Syracuse Astronomical Society President’s Message For March, 2009 – The Messier Marathon Edition

A repost of the original at the Syracuse Astronomical Society website with a brief overview of our upcoming (weather-permitting) Messier Marathon.

Greetings Fellow Astrophiles!

This newsletter comes to you after a short run within the last ten days of almost perfect viewing conditions (ignoring the cold, of course, with the Vesper air reaching the high teens for long durations on a few occasions). We are now officially entering the SAS viewing season, with scheduled New Moon Public Viewing sessions until November (we will see how that plays out) and, we hope, many dark, clear nights in between.

The First Few “Unofficial” 2009 Sessions

The beginning of the viewing year at Darling Hill began this past March 13th, with Observatory Directory Ray Dague and I braving the Vesper elevation and residual ice at the driveway base to check the location and attempt some viewing on what turned out to be a crystal clear night. Despite all efforts (including an outside climb and feet-on-walls pulling. We undertook quite the comical effort just to put eyepieces in), the frozen Observatory roof decided it was too early to “officially” open. We settled for trusty binoculars, plenty of power for Messier warm-up searches and, high above in Gemini, Comet Lulin (which we had to double-check was not NGC 2420).

Board members frozen as stiff as boards.
From left: J. McMahon, J. Funk, D. Allis, G. Sigworth. Photo by Raymond Dague.

Additional viewing sessions/board meetings (such as the one captured above on March 20th) were just as clear and just as busy (but included an open Observatory roof!), due in no small part to just how infrequently we in CNY are able to make it outside during the winter for any viewing sessions because of both the cold above and, in the case of Darling Hill, driveway accessibility. For those who wanted to keep track, last year had nine scheduled public viewing sessions and only THREE that were clear enough to be productive. We are already well on our way to a record year and only hope that the gas prices remain low to keep the continual driving to Tully as inexpensive as possible. And, speaking of records…

Messier Marathon

Our early April 2008 Messier Marathon at Darling Hill was a complete overcast wash, with two hours of patience revealing three stars (we used the time to talk about gear, which itself is never a bad thing). It would be difficult to imagine a worse situation that didn’t include precipitation. With cautious optimism for the weekend, we now print out check lists and list object pages in our favorite star charts for MM-2009.

A Brief Overview

We are often visited at the Hill by people who may have heard of the “Mn” designation for an object in the Night Sky but do not know specifically what it refers to. If you’re learning about Messier objects in the context of a website post about the Marathon, then you may think the Marathon to be some kind of celestial relay race between fuzzy patches. Briefly, here are the 5 W-H’s about Messier and the Marathon.

Courtesy Thierry Lombry, www.astrosurf.com/lombry.

Who: The marathon owes its existence to Charles Messier who, by all accounts (and to the best of my google efforts), never engaged in what he would have simply referred to as “The Me Marathon.” Messier was a famed French comet hunter (the search for comets in the 17th and 18th centuries was THE original “Space Race,” as such discoveries were sure to bring fame and prestige) who, with his assistant Pierre Méchain, catalogued what we know today as the Messier Objects specifically because he wanted to avoid these confusing objects in his cometary searches. Yes, the man who dedicated his life to finding comets is now best known for the catalogue of non-comets he generated. C’est la vie.

What: The Messier Objects are simply a collection of clusters, nebulae, and galaxies that are visible through binoculars and low-power telescopes (and some are naked-eye objects). In effect, they are a collection of the “closest of the bright objects” that one might confuse with a comet, with the “closest/brightest” set including clusters and nebulae within the Milky Way and many galaxies far beyond our spiral arms. As massive, distant, and bright objects, they are stationary in the sky, making them easy for Messier to catalogue in his comet hunting efforts and, for us, making them useful guide posts both for their identification from Constellation markers and for the identification of far fainter objects based on proximity. There are 110 counted Messier Objects but, according to Pierre Méchain himself, only 109 actual objects, as M101 and M102 (the Pinwheel Galaxy) are the result of double-counting (on the bright side, when you’ve found it once, you’ve found it twice!). While the majority of the list goes back to Messier’s time, the last object added, M110, was included in 1960.

Charles Messier (1730 – 1817). Click HERE for more info.

Covering the second important “what,” the Messier Marathon is simply a fun way to see how well you know the “photons in your neighborhood… the ones you don’t know you see each night.”

Where: Up! Well, more specifically, up in the Northern Hemisphere. As a French astronomer, Messier’s catalogue contains only objects observable from his Observatory. Accordingly, all 110 objects are visible from Northern Latitudes. That means that (1) a multitude of objects in the Southern Hemisphere that WOULD have made the Messier list are not included because he simply could not point his scope into the ground to look at them and (2) those in the Southern Hemisphere do not engage in Messier Marathons as much as they engage in Messier Sprints, as they have fewer objects to identify (and, the further South they are, the shorter their list is).

The Pinwheel Galaxy (M101 – 102)

When: Members of the Messier list grace our skies all year, with nearly every Constellation visible in the Northern Hemisphere hosting at least one object. Only two things in the Night Sky can obscure Messier objects. The first of these is “whatever else you want to see” that keeps you from looking for the Messiers. The second is the Moon, which can, in fact, obscure the Messier objects considerably (those that are naked-eye Messiers then require binoculars to see, those that are binocular Messiers then require either patience or higher power).

There is one reasonably broad “sweet spot” in the calendar year during which it is POSSIBLE to see every Messier object, with the rotation of the Earth responsible for bringing the entire list to your tripod. This is, of course, only possible because clouds, the irregularity of the horizon (such as our trees to the South and Syracuse to our North), and your ability to remain awake all factor considerably in your success. This time of year is mid-March through early April.

Why: For the reason for the catalogue, see the “What.” For the reason for the Marathon, well, why not? Despite some criticism of the Marathon you can find online, the Marathon provides a way for amateur astronomers to test their memorization of positions in the Night Sky and, important to those of us in CNY, pull out our optics and dust off our notebooks after two or three winter months of missed practice. Again, the Messiers are not simply a set of goals for an observing session, they are invaluable tools as guide posts for the identification of other objects. If the Constellations are “feet” in an astronomical ruler, their associated stars and the nearby Messier Objects serve as the “inches.”

How: An experienced Messier hunter can find the complete set of objects in a pair of 10×50 binoculars. As the goal to some Marathoners is “quantity, not quality,” a low-power pair of binoculars are best for both speed and movement (although your neck will begin to object to objects at your zenith). If I may sneak in a “tortoise and hare” comparison, there’s nothing wrong with finding 20 objects and enjoying the view. You have ALL YEAR to complete your Marathon. They’re not going anywhere!

For the CNY SAS Members: If your goal is to spend from 8:00 pm to midnight outside, your best luck with Messier hunting by binoculars (that is, listing objects that will result in the least amount of neck fatigue) will find you pointing to the south to Orion (M42, M43, M78), Taurus (home of the naked-eye Pleiades, M45, and the Crab Nebula, M1), Canis Major (home of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, and M41), Puppis (just to the left of Canis Major and home to M46, M47, M93), and Leo (far to your Southeast, home of M65, M66, and M96).

The North provides a plethora of objects as well, but the glow from Syracuse makes observing a bit more problematic. The Andromeda Galaxy and its Messier companions (M31, M32, M110) in Cassiopeia and the Dumbell Nebula (M76) and Triangulum Galaxy (M33) in Triangulum disappear quite quickly from view after 8:00 pm behind our high northwest tree line, so come early if you want to see them! Waiting out the tree line to our northeast (after about 9:30 pm), Ursa Major and Canes Venatici mark the locations of (from west to east) M82, M81, M108, M97, M109, M40, M106, M101, M51, M63, M94, and M3. As you can see, with limited fatigue on your neck in a pair of handheld binoculars, you can do a considerable amount of checking-off of the Messier objects in very short order and still go to sleep on schedule. I will have my trusty 6″ Newtonian “Stu-Special” in tow, and I’m sure several others will have scopes to complement the Observatory Cave if the weather holds out. Online lists and sky charts abound, but I assume any astronomy book you have will contain sky charts and Messier locations. Don’t forget a red flashlight.

For those who missed them the first time, you might have a chance to see the Andromeda galaxy and her companions again before 6:30 am. For the hardcore observers, you might even be able to cross them off your list twice, although the tree line to our northeast will likely make it quite difficult. We may have to move the party to higher ground!

For more info on the Marathon and Viewing Tips, see www.avastronomyclub.org/observing/messier/marathon_tips.htm and www.robhawley.net/mm/, or simply google “Messier Marathon.”

Space is the place,
Damian Allis, Ph.D.
sas@somewhereville.com

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Moon
www.daguelaw.com
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gemini_(constellation)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C/2007_N3
seds.org/~spider/ngc/ngc.cgi?2420
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tully_(town),_New_York
seds.lpl.arizona.edu/messier/Xtra/marathon/marathon.html
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_marathon
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Messier
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Mechain
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_object
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binoculars
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telescopes
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milky_Way
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constellation
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_110
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_hemisphere
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Hemisphere
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messier_marathon#Criticism_of_Messier_Marathons
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zenith
www.syracuse.ny.us
www.skymaps.com/downloads.html
www.avastronomyclub.org/observing/messier/marathon_tips.htm
www.robhawley.net/mm

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