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Messier Marathon

Paul and Mary Kohlmiller


“Congratulations, you have completed the Virgo hump. It’s all down hill from here!”



On April 13, the SJAA Don Machholz Messier Marathon was held at Coe Park. We got there shortly after 7 and there were already more than a dozen telescopes in various stages of being set up. As we got closer to the 7:39 sunset, I wondered if the best part of the evening was going to be the sunset. The clouds were high and thin but they kept encroaching all night long.

Finally it was dark enough to see a few stars. I tried to align our Meade LX 200 10" scope but it wasn't going very well. After rechecking the coordinates and the time, we decided that our 7 amp battery didn't get charged right so we hooked the scope up to the car's battery. This time the alignment worked. Bob Havner passed out a list of all the Messier objects in the Machholz order. Besides that list we had the Messier Marathon Observer's Guide by Don Machholz and a book by Stephen James O'Meara, The Messier Objects. It was difficult to see the first few objects. In fact, we went down the list trying and failing to spot anything until we got to the eighth object on the list.

Bob came around a few times during the evening making sure we were still having fun. Of course we were, we were "cheating." Well, we were using the "goto" feature on the Meade. After all the problems with the alignment feature, when we started asking it to find Messier objects it was nearly flawless. One fellow observer asked if we used the equatorial wedge. Our experience with the wedge is that it was a lot more work with no greater accuracy. Mike Koop also came by to see how we were doing.

Our first interesting find was an open cluster, M35. The darker sky at Coe, compared to our backyard, made it a more interesting object than we remembered. A few other open clusters in the same part of the sky were also great to see. Eventually we got to some other objects. Bob recommended throwing some magnification at the global clusters. M3, M13 and M5 were much more interesting using the 13mm eyepiece. This also worked with a few edge-on galaxies like M104 and M82. (O'Meara also talks about how increased magnification helps with these and other galaxies.) It was easy to see the two cores in M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy. M57, the Ring Nebula, always looks out of focus to me.

Then there were the Messier objects that were just plain surprises. M40 is a double star. That didn't seem right. There were a couple people at the park that night that came by to see some objects who didn't know about Messier objects at all. I gave the short version about how a guy named Messier was trying to find comets and decided to catalog these annoyances that might look like comets but weren't. So why a double star? According to O'Meara, an earlier astronomer, John Hevelius, saw this "nebula" in 1660. Might have been a bad viewing night and certainly the state of telescoping was not quite up to modern standards. O'Meara also reports that Hevelius' position suggests a different part of the sky than what Messier put in the catalog. M40 was later rediscovered by A. Winnecke but Hevelius was apparently looking at 74 Ursae Majoris — not a double star after all and not a nebula either. Whatever, we marked it as "observed and checked" on our Messier sheet and moved on.

Other objects were very difficult to see. If it wasn't for being able to check them off the sheet, it might not have been worth the effort. Galaxies like M98, M99 and M100 were very dim, small and uninteresting. To convince ourselves that we saw M100, we moved the scope left and right. This seems to help when the object is dim. M100 is magnitude 9.3. A few objects are even dimmer. The dimmest on the list is M91 at 10.2 where the left-and-right shifting helped. M76 (magnitude 10.1) was the only object we gave up on for magnitude reasons alone.

Eventually we got to the part of the Messier list that said, "Congratulations, you have completed the Virgo hump. It's all down hill from here!" Well, there were still about 45 objects to see but a lot of them were not visible yet. We skipped over some objects in Puppis because there was a tree in the way. When we went back to find them, the clouds had overtaken that part of the sky. When the clouds had moved in as far as Polaris, I figured our time was going to be limited. Eventually we stopped a bit before 1:30 a.m..

At the end we claimed 68 objects. We got most of the objects from #8 on the list, M103 down to #85 which is M62. We missed M76 because it was dim, M79 was too low, M41 and M46 were behind a tree. Part of Scorpio and all of Sagittarius wasn't up yet. For the most part we slewed to and saw it, marked it and slewed on. We stopped to take a few 3-5 minute exposure shots of M35 and M51 but I'm not optimistic about how they will turn out.

All in all, we were glad to do the Marathon in April instead of March. It was much warmer, we got all the Virgo objects by 1 a.m. And although Darkness Squandering Time meant it seemed to take forever for the sky to darken, it also meant that we didn't have to rush to the park to get there before dark.

It was critically important to have an observing sequence. I'm not sure what we would have done without the SJAA sheet and the Machholz book. A "goto" scope was very important but if you have to slew across large sections of the sky all the time, your alignment gets to be a bit off. This really hurts when looking for something faint. As for the items we missed, that's what summer is for!


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