Last month’s March 16th (March 16, 2002) found a number of Lowbrows at the Lake Hudson State Recreation area for the annual Messier Marathon. Most Lowbrows know this event is an opportunity to test your observing skills by attempting to observe as many Messier objects as possible during a single night. As many mid-west observers know it is often a challenge just to try to observe during this late winter period with clear skies as rare as light jacket temperatures. This year the weather had all the promise of being a totally clear night, Sun down to Sun up, and the temperature above freezing with a low humidity level. Pretty amazing when one thinks that all this was occurring on a Saturday night of the optimum Messier Marathon weekend. The event was fairly well attended with Lowbrows Mark Deprest, Milton French, Doug Nelle, Brian Ottum, Doug Scobel, and yours truly along with a half dozen participants from the Ford club observing from the east picnic area. Lowbrow Mike Huff tells us he observed with 25 others on the south beach area.
If all this was not enough I was about to have ‘first light’ with a new 18 inch F4.5 Obsession telescope. The scope took a year of waiting mostly to obtain the Nova Optics primary. When I did receive everything it was in the dead of winter. Becoming an old man I looked for excuses not to observe in sub freezing temperatures and the Michigan winter obliged me a never ending sequence of cloudy skies with few exceptions through January and February.
If you have ever attended an Messier Marathon you quickly learn that as darkness approaches your observing buddies become less sociable and more pensive. As the marathon is about to begin, no one wants to be left on the starting line when darkness falls. Knowing this, seasoned observers show up early and get everything ready. Initiating a new scope, I was anxious to have time to collimate the scope before beginning the marathon. One would think that the it should be easy to find an astronomical object such as a few day Moon in an F4.5 scope. Well, if the scope has never been aligned, it isn’t. After a few moments of shear terror, Mark Deprest came to my aid and the Moon was found. (Thanks Mark). After the scope was alighted, it was off to the races.
Every marathoner needs to have a plan, an observing sequence. Pick up the really bright objects before is gets dark. M45, 42, 43, and 41 all fall to easing picking. Comet Ikeya-Zhang (C/2002 C1) was an early and constant favorite that night. As the sky darkens, M35 and M31 with it’s satellite companions M32 and 110 are snapped up. All this fast action might make you think that you are God’s gift to observing, but all of a sudden totally dark, and you are fumbling with your star charts as you try to locate the likes of M77, 33, 79 and 74. M74, called the most difficult Messier in the best of skies, is often not located except by the more experienced observers in pristine skies. While I have seen it before at Lake Hudson, tonight wasn’t too be. Soon you find your individual groove and the objects fall away with steady progress.
Some objects are just too beautiful to run past and I find myself stopping by the starry road to take in the sights. While I used to observe with moderately large scope, a Coulter 13 inch; having access to an 18 incher all to myself for the first time, is a photon consuming experience. My eyeballs were experiencing some of these familiar old friends like I was seeing them for the first time. Anyone who knows me knows I like my astronomy ‘BIG and chunky’. Some of the eye-popping objects I just couldn’t sprint by that night are...
M35 - This fine Mag 5 galactic star cluster located at the toes of the Gemini twins is a sparkling jewel box of stars. M35 is one of the first objects that beginners locate on their own probably due to its ease of locating it, but what makes this cluster stand out for me is the adjacent faint open cluster NGC 2158 one half degree away from M35. M35 is approximately 2700 light years away, while NGC 2158 is about 16,000 light years away. NGC 2158 has a combined luminosity of Mag 8.6. M35 appears in the eyepiece as a large cluster with many bright stars, while NGC 2158 is small with many faint stars packed together in a tight little area. It is possible to squeeze both M35 and NGC 2158 in to the same low power field and experience something rarely seen in any astronomical paring. That is the illusion of distance in the eyepiece. Years ago in the same month of March, I experienced a ‘take-your-breath-away’ view of M35 and NGC 2158 I will never forget. The sky was absolutely transparent. These two objects gave me the feeling of flying towards them in an imaginary space craft. A 3-D view I still see in my mind’s eye today. Try looking at these objects and see if you can’t experience the same. You will cherished the sight.
M76 - I have never been a fan of the Little Dumbbell, M76. This planetary nebula, shinning at Mag 10 has always looked like so much as a nondescript blob. Nothing more. Tonight with the clear skies of Lake Hudson and more aperture than usual M76 looked more like its brighter cousin M27. That night the Little Dumbbell was the big Dumbbell. Stop by next fall, when this object is observable again, and I’ll show you what I mean.
Comet Ikeya-Zhang (C/2002 C1) - Appearing in the western sky at between Mag 3 - 4. The comet was naked eye. So was a nice dust tail. Man is that comet GREEN! I seen a few comets in my time, but never have I seen a such green nucleus. The coma was big and bright as you might expect for a naked eye comet. Telescopically the tail started were the coma ended and was filled with countless filamentary streamers that went right off the field of view and well into the next field of view. The bright dust tail continued for approximately four degrees. The blue ion tail was not seen. Perhaps this was because the proximity to the Sun, now well placed below the horizon or due to the lack of observing time allowed in our marathon pace. It is recommended to return to this object again and again as naked eye comets are a rarity.
M46 - This Mag 6 open cluster, located in Puppis is not the brightest cluster in celestial sea. It’s claim to fame is the planetary nebular NGC 2438 that is easily visible within the cluster. Since M46 is winter object, not many get to experience this unique pairing. I found myself stopping the marathon to study the little planetary nebula wrapped in the stars of the open cluster. I since have read that the planetary my be a foreground object, not part of the cluster after all. On the scale of shear beauty, this object is one of my all time favorite.
M81 and M82 - Everyone knows these two popular galaxies located in Ursa Major. At the three hour mark of our Messier Marathon, I found myself tracking down these bright objects. Bright I thought. Well why can’t I seem to locate two galaxies in a single field that I must have seen hundreds of times before? Our sky was starting to go to white or beginning to be impacted by cloud cover. In winter transitional observing the sky can be come clouded over in a heartbeat. The upper level moisture condenses out as water vapor due to air temperature cooling and clouds form. Well I knew the sky was becoming clouded over, but on a marathon one presses on. The game is quantify, not quality. I found a bright face on galaxy. M81 I thought. This spiral galaxy has a bright nucleus. I saw none of this. What I did see was a large thumb print of a galaxy. OK, Now M82 should be in the same field, just pan around M81 and M82 will show itself. Both galaxies are about Mag 8. No paired galaxies were found. What goes? Just then the skies went south. Time to stop observing and start socializing. After a short time a ‘sucker hole’ opened up and it was back to the scopes. Well I found M 81 and 82, but not before finding the ‘Thumb print’ galaxy. As it turned out to be, NGC 3077 is a Mag 9.8 large round M81 imposter. It is not easy using an 18 incher for Messier Marathoning. After I figured this out, I found M81 and 82. M82 is a peculiar galaxy, meaning this galaxy type is a general term for galaxy that generally defy common description for more common spiral and elliptical galaxies. M82 is an edge on galaxy and in the 18 incher ‘molting’ can be seen above and below the plane of the galaxy. “Just like in the long exposure photographs” I thought. I have read descriptions of other observers that have claimed to have seen the molting in M82. Now I have seen it and what a sight it is. I will be back at this foreign shore for more studies at a later date when my marathon track shoes are idle.
All too fast the night was over. Clouded in and no amount of wishes for ‘sucker holes’ was going to help. In a short three hours of observing I probably located too few objects to keep pace with my fellow Lowbrow marathoners. But hey, I couldnhelp myself. I had to stop at sights that called out to me. I actually like Michigan marathoning for its lack of accommodating skies that would otherwise force me to stay on task and dutifully finish a task that I never wanted to race through in one night. I prefer to take the slower path. Approach each Messier object as I would a work of art and appreciate it for what it is. With some luck I will continue to be disappointed by Michigan skies in March and be allowed to walk through Messier’s catalog at a pace that allows me to appreciate each object in my own way. After more that ten years of observing I have never finished a Messier Marathon and at this pace I don’t ever expect I will.