65 and M66 right where they should be. Next stop.....the Virgo cluster.
The Virgo cluster is a wonderful place to hop around, even with a 6" as Steve Meister found out. The hardest part is determining what's in the field of view compared to the star charts. Once you have a good grasp on that, the galaxies start leaping out of the eyepiece. Because I had spent and hour and a half in the Virgo cluster the weekend before, the Messier's were a breeze. I started out at rho Virgo and proceeded up to the first stop in the Virgo cluster, M58. I panned left (right in the eyepiece) to pick up M59 and M60. NGC 4638 and NGC 4660 were also visible in the same field of view. Very nice! Moving back to M58, I proceeded up to find M89 on the way to M90. I doubled back to M89 and homed in on the next object, M87. This is a bright object and easy to find. From there, the galaxies, M84 and M86, popped into view which took me to one of my favorite locations in the Virgo cluster. These two galaxies are the start of sweeping arc of faint galaxies leading the way to M88 and M91.
It starts with the galaxy pair NGC4435 and NGC4438. Centering these two galaxies in the eyepiece reveals two more galaxies near the edge of the field of view. These are NGC4458 and NGC4461. Centering this pair reveals another galaxy at the edge of the view, NGC4473. The next hop ends up at NGC4477 and finally an 8.5
magnitude star with the galaxy NGC4459 in very close proximity. The first time through this arc was shear pleasure for me and I can't wait to see it through my 20" when it arrives! Anyway, from the 8.5 magnitude star I headed left past NGC4474 to M88. Continuing a little further also revealed M91. Doubling back to the 8.5 magnitude star, gave me the starting point to star hop to the 5.1 magnitude star in Coma Berenices. Nearby are M99 and the long, skinny galaxy M98. A short distance away was M100 and NGC4312.
From this point it was almost straight up to M85 and the last stop in the Virgo cluster. The time was 12:02 AM which meant a 20-minute galaxy tour through the eyepiece which will be repeated many more times in the years ahead.
At this time, I took a bit of a break and showed Kevin Fleck the galaxy chain between M86 and M88. He was amazed at how faint the objects were and yet how easily they were to find in the 8" telescope. We also had some fun with constellation pronunciations, as some become real tongue twisters in
the cold. It was at this time that I noticed the wind picking up from the northeast. The wind was not welcome and the temperature seemed to be dropping by the minute. I continued with the marathon and pulled out the galaxies M49 and M61. There was some discussion around the Sombrero galaxy so we headed there next for a peek. M104 did show the dust lane quite clearly. Next was a quick look at the Ring Nebula, M57, as it climbed higher in the northeast. However, the wind was starting to bite through our winter clothes so we retired to the garage heater at 12:30 A.M.
With the garage door open, the wind prevented us from warming up but we sat around the heat source and visited anyway. I'm not sure why we didn't close the garage door but we didn't. Oh well, the hot chocolate really hit the spot but it wasn't enough to warm the toes. After an hour of watching the northern lights and discussing topics in astronomy, we decided that the weather was taking a turn for the worse. We went outside for another run
and after finding one quick globular cluster, M53, at 1:28 AM, the decision was made to shut everything down. By this time the temperature had dropped below -15 degrees Celsius and the wind had picked up to 20 Km/h gusting to 40 Km/h. So with the wind-chill, -15 degrees was feeling close to -30 degrees and as any Canuck knows, cold and wind are a bad mix. Besides, the
telescopes had collected a thick layer of frost and the mirrors and
eyepieces were fogging easily. We packed everything up and headed home for a nice warm bed. So the final count on my first attempt at a Messier Marathon was 50 objects. Not bad for the first go around but an easy target to beat next year!