The Great Red Spot

The Great Red Spot
Ok, I wish I took this picture, but it is actually a Hubble image of Jupiter. Incredible isn't it?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Messier Marathon

March is upon us and that means it is Messier Marathon time.  For the uninitiated (likely none of you), it is an attempt to master the art of finding astronomical objects and find the entire catalog of Charles Messier in one night.  While a good percentage can be found on any given night, the days around the new moon in March present the best opportunity to bag all of them in one night. 

Now living in a very light polluted area, it is very difficult for me to find all but the very brightest from my backyard without computer assistance.  It usually takes me a considerable number of tries to localize any of the major objects in the field of view of my telescope on the nearly starless skies that are over my house.  By the time I find 3 to 4 of them, my enthusiasm has waned and I go back to checking out the planets or other easier targets.  Under dark skies, it is a different issue.  Having guide stars and skies that look even a little like the star atlas makes finding objects fun if not tiring. 

Last year, my club, the Brazos Valley Astronomy Club, hosted a Messier Marathon and I was lucky enough to join them.  I went for the experience and a chance to see more of the sky than I had ever seen before.  Since I had so little experience star hopping or finding objects geometrically, I decided to cheat from the start.  I would use GOTO and see how may objects I could see in one night.  This degree of cheating is the equivalent of riding a motorcycle in a bicycle race.  It totally defeats the purpose.  Or not.  The idea of the Marathon is to have fun and fun was had.

I started the evening by myself tracking down objects with good success.  I could not capture M74, the first object of the evening because the sky was still too bright and I did not know what I was looking for.  But after that, the trusty computer brought object after object into view.  What a blast!  As the night wore on, I started to collect other club members at my scope who had tired of their hunting and wanted the easy way out.  As the list of objects seen got longer, the numbers of scopes remaining became fewer and fewer until but 2 am there were only 2 scopes still up, mine and the scope of a member who was doing a proper Marathon.  But 4 am, everything was coated with ice as the temperature dropped.  As the dawn came, the last object M30, also proved elusive because of some poorly placed trees.  However, this was undoubtedly the best evening I ever spent at the scope and only whetted my appetite for doing a proper Marathon.

This year I started by purchasing a proper guidebook.  I opted for The Year-Round Messier Marathon by Harvard Pennington.  It is an excellent guide to this endeavor.  I studied the diagrams and read the recommendations.  I spent some time under my light polluted skies at home learning the constellations.  Another invaluable aid in this project has been my iPhone!  There are excellent apps on the iPhone that really help with night sky navigation.  My favorite is StarMapPro.  With it you are able to point at the sky and it tells you what you are looking at.  Incredible!  With it, I have learned the constellations better than I ever knew them before.    I however failed to get some reasonable dark sky practice finding those faint fuzzies.  This will surely present a problem on Marathon night when one needs to find to identify objects with considerable speed. 

I opted to use my Celestron CPC1100 over my vintage Celestron 8.  The C8 is nimble and will have a wider field of view but the CPC1100 will be driven and I think that will be important in the hunt.

This year I do not have aspirations of finding all of the objects.  In fact if I find half of them, I will consider it a great victory.  However, with the awful weather we have been having, I think expectations need to be lowered and I will have to be happy if we have the opportunity to observe one object.  One object or 110, I know it will be a great time.

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