This past Saturday night (April 5, 2008) was a terrific opportunity to do a Messier Marathon. The weather was gorgeous... very mild and sunny, with decent transparency at night! The weather forecasts showed that the sky would be most promising to the west of Ottawa, and this appears to be pretty much what happened. This was my first Messier Marathon using a 12.5" dob - with only a Rigel Finder and a few star charts to help me out. I was curious to see how well my object-finding skills would be after my main scope's long absence.
I arrived in Cobden just after 5:00 PM to meet up with Ken and Todd for a nice meal at the Country Kitchen. About an hour later, we proceeded to Pit Road (the dump access road), located just a few minutes away. It was my first visit at this site, and the area is notable for the flat horizons all-around and a wide area of dry paved road. I knew that I'd be sitting on the ground to view many of the
low objects with my dob, so the dry pavement was very welcomed!
There is virtually no traffic to worry about due to the dead-end near the dump. There are a few distant yard lights, but too far to be of any serious concern for me. The light pollution domes of Cobden and Ottawa are reduced to less than 15 degrees... The area is in a green light-pollution zone (significantly darker than Bootland Farm or Moosecreek). But it is also a longer drive from my home at 1 hour and 40 minutes. All in all, it's a comfortable and easily accessible site and I'd definitely go observe here again. Thanks to Chris for finding it!
As many as 9 eager observers joined in, with each car positioned one- behind-the-other. I took my time setting up my 12.5" Portaball, making sure that it was properly collimated, and that all my accessories and star charts were ready to go. I was a bit concerned at the cirrus clouds overhead, but as the Sun was setting, the clouds were slowly dissipating away to the east.
The evening rush...
From the start, I skipped M74 and M77 since they would be already almost at the horizon during the twilight. My first target at 8:45 PM was M79, a small globular cluster in Lepus. I had a good line of sight to see it, but there was a problem... still enough low cirrus clouds to wreak some havok! I had trouble seeing any of the stars of Lepus! I tried for about 25 minutes, but I couldn't see anything there. Joe Silverman, who was setup next to me, fared better when he spotted M79 in his 12" dob during a brief break in the clouds. At 9:10 PM, I decided I had to move on... next on the list was M33. I could easily see Triangulum, and I was hoping that this large face-on galaxy would be an easy one... not so! It was very low near the horizon and sinking fast... so there was no time to waste! Using a 22mm Panoptic (giving me 1.0 degree TFOV), I scanned the area where I expected to see M33. I could see lots of stars, so the horizon was thankfully a lot clearer in that direction. After a few minutes, I saw a small fuzzy patch, which I identified as NGC604 - a giant diffuse nebula residing in one of the arms of M33! Now that I was recognizing what I was seeing, I was able to just barely make out an extremely faint glow of the core of M33. Nudging the scope helped confirm this. Next, on to the Andromeda Galaxy region (M31, 32 and
110) which was soon getting lost near the horizon. Managed to locate it quickly, but could only see M31 and M32. M110 was too faint - but I'd have another chance in the morning sky.
With the toughest objects out of the way, I could relax a bit more as I slowly made my way up from the western sky. I was surprised at how bright the planetary nebula M76 was. But I nearly forgot about M41 (an open cluster in Canis Major) ... Fortunately it was bright enough to easily pick up even almost down to the horizon. I went at a rather leisurely pace from that point until after midnight...
checking off various star clusters, nebulas and galaxies from the Messier catalogue.
Summer objects rising...
One interesting challenge was M83, the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy in southern Hydra. Although huge, this is one VERY faint galaxy that never rises very high for us - And to make matters worse, there was a bit of cirrus clouds low in the south when I was hunting it down (it became easier to see as it passed the meridian). Raymond Dubois came and confirmed the sighting.
Just past midnight, I temporarily aimed my scope low in the east and got ahead as much as I could by catching the summer objects rising up in the east (M3, M13, M92, M57, M27, etc...) - many of which I had to sit on the ground to view with my dob.
Then I took a break, to fill up on cookies and to get ready to tackle the realm of galaxies!
The Virgo cluster...
Working with the "Messier Object Mapping System" that I printed off from the internet, I tackled the Virgo cluster from the east side, and gradually worked my way west. I oriented the charts to match my FOV, and took my time to move the dob slowly from one object to the another - studying the field stars as I went along to make sure that I had the correct galaxies identified. The Virgo cluster is such an interesting area - I can see why one would normally want to spend many sessions to explore this more carefully. Once in a while, I'd ask Joe Silverman if he'd knew anything on some of the more obscure objects, and he'd provide very useful insight - I was amazed at his knowledge which seemed right on the mark. In about half an hour, the Virgo cluster was complete, and I took a break. Sanjeev brought his propane stove and offered hot tea which was great. I could see Ophiuchus and Scorpius rising, and now I was getting pumped for all the globular clusters.
The morning rush...
The pace picked up again as the pre-dawn hours went by. I needed to aim my scope very low towards the south-east to pick up the various star clusters. Sitting on the ground, with my Portaball's eyepiece
rotated at a comfortable eye level was surprisingly comfortable.
Globular clusters are among my favorite objects and it was great to compare so many in such a small span of time. They each have their
own particularities (in size, brightness, density and distribution).
This session also made me re-discover some of the gorgeous open star clusters too! In particular, I enjoyed the Butterfly Cluster near the tail of Scorpius. I can just imagine the beauty of it if it would rise much higher up. Next up, was all the various star clusters and nebulas in Sagittarius... a very rich region of the sky that faces the center of our galaxy.
Time seemed to fly as the end of astronomical night approached. I rushed to pick up M55, M75 in eastern Sagittarius, M5 in Pegasus, and then M2, M72 and M73 in Aquarius. But I couldn't see M73 (a small asterism). With the sky quickly losing darkness, I noticed the Andromeda Galaxy region rising up in the east - so I moved there to give M110 another try..... SUCCESS!!! So back to try for M73.... I sweeped back in forth... over and over... where I expected it to be. The twilight was getting bright now, I was exhausted and my eyepiece was starting to fog up (even though I had a dew strap on it). I noticed a small arrangement of stars so I quickly sketched their position, hoping that was M73. Then, I gave up. When I later checked to see if the asterism I was looking at was M73, I realized the shape was wrong. Oh well...
Now with the last possible Messier object, M30 lost in the Sun's bright glare, that was it.
I managed to get 105 Messiers (missing M74, M77, M79, M73 and M30).
This nearly matches my previous record (Beckwith Park on March 16 2002). It was a terrific night, and a great time shared with eager observers. It was also a fun way to re-acquaint myself with some of the DSO's that I had not seen in such a long time.
I packed up my scope and accessories, and promptly slipped in the back of my car for a 3 hour snooze. The only downside out of this wonderful event is that I managed to aggravate a nasty cold :0( ... but it was well worth it!