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,

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 and, or simply google "Messier Marathon."

Space is the place,
Damian Allis, Ph.D.

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes),_New_York

Syracuse Astronomical Society President's Message for June, 2008

A repost of the original at the Syracuse Astronomical Society website.

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

We find ourselves approaching the first Society Meeting/Public Viewing of the Summer with (finally!) an excellent Spring viewing session behind us. And it has been a very busy 20+ days for our tax dollars since our last meeting, some of which I've tried to summarize (with pictures, of course) below. We find ourselves on the verge of another Summer Seminar that we're in the process of planning out for late August. In even better news, the SAS regulars for the Public Viewing sessions have found themselves in the company of some new members and new scopes.

While timing and our usual Spring weather conditions have not been ideal for some member-specific "on call" outings (I've explained to new members that "on call" refers to being ready at a moment's notice to drop evening plans to take in a good observing night, which happen so infrequently that you risk missing a rare golden opportunity if you don't scoot up to Darling Hill when the email or bulletin board post shows up), we remain optimistic that a few reasonable nights lie ahead when we can splurge on the petrol to get us all to Darling Hill for some much needed observing.

Looking at this month's top story…

Let Us Get The Mars News Out Of The Way…

May 25th (the day after our Saturday public viewing on the 24th, which was quite well attended and included plenty of talk about the events of the next day) saw the successful landing of the Phoenix Mars Lander at 125.74922W 68.21883N (or that's where it looked like through my 25×100 binoculars), in the Mars North Polar Region. This is significant for a number of reasons.

1. This is the first of the Mars Scout Missions, which mark a shift at NASA towards low-cost/high-gain exploratory projects (an important selling point in the current economy, where science is definitely feeling the same budget pinches as everyone else).
2. This is only the 6th successful Mars landing out of a total of 12 missions (with the U.S. responsible for 7 of those total 12). Well, 12 acknowledged by various space administrations. Well, 12 from Earth anyway…
3. This has been just about the most exhaustively documented mission to Mars by spacecraft currently orbiting the Red Planet, using cutting edge technology to follow the progress of cutting edge technology. The results have been remarkable.

The spectacular photos from this mission began right from the capsule descent into the Martian atmosphere…

Decent of the Phoenix Lander from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
From Click for a larger view.

…continued with a photo taken of the Phoenix Lander from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

The Mars Phoenix Lander from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
From…lander-topviewcolor2-427.jpg. Click for a larger view.

…and culminated this past week with the first official confirmation of water (a before-and-after of disappearing ice, but we'll take it) just below the surface.

Water ice on Mars! From Click for a larger view.

And, of course, where there is/was water, there is/was the most important component of conditions necessary for biological processes AS WE KNOW THEM to occur. The lab-in-a-ship facilities on Phoenix will also test some of the other conditions (basic organic molecules).

But wait! There's more!

I was quite pleased to stumble upon a "Big Picture" post at highlighting some of the best images and animations from Mars both on the ground and high in orbit. All are available from various NASA pages, but not so perfectly grouped and cropped.

A little perspective. Earth and Moon from Mars. Series at Click for a larger view.

First Twice The Size, Now Half As Many Arms

While our Milky Way has remained exactly the same, our understanding of it has undergone quite a makeover this year. In the March/April message, I made mention of researchers at the University of Sydney discovering that the Milky Way is twice as wide as previous determined. Now, researchers analyzing Spitzer Space Telescope data have determined that our previously four-armed Milky Way galaxy is down to a very familiar two. Just like that, the common model changes, waiting for new data to confirm or alter what we think we know about our own galaxy. It makes a scientist feel good to know that there's plenty, plenty we still don't even know about our own backyard.

A new view of the Milky Way. From Click for a larger view.

The most interesting image to come from this work made the Astronomy Picture of the Day on June 6th and is shown below. You'll note our location out towards the outer third of the galaxy in the Sagittarius Arm. Those that have been to a Public Viewing have seen any one of the green laser pointers lase out towards the constellation Sagittarius and remark on how that constellation is between ourselves and the center of the Milky Way (which places it in the vicinity of 0o Galactic Longitude). It is nice to have one's bearings in the Night Sky! There are probably 100 billion such images on 100 billion worlds around the approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy that all have themselves at the center of the radial plot.

I Didn't Even Know It Was Sick

"Dead Sun." What a depressing thought. Beyond some potential global warming implications and our own discomfort at not being able to understand the one star we can't do without, reports about the absence of Sun Spots and our lack of understanding about the situation hit me particularly hard because I finally decided that I wanted to take the Bader solar filters I made for my 25×100 binoculars at last year's Summer Seminar and get some blue sky daytime viewing in. All that work and I'll have to wait another few years for something to see?!

A boring day on the Sun. From Click for a larger view.

Admittedly, the headline's a little tongue-in-cheek, but that is certainly not to say that the situation isn't something to make astronomers and climatologists think.

And, if the Sun went nova right now, we wouldn't know it for 7.5 minutes, the time it takes the light to reach the Earth (then there's be the longer wait for all the debris, but let's not think about it for another 2 or 3 billion years).

The "Barlow Bob" NEAF Special

I was happy to find a number of emails waiting in my inbox last week with content worth sharing from Robert Godfrey, the Rockland Astronomy Club's own Barlow Bob (why don't we have one of those? How about a Bino Brady? Recollimation Ray? Spotting Scope Stu?). A few reading this might know that Rockland is the host of NEAF, the NorthEast Astronomy Forum, where good amateur astronomers everywhere can exercise some purchasing power (or fiscal irresponsibility, depending on how far overboard they go) and listen to lectures from the gamut of stellar speakers, from astrophotographers to astronauts. Last year Ray came back with several photographs I posted in the May message. This year I received a link to a number of photos straight from the Rockland source.

In keeping with the solar observing thread from above, I direct you to Barlow Bob's slideshow of daytime observing festivities at the Rockland Community College during NEAF. I originally had no idea what the security guard was doing in uniform patrolling the observers, but then it hit me. Here's a group that spends its nights outside and its days recovering. Given how little Sun they get with their scopes, someone must have guessed the whole lot of'em would be overcome with Vitamin D and go crazy from the heat.

Any members that made it to NEAF'08 with stories to tell do send them off for a posting in the July message!

NEAF at Rockland Community College. From Click for a larger view.

Space is the place,
Damian Allis, Ph.D.

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)