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Astronomy's March Madness

By Milt Wilcox

April 1, 2003

Saturday night, March 29, 2003 was my second Messier marathon and we had a turnout of about 18 people at the Two Trees site off 89A between Sedona and Cottonwood. Most were from other clubs around northern AZ, but Doug Ostroski showed up with me to brave the elements. Many observers were using digital setting circles or go-to scopes that allowed them to get ahead of the game, thereby allowing warm up and napping time. I struggled along with my 1x red-dot finder, thermos of coffee and double chocolate brownies.

              Wish our images were as clear



              Elliptical Galaxy M87

           Anglo-Australian Telescope

              Photograph by David Malin

              Anglo-Australian Telescope Board



For those of you who haven't tried a marathon, the object of course is to find as many M's as you can in one night. You spend your first 45 minutes or so pointing the scope at dim objects like M77, M74, M33, and M110 just above the western horizon and trying to convince yourself that you can see them. I couldn't, at least in my 4" refractor. At least one guy with a larger scope did confirm them and went on to view all 110 objects.

When I had confirmed about ten M's, Doug came by and announced he was taking a break after his 30th something. I hadn't even gotten into the Virgo galaxy cluster when he announced he had found everything he could at that hour. About this point I started cursing the friend who started me star hopping (but in fairness he also gave me a Machholz Messier guide). I finally caught up with most everything I could find at 2:20AM, at which point I was freezing and falling-down tired. Called it a night at 88 M's, which was 30 better than my 2001 total. Doug later reported that he viewed the same number, but he had left two hours earlier!

I am starting to appreciate the subtleties in eyepiece selection for my 4" scope. For the marathon I only brought 22x and 60x EP's, the former to help find objects and the latter for small fuzzies. Since the scope balanced the same with both, it also allowed me to unscrew the clutches on the equatorial mount for easier sky panning. This plan worked great until I got into the Virgo cluster. 22x didn't knock down the background glow enough to find most of the galaxies, and 60x, while giving nice contrast, didn't have enough field-of-view (FOV) to keep track of where I was. So I struggled more than I might have with an in-between EP (numb hands and mind probably contributed, too).

There are definite ebbs and flows in Messier marathons for star hoppers. At times, it seemed like a knock-down fight finding each new M, like some open clusters that should have been easy. Then, I would have a string of successes and knock off a dozen in a row. It was this way when I finally finished the Virgo Cluster and got into the globulars.

If nothing else, it reacquainted me with some great deep space objects (DSO's) that I haven't seen for awhile. I plan to re-tour the Messier list on a regular basis. But not all in one night!

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