Messier Marathon, March 24-25, 2001

What a weekend!

We got to the Arizona City site just before dark, so setup of the camper was "fun". In the dark. I managed to leave one of the clamps engaged so that when I cranked up the roof, it "popped" off the cable that raises one corner. Rosie and I managed to raise that corner by hand and let the door hold it up, but it's going to be kind of a pain to fix.

I got the scope set up by around 8:30 and we got to work. Our plans were to not only complete the Messier Marathon, but we figured we could complete our observations for our Messier Certificate and our Best 110 NGC objects at the same time. There were only 40 or so NGC's and maybe 20 Messiers, all in the same general region of the sky, so why not try it? I thought if we were sufficiently organized, we'd just jump from the marathon object, log the NGC and be on our way. This proved not to be the case, more later. So, after I did a fairly thorough alignment, important for accuracy later on, we got working on the NGC list-a couple galaxies in Leo and Leo Minor, plus a planetary nebula, (The Ghost of Jupiter") in Sextans. Once, around 10:30, I asked Rosie to confirm the coordinates she'd just given me. No answer. I look over, and she's face down on the table! Poor thing. So, we finished up Leo Minor and went to bed.

Well, I got everything put back together and we got started on organizing our marathon. The organizers distribute a check off list of the objects in a reasonable order. I had planned to observe the M object then, if it was close to one of the NGC's we'd jump to that one, log it, then back to the marathon. Compiling this list wasn't as bad as I thought it might be, but the sheer number of objects involved made me wonder. One hundred ten for the marathon, logging 20, jumping off to do 45 NGC's including finding and describing, Rosie transcribing, then back to the start. I had my doubts, so I asked Rosie if she thought we could actually do this. Now, we were talking about viewing 155 objects and writing down descriptions for 65 of these in one night. I may have seen this many objects in one night before, or close to it, but as I recall, the most we've "logged" descriptions to was in the neighborhood of about 30 or so. Rosie says, "Let's go for it!" anyway. What a woman.

First object for the marathon was M45-The Pleiades cluster. Bright and easy to find. A couple other bright ones later and it was time to look for the most difficult ones of the night-M74 and M77, two galaxies in Pisces and Cetus respectively. These are beautiful, face on galaxies that are both barely visible under ideal conditions and with the sun barely down, along with a brilliant zodiacal light shining vertical from the west, they proved to be tough. But once located, I fairly knew we'd get the rest.

Everything went pretty smoothly, until we got to the area where the NGC's lurked. Of course, it was also the area of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies-one of the most populated on the Messier list. It hadn't really occurred to me just how long it takes to actually log objects in the log book, I guess, because it was soon apparent we were running out of time. Normally, we complete the Virgo Cluster when it is still fairly low in the east. That way, it makes a natural break point for a snack or nap, while we wait for the summer objects to rise. We were cruising pretty good, but we were also losing our break time. I decided to stop looking for NGC's and just finish the marathon. Rosie will forgive me, eventually. :-) It was really kind of a relief. We finished off the cluster and a couple others and took a break.

We wandered over to a friend of mine's, Mike Spooner. He's a telescope builder and mirror grinder with extraordinary talent. He'd brought a 10" Lourie-Houghton design scope that was nothing short of amazing. A view of Jupiter was so rich in detail, you could have been standing on one of his outer moons. Saturn revealed details in the atmosphere and rings that are rarely seen, and I counted 5 moons without straining. Wonderful! We wandered around to see other friends and most seemed quite happy with their efforts. The marathon was going well and by all accounts promised to be a record breaker.

After the break and a quick nap, we were back at it for the last push. If I could just keep the sand man at bay, we'd finish this thing! We swept through the summer constellations of Hercules, Lyra and Cygnus. On to Scorpius and Sagittarius, Scutum and Ophiuchus. Now, just wait for Capricornus and finally Aquarius and the last object-M30. A check of the computer showed M30 rising at 5:17am local time. The onset of twilight showed 5:08 am. That meant the sun had a 9 minute head start on faint globular cluster M30. Fortunately, there's a double star right next to it that's bright, so identification is pretty easy. I set the scope to M30's coordinates before it had risen and when it cleared the hills, Boom! There it was! We'd observed all 110 Messier objects in one night, plus some we had to do twice, since we forgot to log them the first time, PLUS 23 NGC's logged, PLUS 4 planets, two multiple stars and a couple other objects to boot! All told, over 150 objects!

As M30 came over the hill, you could hear scattered shouts and cries of "I got it!" or "There it is!", or simply, "WAHOOO!" from others in the field. When I said earlier that this could be a record breaker, I guess it came true. Before Saturday, there were a handful of people that had managed to observe all 110 objects in one night, perhaps 5 or 6. By the time the sun came up on Sunday, there were 24 added to that elite list, with one person having done it twice officially, and another having done it two nights in a row!

After breakfast, we packed up to go. Most of the people had already left, with just a few bleary eyed astronomers hanging around. Once on the road, the adrenelin starts to wear off, and you realize how grueling this marathon really is. It is definitely worth it, though! Steve and Rosie Dodder
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