Sunday, March 29, 2009

Messier Marathon Madness

Last night was the All-Arizona Messier Marathon. All amateur astronomers know about Charles Messier - a 1700s French comet hunter who, besides discovering over a dozen comets, catalogued 110 of the brightest and most spectacular nebulae, galaxies and clusters in the night time sky. It was realized about 3 decades ago that for a short period in late March, the sun was sufficiently far from them that all of the Messier Objects might be visible on a single night, and the Messier Marathon(MM) was born. The object is to observe all of the objects from sunset to sunrise. It is not a trivial undertaking - a couple of faint galaxies (M74 and M77) must be observed in evening twilight low in the west, and M30 - a star cluster must be found in the rapidly-brightening morning twilight. In between, there is a rush to observe evening objects before they set in the west, navigate your way through the dreaded Virgo cluster of galaxies (dozens of Messier objects scattered among hundreds of galaxies), and a rush to make it through the rising summer Milky Way before twilight starts.

Arizona has become the Mecca for the MM because of the high likelihood of clear skies and relatively warm spring temperatures. In addition, local amateurs were among first to champion the Messier Marathon and a local following has built up over the years. This year there were nearly 100 attempting the feat, the farthest traveling fom Albany, New York (just about the cloudy sky capital of the country!) and nearly that many just along for the evening observing. I counted myself with the latter, but Melinda was doing the competition. The rules permit computerized go-to telescopes, but her advantage was perhaps offset with only 5" of telescope aperture, relatively small for seeing all the objects.

The site is located at The Middle Of Nowhere, Arizona, about 25 miles south of Arizona City. About equal driving distance from major the metropolitan areas of Tucson and Phoenix, it unfortunately has light pollution issues from both, but has a large area to set up with good horizons in all directions.

We arrived by 5pm and got the gear set up early before visiting with our astronomical friends we only see a couple times a year. There was a meeting of marathoners explaining the "rules" right about sunset, then it was game on! Of course, with a go-to scope, where a computer aims the telescope for you - it needs to be aligned properly, which is difficult to do until you can find stars to align to. So while not really getting a late start, Melinda started out by being unable to find those first two galaxies mentioned above. I let her work on her own, while I used the 14" scope to image comet Lulin again, and take some images with a fisheye lens borrowed from Tom Polakis, who had brought it along to the star party at my request. I checked on her occasionally, but after the initial difficulty, she was tearing through the list and by 10pm was nearly halfway done! I took a self-portrait imaging the comet with the winter Milky Way hanging low in the west, and another of Melinda with Orion looking on.

Finally, about midnight, she was out of objects to observe - was waiting for them to rise in the east, so we laid down in the back of the van for a nap. When rising an hour later, some thin clouds had moved in from the south that would hound us through the rest of the night. Melinda made remarkable progress though, until M10 - evidently there was an error in the telescope data base - it kept slewing to an imaginary object below the horizon. With the clouds in the sky, it was difficult to find without aid. I eventually picked it out in binoculars, and used a laser pointer to guide her to the spot where she found it. After another nap cycle, she had less than a dozen objects to go, but also thicker clouds with which to contend. Finally it was down to the cluster M30 as twilight started in the east. If trying counted, she would have seen it, but between the clouds and growing dawn, it wasn't spotted. So with that missing entry and the two initial galaxies, she nabbed 107 of the 110 objects - a great first effort! While hoping for a small plaque to mount on the telescope (awarded to the top 3 places), at the registration table, she found out that several had seen all 110, some 109 and some 108, so she was "just out of the money" and will have to settle for a certificate. We hit the road for home and were in bed by 8:30 or so.

While she can't think of repeating it soon, another time and with a little more light gathering power and she will likely increase her count. She did great!

1 comment:

ratskrad said...

Glad to see you both had fun at AAMM. Nice job on finding 107 objects Melinda.