“This year added three nice planetary appearances to the Marthon ...”
A big "thank you" should go out to Bob Havner for organizing the 2003 SJAA Messier Marathon. His email notices got me eager to get out under the stars for a full night of observing.
The week leading up to our official marathon night featured some of the best clear skies I had seen in months, but it was not destined to last. Increasing haze and high thin clouds filled the sky by Saturday afternoon. Fortunately a strong north to south airflow kept dry air over our observing site all night long. Dew was not a problem.
I chose to use two refractors for my Messier observations. I bolted a 4.8-inch f/5 (Orion ST120) onto a 4-inch f/10 (Celestron C102), giving me a short, fast, widefield view side-by-side with a sharp, higher magnification view. The ST120 combined with a 40mm eyepiece and a Skyview filter gave around 3 degrees of field-of-view, which is well matched to the finder charts in the Messier Marathon Observer's Guide by Don Machholz.
As the evening darkened into night, haze on the western horizon blocked five of the first six search objects. Not the best way to start perhaps, but that's part of the challenge. By 9:30 p.m., I was well into the hunt.
The last time I tried the Messier Marathon, I got caught in a trap at Cygnus. When I finished M57 and M56 in Lyra, Don's search order indicates a move east to find M29 in Cygnus. At 2 a.m., Cygnus is low in the east and I made the mistake of taking a break and waiting for it to rise. This is a time trap since I could run out of time in the morning. This year I tried a slightly different search order which moves from M56 to M107 in Ophiuchus. After searching through Ophiuchus and Scorpius for 11 M-objects, I can go back to pickup the 4 objects in Cygnus, Vulpecula, and Sagitta which have risen higher in the sky. (Search order: 71, 72, 77 to 87, then go back for 73 to 76, forward to 88, 89, and so forth.)
This year added three nice planetary appearances to the Marathon: Saturn was still quite close to M1; M44 & Jupiter practically merged into one cluster with all 4 Galilean moons stretched out between the planet and the cluster; and small but growing Mars in the morning sky. Vesta reached opposition the day before our marathon and delighted us with observable motion as it passed background stars in Virgo near 12:38 R.A. and +09 deg 38 min dec. from 12:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m.
So how did I do? Well, when I lived back east, my Messier marathoning usually found 40 or 50 objects between and through the clouds. Out here in the west, my previous best total was 87. This year I found 103, missing M77, M74, M33, M32, M110, M79, and M30. Perhaps more impressive is that 4 observers stuck with the marathon through the entire night. It was fun.
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