Messier Marathon 2007: the one that got away
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March 18, 2007 1:46PM PDT
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Marathon 2007: the one that got away

After 2 consecutive years of fog and 4 boxes of white on the clear sky clock starting at 4 AM, I was anticipating a good night’s sleep this year. Conditions started with scant clouds to the north, very slight haze and a small light pollution dome to the north-northwest. Seeing was fair with Saturn wobbling at 200x in my 8” SCT even at transit. But by midnight the Messier’s were blazing away brighter than I’ve ever seen at Anza. Things got even better for second heat at 4 AM with no trace of fog or haze! If previous fog discouraged you from this year’s marathon I encourage you to give it a try next year. http://whwastro.homestead.com/files/m74-800-wide.jpg (Image: M74-the one that got away).

After 20 minutes of wiffing on M74, I saw what appeared to be a stellar object with slight nebulosity surrounding it. A few others observed it through my scope as well. I checked it off and moved on, but as the sky darkened and M77 and M110 improved, I was no longer able to see a trace of M74. Alas, as I think further on this, I wonder if I mistakenly returned to M77, although it’s a bit more diffuse than M74. The jury is still out, but I’m afraid this one got away. Others on the football field also struggled with M74, but with improving conditions, the crowd tore through the rest of the objects with no difficulty (I was using a goto scope).

There were many observing high points for me. Early on there was the complete lower ring of the Orion nebula and sharing the planetary surprise in M46. The moderate seeing made the open clusters shimmer nicely. Mid marathon highlights included the dust lane in the Sombrero (M104), teasing out detail in the cigar galaxy (M82) at high power, the swirls of the whirlpool (M51) with only slightly averted vision. Detail in the Leo triple’s M65 and M66 including the eerie dust lane and nebulosity around 3628 were also nice. Late highlights included dark enough skies to catch M27 as a football rather than a dumbbell, a sharp ring (M27), a very swan-like M17, detail in the Trifid (M20), and M13 blazing away at zenith. Of course the Mark II eyeballs on Orion and the Milky Way deserve mention. Low points included M40, whiffing on M57’s companion galaxy IC 1296, failure to resolve the pillars in M16 (even the nebulosity was difficult except though a wide view through my finder scope), and failure to catch the wedge in M27 with an O-III filter. Looks like I’m going to have to come back this summer.

Few were silly enough to try for globular cluster M30, which cleared the horizon less than an hour before sunrise. With tears in my eyes (from too much light) I wasn’t close to detecting it despite valiant attempts with blue filters and high power eyepieces to darken the background. The highs and lows were shared by those around me: Luigi struggled with collimation issues while Christa and her husband marveled over views through an eyepiece the size of a can of Guinness. The imager’s had their share of fun, struggling over guiding issues or rejoicing at 3 minute unguided 1000 mm. subs.

Non-observing highlights included remembering two big pillows, bringing almost enough clothing to stay warm, and sunglasses to preserve my night vision when checking out real time field of view star charts with my palm pilot planetarium software from http://www.aho.ch/pilotplanets/ (the older version (2.3.1) runs a bit faster on my palm). Low points included my battery dying at midnight--thank goodness for the outlet at the football field—forgetting to bring the Guinness, and the microwave burrito I had for breakfast. Overall it was a great experience for this suburban observer/astrophotographer. If nothing else, the marathon as an “event” forces me to commit to going the extra mile, well more like 120 miles, for dark skies. -Bill Warden (Imaging done 11/06 from Los Alamitos, CA)

Post Script: Don Pensack, an observer at Mt. Pinos noted the darkest skies he’s seen in 40 years…”Why so good? The entire LA basin, SoCal coastline and all of SoCal north to Pyramid Lake was covered with a dense marine layer of clouds over 5000' thick”

This might explain the excellent views. 


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