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Messier non-marathon


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I've had a range of scopes and mounts over the years, buying and selling as interest waxes and wanes, the largest being a 250mm Dob.

With my interest in astronomy picking up again recently, the collection now includes a Heritage 130, an ST 80 (which is mostly used with an erecting diagonal as a spotting scope) and the Skymax 102 Mak on an EQ3-2. Rather than just go through the easy to find old favourites, I thought I'd set myself the challenge of observing all of the Messier catalogue, and recording it. So I made a spreadsheet, and set about observing. And then I thought why not add the observing reports here too.

Feel free to chime in with a 'well done' or a 'you're doing it all wrong, you idiot' šŸ™‚

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May 19th, 2020 first night out.

Hercules is well positioned, rising in the east, and oh dear what's this? a security light from down the street pointing straight out, and the house next door has gathered a collection of solar powered decorative garden lights since I last did this. OK, we will adapt. The security light eventually extinguished, and careful positioning blocked the garden lights. I can see where I am in the sky and start to get my bearings again.

A very rough polar aligment (ie, pointing it north-ish) and I put the red dot finder over where M13 should be. And sure enough, it's still there. Small, fuzzy, just a hint of granularity in the 102 Mak. Starting to regret selling the big dob, but appreciate keeping the oject in view with only one control.

The old faithful Pocket Sky Atlas says there's another cluster in Hercules, M92. So the mount is slewed in that general direction, and with a bit of hunting it also appears. Success! Smaller, but to my eyes brighter and more pleasing than M13, and M13 gets called the 'Great Cluster'

By now I see Lyra has appeared, so off we go and pick up M57 at least. The focal length of the Mak helps here, clearly showing the ring shape, but lacking the aperture to pick up the central star. Why did I sell that 250 again?

It's getting late now so I pack up, 3 down, 107 to go.Ā 

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May 20th, 2020 - Galaxy Hunting.

With spring rapidly turning into summer, I thought it prudent to bag some Ms in the constellations listed as 'spring' before they disappear off the western horizon, so I turn my attention to Canes Venatici, which contains thre Messier objects to find. M63 the Sunflower Galaxy, M51 the Whilrpool Galaxy, and poor old M94 that doesn't get a name and has to make do with being M94.

Canes Venatici is a tricky one, only two naked eye visible stars from my skies, Cor Caroli and Chara, and except for M94 none of them near to the target objects. M94 though makes a nice triangle with the two stars so we'll start there.

As I was going after galaxies, I got the biggest aperture scope I have out - the mighty 130mm Heritage Dob. Wow this is tricky to use for targets near overhead. The contortions needed to get your eye in line with the red dot finder can't be sustained for any length of time. Put the scope on a platform so its finder is high enough to be comfortable and the eyepiece is out of reach. Well I see nothing in the eyepiece, and I'm not sure I'm even looking in the right place.

What's that to the west though? Ah, Leo. Many stars to act as anchor points, it's a little lower, and more comfortable to view with the table-top dob, and a veritable cornucopia of galaxies to tick off. So I line up on where the Leo Triplet should be. That should get me M65, M66 and NGC3686 as a bonus.

Still nothing. Nada, not a hint of a maybe. Either I'm not pointing in the right place - or the 130 doesn't have the light gathering to show galaxies. Then again, didn't Messier himself do most of his work with a 3.5-inch achromat, which we can only imagine even the most modestĀ  of amateur instruments manufactured today would outclass. He was, however observing in pre-industrialĀ France, not contending with 21st century suburban light pollutionĀ so there is that.

Let's assume for a moment though that the Heritage's 130mm mirror is man enough. The problem with attempting to star-hop using a red-dot is, well that you can't. The eyepiece, even at the lowest power available, shows way too many stars, and a much too narrow field of view to have any hope of matching what you see in the eyepiece to a recognisable asterism on the chart. The charts are printed with a modest magnifying finder in mind. That 250 had a 9x50 RACI finder on it. Why did I sell that again...

And so dejected I packed up, with my tally of Ms remaining at 3.

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How dark was it ?

Galaxies need dark skies.

Non-galactic M's such as open and globular clusters are likely to be an easier way to progress during these times of little / no proper darkness.


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  • 3 months later...

September 17th - Back on it.

So now we have astronomical dark back, and it's starting to get dark at a time that's compatible with also getting up for work I no longer have to wait for those nights where no moon coincides with clear skies and weekends. By 9:30pm the ST80 was out on the new AZ5 for the first time. Well for the first time for astronomical work anyway, it's spent the summer set up in my home office pointing at my bird feeder with a 45 degree erect image diagonal. Rather than spotting sparrows, tonight we are spotting open clusters. M29 and M39, both in Cygnus. They are well positioned at the moment, high up in the evening.

While I'm there I first point the scope at Albireo, the contrasting coloured double that makes the beak of Cygnus' swan. It allowed my to check the finder alignment, and it's always pretty so why not. I'm always surprised just how much 'stuff' is up there, even shown in a very modest scope under my suburban skies.

M29 is quite an easy find, just south of bright star Sadr, though open clusters don't always jump out at you from the background in the way globulars do, but remembering that M29 is also knows as the 'clooling tower' it's very easy to spot. The little cluster of stars really does have the outline of a power station cooling tower.

Onward to M39. This was a tricky find for me. Few naked eye stars in the region, and with only a red dot finder. Rho and Sigma Cygnus were at the very limit of naked eye visibility, now that my eyes had adapted somewhat. And M39 is about 5 degrees north of Rho. I put the red dot approximately where it should be and moved to the eyepiece. With a little slewing around on the slow motion controls, another region of increased star concentration appeared. Was this it? A quick google image search allowed me to match up the patterns in the cluster I was seeing in the scope with images of the cluster and confirmed I had indeed found M39.

Well that's two more done, let's quickly bagĀ a third. By now Andromeda is starting to rise out of the murk in the east, so over we go to find M31. The galaxy is big and easy to spot. However it still low down in the eastern sky, I'm looking through lots of atmosphere and light pollution here and can only see the core, with the faintest hints of it being elongated. While I can tick off M31, there is no sign at all of its companions, M32 and M110 so they will have to wait until Andromeda is better positioned, or I've gone to a darker site, or acquired more aperture.

Next time I will fit the extension column to the AZ5 to put the eyepiece at a more comfortable height - or use a shorter chair. My 'observing' chair is in fact a chair meant for ironing for those who can't stand for long, so is quite high, and perfect for an 8 or 10 inch dob. I really like the AZ5 as an easy to use smooth and stable mount, and has been great value as I get use out of it during the day too. The ST80 continues to impress, I'm always surprised at just how much this little scopeĀ will show you, rather than being disappointed by what it wont. Sunday evening is currently looking good, so time to pick more targets.

Edited by eifionglyn
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September 24th - A couple of Globs.

With the moon now reached first quarter last night would be the last chance for observing without it spoiling the show. In my north facing back garden, the ecliptic is still low enough in the sky that the house hides the moon directly, but is glow was already washing out some contrast. I placed my improvised light shield on the trellis section of the fence, blocking out most of the annoyances from my neighbour's solar powered garden lights, and waited impatiently for the rest of the family to stop doing unreasonable things like turning the bathroom light on to brush their teeth.Ā 

This evening I am trying the Heritage 130p, but on the AZ5 mount. The Heritage's tabletop dob base is great for its compactness, but I find it actually quite awkward to use, you can either get the eyepiece or the finder in a comfortable spot, not both. Unlike many dobs, the Heritage 130 comes with a dovetail rail, allowing a variety of mounting options, and placing it on the AZ5 is a definite quality of life upgrade.Ā Eventually, acceptable darkness was achieved, and I quickly pointed the scope at Andromeda to see if I could spot a hint of its companions. Nothing was visible so once again they have eluded me. Will the 130 show them? Will it show them from my bortle 4/5 skies?

So onward to the evening's targets, attempting pick up as many 'summer constellation' objects as I can before the disappear for the year. We look for M56 in Lyra. It's found without too much trouble, and in the 130 appears as small concentrated globular cluster, but quite distinct from the background. Next is M71, another globular cluster, and easily found.Ā Point your red dot midway between the Gamma and Delta stars in Sagitta and it will lie in a low power field at the eyepiece. Bigger than M56, but not as obviously distinct from the background. Neither globs are much to look at, and in my equipment did not resolve any individual stars.

Gamma and Delta Sagitta again prove useful, making an almost right angle triangle with M27, the dumbbell nebula. With the combination of moonlight and LP I did not have much expectations from this, but when it came into view I was quite surprised. It's much bigger than I expected, clearly elongated, with narrowing in the middle. To be able to view an object like this, over 1200 light years distant, its light starting its journey some 2 centuriesĀ even before the birth of King Alfred (I'm observing from his birthplace so seems apt to take that as my reference point), and being focused into my eyes is quite something. Even more to be able to so with what is really very inexpensive equipment. I spent a good while enjoying this planetary nebula.

By now the Pleiades have risen out of the light pollution in the east and just above the garden fence, so I point the scope at them to and get M45 ticked off my list. I'm not sure why Messier included it in his catalogue, it's quite clearly not a comet, even by the most cursory observation with the naked eye, but I always do like the first evening of the year that I spot it rising. For me it's the harbinger of winter, and hints at the wonders the winter skies have in store for us.

Running total 10 found, 100 to go.

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This is a really worthwhile project, especially as you decided to record your observations. I'm confident you'll see detail you've never seen before by taking your time with each object rather than trying to bag them all in one night. It would be nice if you made sketches of each too, as a picture speaks a thousand words, or so ive been led to believe. A simple pencil sketch can then be imaged on a phone or tablet and changed to negative to give a very realistic representation, and a great visual record of your astro adventures. ā˜ŗ

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23 hours ago, eifionglyn said:

waited impatiently for the rest of the family to stop doing unreasonable things like turning the bathroom light on to brush their teeth.Ā 

That's familiar! One of my favourite astro upgrades was a blackout blinds for the bathroom!

Really liking this thread. I started working through the Messier's myself a couple of years ago, but got stuck in the last 20 it so that are in the South during summer where it's hard for me to see them. Good luck with this and keep us posted šŸ‘

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Iā€™m also doing the Messier List. Iā€™m only up Ā to 40 so far but loving the challenge. My problem will be galaxies as I really struggle with them under my lp skies but I hope to bag a few at Galloway next month. Iā€™ve also got a spreadsheet going and all obs recorded on SkySafari as well as my scope side notebook (overkill I know). Itā€™s a great idea to create a project that powers your observation session.Ā 
I have a couple of others ongoing as well.....80 Planetary Nebula and the Cambridge Double Star Atlas, all with their own spreadsheets, SkySafari lists and notebooksĀ 

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