1996 March 18, Messier Marathon

Every year, around the Vernal Equinox, amateur astronomers have their best shot at seeing all 110 of the objects in the Messier catalog in a single night. Despite years of deep-sky observing, I had never "run" a Messier Marathon before, so I figured I'd give it a shot in 1996.

This was a spur-of-the-moment decision (one of the things you can get away with when you're just out to have fun). When St. Patrick's Day dawned clear, I decided to do a Messier Marathon as well as observe Comet Hyakutake 2.

First, I needed a good, nearby site. In Portland, finding one isn't easy, especially after the Flood of '96. I got a list of sites from the Rose City Astronomers via the Web. The road to the top of Larch Mountain was closed, Yale Lake didn't sound that good, and the Goat Mountain South Fork site would probably be inaccessible. My remaining option was listed as the Old Goat Mountain site. I grabbed my gear and headed off. I was forced into a detour due to flood washouts, but was able to get to the access road. The road to the lower site was gated, so I couldn't go there. There was a lot of traffic on the road; unfortunately, the observing site seemed to be a hangout for target shooters. I stopped one mile from the site, chose a well-placed hillside, and set up my little 60mm refractor there.

A 60mm refractor (alias: " department store telescope" or "small telescope", is pretty small for a Messier Marathon. Most people wouldn't give it a chance, but I've seen all of the Messier objects with it before. In a perfect sky at a lower latitude, I might have had a chance. At my current location, I handicapped myself thus:

I listed 13 objects as difficult or impossible. Therefore, I figured I should bag at least 97 objects. Excluding M74 and M30, 108 objects would be perfect. I decided that I would shoot for at least 100 objects.

After setting everything up, I waited for the sky to get dark. At 3:25 UT (7:25pm March 17, Local Time), I found the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) with binoculars. In the telescope, M32 was just a faint fuzz at the edge of the field. The sky was still too bright to see M110, and I realized that I needed to get down to M77 quickly. The western horizon was elevated, and a bit of skyglow from Portland was visible. I swept the area around M77, and needed a bit of time to get oriented in the bright sky. I found the galaxy just before it went behind a tree. By this time, M31 was getting low, so I tried to find its companion galaxy M110 again. No luck. Maybe I could make out a fuzz, but maybe I was imagining things. I took my eye away and found the galaxy M33 with binoculars and the open cluster M52 with the telescope before again turning to the field in question. I jiggled the telescope and used averted vision, and finally M110 came into view. Phew!!! That was a close one!

After this, my observing was not as rushed. Dew formed on my telescope, but went away after a little bit. In the interim, I picked up some of the brighter objects with binoculars. When the sky was darkest, the naked-eye limit was about 6.6 at the zenith.

My observing went as shown below. Instruments: T=60mm Telescope, B=7x35 binoculars, E=Naked Eye. Local Time=1996 March 17-18, Pacific Standard Time (GMT-8h).

No. Object Instrument(s) Local Time Notes
1. M31 B,T,E 19:25
2. M32 T 19:25
3. M77 T 19:34 Low but easy
4. M33 B 19:35 Dim in binoculars
5. M52 B,T 19:42
6. M110 T 19:54 Very difficult in bright sky
7. M45 E,B 19:55
8. M76 T 19:58
9. M34 B,T,E 20:00
10. M79 T 20:10
11. M42 E,B,T 20:11
12. M43 T 20:11
13. M78 T 20:14
14. M1 T 20:17
15. M41 E,B,T 20:17
16. M50 B,T,E 20:20
17. M103 B,T 20:25
18. M93 B,T,E 20:29
19. M47 E,B,T 20:30
20. M46 B,T,E 20:30
21. M37 B 20:31
22. M36 B 20:31
23. M38 B,E 20:31 Faintly visible naked-eye
24. M35 E,B 20:33
25. M44 E,B 20:34
26. M48 B,E 20:35
27. M67 E,B 20:37
28. M97 T 20:51
29. M108 T 20:51
30. M109 T 21:04 Required averted vision
31. M81 T,B 21:12
32. M82 T,B 21:12 Impressive at 79x

(Food Break)

No. Object Instrument(s) Local Time Notes
33. M66 T 21:50
34. M65 T 21:50
35. M96 T 21:56
36. M95 T 21:56
37. M105 T 21:56 NGC 3384 also visible

(Comet Hyakutake rose at 22:06, so I looked at it for awhile)

No. Object Instrument(s) Local Time Notes
38. M101 T 22:20
39. M51 T 22:24 w/N.5195, very nice!!!
40. M106 T 22:27
41. M63 T 22:28
42. M94 T 22:32
43. M53 B,T 22:35
44. M64 T 22:39
45. M104 T 22:52 Thin, bright sliver
46. M61 T 22:54 Bright, large
47. M49 T 22:55

(Now, for the very heart of the Virgo Cluster. I was aided by the map on pp. 42-43 of the May 1994 issue of Sky and Telescope and found the next 10 objects between 23:00 and 23:29, all telescopically.)

No. Object Instrument(s) Local Time Notes
48. M60 T 23:00
49. M59 T
50. M58 T
51. M89 T
52. M90 T Large, dim
53. M87 T
54. M86 T NGC 4435 and 4438 also visible
55. M84 T
56. M88 T
57. M91 T 23:29 Dimmest of the bunch, but fairly easy
58. M99 T 23:35
59. M98 T 23:38 Best I have seen it with this scope. Thin, elong. N/S
60. M85 T 23:43
61. M100 T 23:47
62. M68 T 23:50
63. M40 T 23:56 The M object that is a double star

(Another Food Break, and problems finding M102)

No. Object Instrument(s) Local Time Notes
64. M83 T 0:54 Surprisingly bright and very large!
65. M102 T 1:00 Passed over this a couple of times; pretty dim
66. M5 B,T,E 1:05
67. M13 E,B,T 1:06
68. M92 B,T,E 1:07
69. M3 B,T,E 1:08
70. M10 B,T 1:09
71. M12 B,T 1:09
72. M14 B,T 1:23
73. M107 T 1:25
74. M57 T 1:30
75. M56 T 1:32
76. M27 B,T 1:36
77. M80 T 1:38
78. M29 B,T 1:42
79. M39 E,B 1:43 Very pretty in binoculars

(A break for extended study of Comet 1996 B2!)

No. Object Instrument(s) Local Time Notes
80. M4 T,B 2:18
81. M9 T 2:22
82. M71 T 2:25
83. M19 T 2:30
84. M11 B,T 2:49
85. M26 B,T 2:51
86. M24 E,B,T 2:52
87. M18 B,T 2:54
88. M17 B,T 2:54
89. M16 T,B 2:54
90. M23 T,B 2:55

(My second and last set of flashlight batteries started fading, so I quit taking time notes on every object. I was pretty much picking them all off the eastern horizon by this time.)

No. Object Instrument(s) Local Time Notes
91. M8 E,B,T Obvious while it rose
92. M20 B,T
93. M21 E,B,T
94. M25 E,B
95. M22 B,E,T
96. M28 T
97. M6 E,B,T Neat cluster for binoculars
98. M62 T

(A break while I viewed the OTHER Comet Hyakutake, C/1995 Y1. The comet was magnitude 8.5 and 7' across, easily seen in my 60mm at 36x.)

No. Object Instrument(s) Local Time Notes
99. M7 E,B Obvious as it rose; partially resolved with naked eye
100. M15 B,T

(A LONG wait for the objects in Southern Sagittarius, perhaps an hour away from being visible. I realized that these would be difficult at best - 3:54)

No. Object Instrument(s) Local Time Notes
101. M2 B,T
102. M69 T

(Uh, oh... Can't find M70 and twilight is here - sometime around 4:45)
(Can't see M72 or M73. M75 isn't there yet. M55 is way below the horizon.)

No. Object Instrument(s) Local Time Notes
103. M54 T Small, high surface brightness

(Last ditch efforts for M70, M72, and M73. I know the objects are there, but the sky is just too bright and hazy. I throw in the towel at 5:14, when the sky is very bright indeed.)

So, all in all, I did pretty well with 103 objects logged. The only one I missed in the evening was M74. The morning sky was more of a problem. A perfectly flat horizon would have given me another half hour or so, which probably would be all I needed for M70, M72, M73, and M75. M55 was just too far South.

A Messier Marathon can be fast-paced at times. I recommend that any deep-sky observer thoroughly learn and sketch all of the Messier objects over a relaxed time period before attempting the Marathon. I found that the Marathon sharpened my object-location skills and made me more familiar with my telescope. Next time, I will definitely have an extra set of flashlight batteries and a dew cap for my telescope. I will probably also plan ahead and make a journey out to Central Oregon (weather permitting) where I can have clear horizons in all directions. It might also be interesting to see how many other deep-sky objects one can find on the same night--some year in the future when we're not blessed with a spectacular comet!

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