Chariots of Photons (confessions of a Messier Marathoner)

A Messier Marathon? What a silly idea! Isn't that some kind of competitive thing where you have to knock yourself out in a whirlwind tour ("If this is 11:20, this must be M97") where you don't get time to enjoy looking at any object before rushing on to the next? And how'd I let myself get talked into trying it?

The March 8, 1997 TAC ( Messier Marathoners arrived at Henry Coe park in Morgan Hill, California in rare clear weather, which turned cloudy and windy as sunset approached. Spirits remained high, though, among the 25-plus marathoners as we searched the northeastern horizon for the first sign of Comet Hale-Bopp, a welcome beginning and ending to this year's Marathon. Eventually an LX200 owner took pity on all the poor binocular users and located the comet the high-tech way. The evening Hale-Bopp is still unimpressive compared to its morning appearance, but its sight was welcomed by a horde of astronomers eager to stop getting up at 5am to follow Hale-Bopp's development.

Soon the sky darkened, the clouds and wind vanished, and the Marathon began. I was using my 6" f/8 Cave reflector on a homebuilt Dobsonian mount, set up next to a friend using a 14" Dobsonian. We had spent the previous few weeks heatedly debating the impact of aperture when performing a Messier marathon; based on the results, I think the conclusion is that it doesn't make much difference, and that nearly any instrument is suitable for viewing Messier objects. (I suppose we all knew that anyway.) Equipment used at this TAC Marathon ranged from handheld binoculars to a one-day-old 18" Obsession seeing first light.

The one object for which aperture may have helped was M74, which I was unable to find in the evening twilight with the 6". Once the sky darkened, the rest of the early Messier objects were easy, and we had plenty of time to talk, share views of the same object through different instruments, and compare notes on finding objects. I had recently added a Daisy unit-power sight to my 6"'s usual 6x30 finder, and I was struck by the way some objects were much easier to locate with the reflex sight, while some were much easier using a magnifying finder. It's definitely worthwhile to have both options available.

Coe isn't a particularly dark site, with the lights of San Jose in direct view to the northwest and to the southwest, but this was a good night, with the zodiacal light visible and excellent transparency, and even in the 6", the Messier galaxies in Leo and Virgo were accompanied by a host of fainter NGC neighbors. At one point, I counted seven galaxies visible in one roughly 1-degree field in the 6".

Identifying the galaxies, of course, is the trick, and several hours were spent galaxy-hopping through Virgo and Coma Berenices. Teamwork proved helpful at this point; I became stuck on M90, and some suggestions for different approaches, as well as some moral support, helped. (Taking a short break to eat something and go paw and drool on, I mean look through, the 18" Obsession helped as well.) A Messier Marathon would be pretty grim as a solo endeavor, but it's fun as a team exercise. Galaxy hopping is interesting and fun, though sometimes frustrating.

It's especially frustrating when your flashlight batteries run out halfway through Virgo and you haven't had the foresight to bring spares. It doesn't help when, after a good samaritan offers you some double-A's, you somehow manage to break the flashlight bulb in the process of changing batteries. Fortunately another good samaritan was more prepared than I, and loaned me his extra flashlight. I'll be better prepared with a spare next time.

Near the end of the Virgo ordeal, someone called out that he'd found Omega Centauri, and several of us trooped over to look. I'd been looking forward to seeing NGC 5128 (Centaurus A, the elliptical galaxy with the odd dust lane and the strong radio emissions), which I'd seen as a teenager from the southern California desert, but not since. 5128 is farther north than Omega Cen, so I lugged my 'scope over to a spot with a clearer southern horizon (there are some definite advantages to small telescopes) and tried. Finding it was easy; seeing detail in the 6" in an object so low on the horizon was not. Later, it was found in several larger 'scopes which showed more detail, and was dubbed the "Hamburger Galaxy".

Scorpius and then Sagittarius rose, to a chorus of coyotes singing to each other several ridges west of us. We wondered whether, like ourselves, they were waiting for Hale-Bopp, as we scanned the northeastern hillsides with binoculars in between checking off Messier globulars.

One binocular searcher finally called out that he thought he saw Hale-Bopp's tail rising. He was ridiculed by everyone else: obviously the bright light he saw was a headlight from a car headed down from some other part of the park, or even a searchlight. We'd all seen Hale-Bopp from town, and knew that it couldn't possibly have a tail that looked like a searchlight beam. But the "searchlight beam" was indeed Hale-Bopp, and what a sight from dark skies! The jet structure of the nucleus is clearly visible to the naked eye; the overall brightness exceeds Deneb's; I traced out over twenty degrees of tail with my 8x42 binoculars; and the helical structure was fabulous at high magnification (the best view I saw was in an 18" Dob).

I, like many other observers present, abandoned the Marathon at this point to concentrate on Hale-Bopp. Every instrument and every magnification gives a different and equally wonderful view of this comet, and I had photographs to take, as well. By the time I was able to wrest my attention from the comet, twilight had begun -- and in less than ten minutes, the sky was so bright that no one save the DSC owners were able to find any remaining objects. (M30 was too low even for the DSC observers.)

Score: 102 Messier objects found, 8 objects missed (one in evening twilight, the rest in morning twilight); one hamburger galaxy; one world-class comet; lots of photographs (as yet unseen), one great night of observing and camaraderie, and no regrets about the objects missed in order to watch Hale-Bopp.

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