Great Strides with Messier Marathons

As the skies above an abandoned airfield in Arizona slowly lightened from a midnight blue, the same skies that had just revealed the last few globular clusters rising in the east, the bluish tones turned maddeningly to yellow, as I waited, not so patiently, for M30. This globular cluster was the last object to complete my Messier Marathon (observing all 110 Messier objects in one night).

John’s gallery of photos

My scope was pointed to the point on the horizon where M30 would rise, as marked by its locator stars in Capricorn, my hopes and M30 were washed out by the brightness of the pale yellow morning sky.

Credit: John V. Bills
Observing location: Salome Emergency Airfield

The disappointment of the morning moment was far exceeded by the thrill and satisfaction of preparing for, hunting down and taking in 109 Messier objects in one night, many for the first time ever! This was a final exam of sorts for me from a series of preparations and observing sessions made in the cold skies of Anthony Wayne and Southampton in February and early March. I had made significant strides as a star hopping observer in a short period of time, gaining comfort and honing my observing skills with my Williams Z61, Celestron Starpointer Pro, Stellarvue M2C mount and SkySafari Pro app. In three sessions, I had been unable to discern many of the fainter galaxies and nebulae with my chosen small aperture. Would I be able to discern them in the darker skies expected in Arizona?

Intrigued by the idea of urban observing programs or projects after reading The Urban Astronomer’s Guide: A Walking Tour of the Cosmos for City Sky Watchers by Rod Mollise, I decided to complete all of the Messier objects, amongst other programs he listed, over time. As it became clear this “spring” would allow me schedule flexibility I wanted to go for the marathon. In late January I made the decision to prepare for and attempt it, here in the NYC area and travel to a darker sky site at lower latitudes to take on this challenge. I wanted to do it with a telescope that was equivalent to the one Charles Messier used to discover and catalogue most of the objects.

credit: Jeff Williams
John aligns his finder at Anthony Wayne Rec Area, 10 March 2018

With this goal, I emailed the dark sky observing group of AAA on January 28th about my intentions and asked for guidance and interest by others in taking on this challenge. Thankfully there was a good response that provided ideas on where to go and ultimately a great, and incredibly valuable time spent at Anthony Wayne with several fellow AAA observers, including Peter Tagatac, Howard Fink, Irene Pease, Jeff Williams and Andrew Godlewski. Our attempt on March 10th to complete the marathon would begin with promise but clouds ruled out much of the viewing between 2000 and 0030, however, the opportunity to see how others set up their “offices,” to change and streamline my own processes and equipment, and to hone the geometric method and/or starhopping to the most difficult objects on the list under challenging conditions would prove invaluable to my later success in Arizona.

In early February I also contacted Kevin Koziel, who heads the Messier Marathon for the Saguaro Astronomy Club in Arizona, he offered up that even in advance of its marathon event the airfield would be a safe place and might even have a member or two join during the weekdays I would be there. Alone in the deserted airfield it was a welcome sight to see an RV pull up next to me in the abandoned airfield and meet Joe and Pat Goss. Joe was a veteran of 20 marathons at this site and would be a great companion for stargazing – he with his 10” refractor and go to scope (he left his 14” refractor at home) was a very serious observer of galaxies, having observed over 879 different galaxies in Virgo including one at 15.2 magnitude. He had never star hopped and wasn’t changing that this evening. It provided quite a contrast to my approach – he enjoyed the observing and that is where he spent his time.

This deeply satisfying endeavor further strengthened my interest in visual observing in urban and and dark skies! I aspire now to complete all 110 next year and complete a binocular only marathon under truly dark skies. I also am excited to complete one around NYC (likely requiring more aperture). Perhaps an AAA event in central park, from the top of a Manhattan high rise or elsewhere would provide a fun DSO observing event to see just how many can be had in Manhattan…

Clear Skies!!!