MESSIER MARATHON, SPRING 2020 (March 21–22) — REPORTS, RESULTS, PHOTOS!

On 21/22 March 2020, several AAA observers planned to do a Messier Marathon at Ward Pound Ridge along with members of the Westchester Amateur Astronomers. Due to our current conditions with the COVID-19 outbreak, the event was canceled. The following messages are from AAA observers that prepared for or attempted the stargazing challenge. Howard and John setup on the designated evening and made an attempt at knocking down the 110 deep sky objects that comprise the Messier catalogue. Peter had been practicing on prior nights but not on the designated night

First report is by John V. Bills, coordinator of the Messier Marathon events. John’s effort brought Electronically Assisted Astronomy (EAA) to bear and was successful with a deliberate and disciplined approach in which 101 objects were attempted with 100 observed.

In addition to contributing the following reports, John Bills has invited you to contribute to the following shared folder:  03212020MessierMarathonPhotos

A link/button OPEN is included with his email to Dark Sky Observing, Astrophotography, and Class 2020 Urban Astrophotography groups.  He says: “I’ll post the remaining rough images of the 100 captured on Saturday in the coming days or weeks.  Clear skies!”

In the second report, Howard shares some notes about his experience. Before encountering clouds, Howard observed brighter objects that the background sky could not hide. He attempted some others but was unable to report them as observed.


JOHN’S REPORT:

First, I hope that all of you are being safe and healthy during this difficult time.  I hope this also provides you with a break from it as I had the good fortune and health to pursue an EAA Messier Marathon.

With the benefit of today’s modern equipment that I use as my portable EAA rig in NYC (thank you Mauri, Alfredo, Stan and the AAA Astrophotography club for all the help in choosing my gear and for inspiring me to do this) I was able to almost fully complete my first EAA Messier Marathon. As far as I know it has not been completed fully and I hope to do this one of these days.

I practiced a few evenings prior to the big event this Saturday, in early evening and early morning sessions to refine my gear and processes, including changing the Pennington List order to better accommodate an EAA Messier Marathon. I would only slightly modify that for my next one. I happened to benefit from much better weather for all but the last morning messier objects. The first half of the evening could not have gone more smoothly. I bagged all the early evening objects by 0109 and then had to wait for the rest to rise…unfortunately, the clouds had other plans. I was able in between breaks in the low clouds to catch objects and was impressed that livestacking penetrated light cloud cover better than I expected.

I found it a wonderful experience seeing so many objects in one night — both Messier and NGC objects. It was a very different one from completing one visually and with manual methods to find.

I observed and captured 100 of the 110 objects. Low clouds came in the early morning and that alone kept me from my goal of 109 (M30 was probably not baggable that night).

In comparison to running a manual, visual observing Messier Marathon, this one was different in many ways, but really pleasurable in different ways:

  1. observed Messier objects in much more detail
  2. noticed so many more galaxies and nebulae near these objects from NGC catalogue
  3. appreciated the night sky and had more time to take that in (albeit with less night-adapted vision)
  4. connected more to the actual objects via the real time images, but more removed from process and joy of observing as I was glued to my laptop, saving files, working sharpcap, etc.
  5. felt guilty for finding things with a click of the button vs. geometric method and/or star hopping with my eyes

I’m in the process of compiling a collage of all of the 100 images/objects, but in advance of that I have attached a link to my Google Drive that has some selected and minimally-processed images with full FOV from my gear (details below). I’ll share it separately with the two Google groups on this e-mail.

To the images attached, I only made a few quick changes in PixInsight, and have not spent the time needed to remove the light gradients, crop the image, etc. to give you a flavor of what I saw in my laptop as these objects amazingly appeared via livestacking in SharpCap. Most were recognizable near instantly after only 4 seconds and sometimes next to a tree, a house or the clouds (as you’ll see on some of these including M57 and M16).

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1PMKO_vO7Xa4TQ6vIlhKB5NSITKFHKQIt

Also, I’ve attached my observing notes below and my completed checklist (did it real time in excel, saved this in pdf for you) with times observed (via SharpCap). The selected images captured will give you a sense for what I saw on the laptop and I’ll include all the raw type images once I complete cycling through those. The collage will be later and probably a bit more finished – to that end, please give me any suggestions for how I might best present all 100 of these!!!

For the most part I limited my time on each object to 3 minutes for galaxies/nebulae, 1 minute for globular clusters and 4-30 seconds for open clusters, less time when the clouds came and when I had made a positive identification of the object via my mental catalogue, SkyChart and/or SkySafariPro 6. So, these are not as beautiful and polished as those you’ll see from our many great astrophotographers collecting hours and even days of data….

Observing Notes:

Crystal clear evening at the start with no minimal wind, 46F, 60% humidity. Temps dropped to 32F, wind picked up to 5-10 knots by 0230 as a cold front with clouds moved in to the area.
Bortle Class 5 with 20.2 SQM, as I was doing an EAA marathon, my adapted vision was not as good nor useful for determining true NELM.

Based on limited data points, -6.6 magnitude and lower were visible, given clarity of Coma Berenices, and generally 5.0 magnitude or higher were visible (my EAA laptop work kept night-adapted vision optimal), though views were glorious in general to my [unaided] eyes, even within the limits on dark-adaptation.
Hardware: WilliamOptics Zenithstar 81 APO doublet refractor, ZWO ASI 294ProMC, Celestron StarPointer Pro, iOptron CubePro (w 8401 HC), WO wedge, manfrotto 190go!, Microsoft Surface Book2 and iPhone 7 Plus

Software: Sharpcap 3.2, Cartes du Ciel (SkyChart), SkySafariPro 6 and ASPS – for capture, mount control and plate solving, as needed

101 Messier objects attempted, 100 observed and captured.

Importantly, I saw and appreciated dozens of NGC objects (mostly galaxies and some nebula, GC and OC as well) which was a real unexpected bonus with the EAA observing.

The preparation and discipline paid off and with good fortune of systems running very smoothly. I had to do one reboot and battery changeout of my mount before the end of the night, but it was only the clouds that kept me from achieving 109 of the capturable objects last night.

I was impressed that livestacking was able to effectively penetrate the low clouds despite 80-95% cloud cover at times, using small breaks and building the image, plus the excellent SharpCap autostretch. This required patience and frequent clearing to work. Although the images from the early morning will not be winning any APOD awards (unless impressionist type images count), but the objects were “baggable”.
[Additional notes, slightly paraphrased]  The focal length is the same for all photos; I made no changes to the optical train, including the orientation from when I started. I subtracted a master dark and a master flat in Sharpcap from the start. It’s a Zenithstar 61, so 61mm of aperture with a 368mm apparent focal length (according to ASPS calcs from images, 360mm according to manufacturer), with the ZWO ASI 294 Pro MC, the FOV is approx. 180’x120′ so nice and wide as you can see. I used NO FILTER as I was going for speedy captures. It was on Long Island, Southampton, at Agawan Lake, in the backyard of a family friend. The largest gradients are from some combination of lights on in the house (until 2am or so), the neighbors’ lights going on/off through the hedges, my own red headlamp and/or laptop and the occasional car headlights on the road from the other side of the lake.

M84/86 is one of my favorites for the evening, given those two wonderful profiles framing them. As I’ve gone through the processing, I’ve noticed even more cool objects.

I did use the counterweight and even with it, it would have been a strain otherwise with flattener and spacers probably just north of 6 lbs and not compact. [iOptron is a great portable mount.] Mauri Rosenthal’s recommended hack, and my modification of it, were helpful in making that work. As a result the tracking was good enough for the 4 or 8-second images I used. There was some wind later and that did make a difference. Also, a few of the images were done without the “Align Images” selected after the “reboot,” so tracking looks a bit off on some.

I never moved the tripod, adjusted anything on the scope, and could have done everything remotely from my laptop (other than the battery replacement), so this could indeed be done indoors. The surface book lasted from 6:30 pm until about midnight on the original charge. One key was that I kept the laptop on my lap and the battery area warm on my lap as much as possible. Once it ran out I used a slim battery inside my coat and it used less than 1/3 of that for the rest of the night — better than I expected for as cold as it was. Frost was forming on my gear by 1am or so, thankfully not on my Z61 as it is well-designed. I did put on dew heaters around 1am.


HOWARD’S REPORT:

I updated the software of my 7” LX200GPS f/15 Mak this afternoon and it was worth the fuss.  I set it up on the roof (UWS Manhattan).  A two-star alignment (Arcturus-Aldebaran) brought every object into the middle of a one-degree field:  56mm Plossl and 2670mm focal length.

The sky cleared out about 10:30pm and clouds started creeping in at midnight along with a chilling breeze. The weather predictions were all in agreement 24 hours earlier for a clear night 6pm-6am.

Observed 11 Messier objects and the double cluster; a half-dozen more were too dim or behind buildings. Summary:  M81 distinct, M82 invisible.  Observed 44,35,36,37,38,13,3,67,53,92.  Could not distinguish 51,101,82,68.


PETER’S REPORT:

I was going to set up a f/6.3 12.5” Newtonian on our building roof deck which is normally open to 10~10:30pm but they closed it down. I abandoned observing from my balcony because of clouds and its limited view to SSW to WNW.

My weather apps, too, forecasted clear sky sunset to sunrise, but clouds moved in mid-afternoon and didn’t clear until after 10. When I peeked later, I saw clouds moving in again.

In the last two weeks, I got the scope out to practice finding and observing M74 and M77 since this scope is new to me. I found the field easily for M74 and telescope limiting magnitude was around magnitude 11, but could not discern the galaxy. Later, after an easy star-hop, I was able to spot M77 but that it was small and very low-contrast. It looked like a fuzzy star adjacent to nearby brighter star.

 

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