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I was bitten by the Messier bug back in the beginning of 2013. By the start of that summer I had seen over 70 Messiers with the help of my Helios NatureSport 10x50 binoculars, Sky-Watcher Explorer 130P and my two favourite dark sky sites: a “local” one in the north of the Cheshire plain and a location further afield in North Wales. The objects that had eluded me were mainly the fainter galaxies in Ursa Major and Virgo and the southerly Messiers, i.e. those lying below -30 degrees in declination: M55, M54, M70 and M69 in Sagittarius and M6, M7 and M62 in Scorpius. My 2013 summer holiday to Switzerland coincided with a new moon and some marvellously clear skies. To my great surprise and satisfaction I was able to bag all the southerly Messiers. The open star clusters M6 and M7 twinkled almost as bright as city lights in the 10x50 bins. Globular cluster M55 was large and diffuse and M54 was also a straightforward sighting in the bins. For the small and faint globular clusters of M69 and M70 I had to resort to my newly acquired SkyMaster 10x70 bins, and even then it was a struggle to see them. The 10x50 bins, however, were sufficient to pick out globular cluster M62 further west in Scorpius. The fact that these objects were 8 degrees higher in the sky than when seen from home was a key factor in my success. Subsequent summer holidays in Portugal and Spain benefitted from being another 5 degrees further south, so once again with clear dark skies, the most southerly Messiers were easily seen. In fact, conditions were sufficiently favourable at our holiday home 80 miles south west of Barcelona, that M7 was a naked eye object. That sky was a wonder to behold! As a side note, when locating M6 and M7 on these holidays I followed the instructions of my Messier guidebook which recommended navigating from the tail of Scorpius. More recently, after studying my star atlas, it was clear that navigating from the spout of the teapot asterism in Sagittarius was a better bet, especially from more northerly latitudes where only the top half of Scorpius is visible. About a year ago I started to wonder if it might be possible to see M6 from my North Wales site, latitude of 53 degrees, as the sky there stays remarkably dark right down to the horizon. At that latitude M6 should lie almost 5 degrees above a low horizon. Alas, such things are a rarity in North Wales! After several failed attempts last year and this, I celebrated success a couple of months back on 17th June. M6 was clearly visible as a faint fuzz in my 10x50 bins. By now I had graduated from the 130P to a Sky-Watcher Skyliner 250PX Dob. Looking through the Dob with a 17.3mm eyepiece, the cluster occupied a significant part of the 1 degree FOV. There was a suggestion of a "V" shape at its centre and a bright orange star (BM) glowed in the upper right of the eyepiece. I estimated M6 to be about 2 degrees above the hilly horizon so I knew straight away that M7 wouldn't be visible, as it lies 2.5 degrees further south than M6. Not yet beaten, I turned the Dob a few degrees west into Scorpius and with a "seat of the pants" navigation (due to a lack of any prominent star patterns) just managed to locate a faint M62 in Scorpius. A reconnaissance of the local area uncovered another suitable viewing spot a couple of miles away where I estimated the horizon was 2 degrees lower which, in theory, gave the opportunity to see M7. My first visit to this new site on 17th July was a disappointment as a band of thin, low lying cloud mostly obscured the area of interest. My next visit on 24th July was a different story. I arrived at 11:15 when M6 and M7 should have been at their highest, and set up poste-haste. The sky wasn't fully dark yet and the only star in the teapot asterism of Sagittarius I could see with the naked eye was Nunki, the top of the handle. Thanks to my success in June, I was able to navigate quickly using my 10x50 bins to M6, which again showed as a definite fuzz. I then swept around the teapot looking keenly for Kaus Australis, the base of the spout which was roughly the same declination as M7. To my surprise and excitement I found it, so I knew M7 was at least above the horizon. I then navigated from the top of the spout, still using my 10x50 bins, to where I reckoned I would find M7 and sure enough, a very faint fuzz appeared. I then dashed over to my Dob using the same eyepiece as previously, navigated through the finderscope, and there in the eyepiece was M7, occupying most of the FOV! I could discern a definite "V" shape with 4 stars in each arm on a west-east axis. Looking through the binoculars, I estimated M7 to be about 1.5 degrees above the horizon, which fitted with my previous calculations. I then mounted my Canon 500D on a tripod and fitted a 50mm f/1.7 lens. I took several photos of the teapot asterism (at ISO3200, 6 seconds exposure), hoping against hope to capture both M6 and M7 in the shots. When I got home I was very pleasantly surprised to find that I had been successful. By 12:45 the sky had darkened in the south such that the teapot asterism was now clearly visible to the naked eye. I then returned to my Dob, hoping to see the globular clusters of M69 (near the base of the spout), nearby M70 and M54 (near the base of the handle). I had success with each object: M69 and M70 were both faint fuzz balls, M54 was rather brighter but smaller. I then turned my attention further east with M55 in mind. I rehearsed star hopping with my bins a couple of times so that navigation with the Dob was straightforward. Looking through the eyepiece there was the mighty, but faint, globular cluster of M55. In the combined sessions of 17th June and 24th July I saw all the southerly Messiers for the first time from this country - and from a latitude close to that of home. These viewings gave me the satisfaction of having seen all Messiers from a latitude of 53 degrees or higher. So that is my story of the southerly Messiers. I wonder what tales of frustration and success other observers can share about their experiences seeking out these low-lying objects, especially from UK latitudes?
I have just got back from a week away in Cornwall, close to Crackington Haven on the Northeast coast. I only had a couple of clear nights, the first of which was affected by a Moon just past full. The second clear night (Thursday) was Moon free until about 01:30 hrs on Friday morning and so I crammed as much as I could into two hours under a very dark sky with quite low Southern horizons. Admittedly the sky doesn’t quite reach astronomical darkness at this time of year but despite that, it was at least 0.7 of a magnitude better than the very best night at my home observing site: the Milky Way was visible all the way down to Sagittarius. I started with M9 in Ophiuchus, which was easily found and appeared quite bright and condensed. M107 was larger and more diffuse in comparison but none the less much more prominent than I have ever observed before. Slightly further West, close to the bright red Antares was M4, a very large diffuse fuzz which seemed to be quite irregular in shape and consistency for a globular cluster: it seemed to have a line through the centre. M80 took a little more patience to find but came through as a small and condensed ball. I then spent a little time looking at some more obvious targets in favourable conditions. M13 could be resolved a little further than usual but both this and M11 (the Wild Duck cluster) were only marginally better. What was noticeably better was M27 (the Dumbbell nebula). The characteristic shape was very prominent and the nebula was very bright. M51 and companion NGC 5195 were probably the biggest improvement on previous sightings. Both cores were very bright and the surrounding nebulosity was easy to see directly and appeared larger. Additionally, I could pick up the subtle hint structure in the Messier, not obvious spirals but definitely a hint. Stunning! After a quick peek at M10 and M12 in Ophiuchus, I moved further South and found M62, which was brighter than I anticipated. Just to the North was M19, another new globular find, only slightly inferior. Finally, with Sagittarius more prominent, I viewed two more globular clusters. The very impressive M22 was easier to partially resolve than from home. The cluster is normally slightly washed out from light pollution. M28 was another new one for me. By this time, the 55% Moon had risen and so I called it a night. Six new objects ticked off the Messier list (now at 97) and some improved observations of old friends made me one happy bunny. Pity I didn’t get one more clear night to bag some of the really low Messiers, like M54 and M70. ____________________________________________________________ Observing Session: Thursday / Friday 30th / 31st May 2013, 23:30 hrs to 01:30 hrs BST VLM at Zenith: 6.1 (at least) New - Revisited - Failed