Astrofarm Messier Marathon Challenge 2017 report

Messier Marathon Sunday 26th- Monday 27th Astrofarm Confolens

(To read to story behind the Messier Marathon Challenge check out our previous blog here)

Setting the scene – Andrew Davies

This month saw the return of Chris Greenfield and his Takahashi telescope to Astrofarm. Chris was with us last year for the Messier Marathon and managed to see 68 objects. This year we made a bit of an event of it and invited local astronomy groups, including ADAES (Association for the Discovery of the Atmosphere and Space) which was founded in March 1994. I had been invited by them on a few events last year and thought it would be nice to return the favour.

The plan for the evening was to use Chris’s Tak to find and view the objects and two scopes as verifiers. Gabin, from Limoges, was going to use his rig for imaging the objects as we found them.

In total there was 5 telescopes ranging from my Celestron C11 on a EQ6 and Claire, from our local astronomy club, with her C9.25 on an Alt Az, Gabin’s imaging rig of a Skywatcher 200/1000 modified with an aluminium body and a motor focus, Skywatcher AZ-EQ6, a modified 1000D Canon DSLR using BYE (Back Yard EOS) software to capture the images. He was aiming to take 4 x 30 second images of each object. Finally Chris’s Takahashi, a FC-76DS model which was mounted on a VIXEN PORTA II ALT-AZ mount head on a Manfrotto tripod and the telescope fitted with a red-dot finder. We used the following Eyepieces:  Panoptic 24 giving 24 x magnification, 9mm Nagler giving 63 x magnification and the 15 giving 38 x magnification.

Most of the time we used Claire’s scope to confirm that the object in the Tak was actually the right object. This may sound a little strange, but when you are searching in the Virgo Cluster, a lot of the fainter Messier galaxies all look the same, so nearby stars were used when visually identifying the small milky smudges.

We set up from 8pm and by the time we were ready we could see M45 (Pleiades) and Orion to the right of South with Sirius being the first star visible. By 9:30 we were off and running. The sky played ball up until about 4am when a fine haze started to make some observing of fainter images difficult, but still doable. By 3am we had reached 80 objects and took a short break to catch our breath and have a well-deserved coffee. This also gave Gabin time to catch up with us as he was taking multiple images and once we got into Virgo, we left him behind a little.

Saturn took us away from the marathon for a while and we all enjoyed views of the ringed planet through Claire’s 9.25 Celestron. The highlight of the whole night, for me, was actually seeing the Horsehead Nebula through a telescope which, apparently, is very difficult to do but four of us did clearly see it through my C11.

The night finished at about 6am with the rising sun bringing with it the light but just after we had started packing away the ISS made a pass directly overhead, with the French aerospace engineer, pilot, and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet as a kind of salute to his fellow Frenchman Charles Messier. Well Mr Messier! Thank you for a great night. We didn’t see all 110 objects, some were just too low, even for here and a few hidden behind trees just before dawn. Visually we saw 102 missing out on Objects 30, 72, 73, 83, 68, 7, 70, 54. Photographically Gabin managed to capture 106 objects, missing out on M7 and M30, one, M55, was in Sagittarius and was hidden by my observatory and also M72 and M73 were not captured.

All in all, a fantastic evening and a new record for me. Would I do it again? Yes I would.


Technical talk from Chris Greenfield

The past two years or so have been frustrating for astronomers in the UK but on Sunday 26th March 2017, from the Astrofarm in Confolens , I and three others managed about 10 hours of observing, and saw 102 Messier objects, plus Comet  41P and the Horsehead Nebula in an exhausting (and by 3am cold) “all nighter.”

Having searched and found M74 last year, I knew not only where to find it, but just how tough this face on, spiral galaxy is to see in my 3 inch frac. Above the setting Mercury, from “Tak Corner” of the Astrofarm’s observing field I could see Eta Piscium and was able to make the short hop to M74 to start an attempt at the Messier Marathon.

Just visible, it needed my 9mm Nagler, and this is where having the slo mo controls on the Vixen Porta Mount are a huge help as you can slowly track backwards and forwards over your target and tease out more details. I saw M74 with direct vision.

M77 followed swiftly and then 33, 31, 32 and 110 in quick succession before they slipped into the Western horizon.

M79 in Lepus was easier this year; it was higher in the sky and I’d managed to find it from Seething, it again needed high power.

Although it was a long night it passed quickly, finding the open clusters in Auriga, the Little Dumbell needs high power, but found this small Planetary Nebula an easy hop from Phi Persei.

In Leo, I just managed to see NGC 3628 too, often can easily see M65 and M66, but usually this edge on galaxy eludes me.

We raced through the galaxies in Canes Venetici, Coma and Ursa Major, using the Spindle Galaxy (NGC 5866) in Draco as Messier 102, it’s an edge on galaxy so another “smudge” in the 3 inch Tak. Whilst in Draco, I could not resist a quick peek at NGC 6543, the Cat’s Eye Nebula, it was magnificent in Claire’s C9.25!

Around this point Andrew pointed out that Orion was setting; it wasn’t long before Betelgeuse dipped below the South Western horizon.

See Gabin’s video of our Messier Marathon here

We paused for coffee and biscuits before starting the long task of finding and identifying the galaxies in Virgo; M84 and M86 are the start of Markarian’s Chain, and an image I have in my mind from the many photos of the area, but there were 5 galaxies to observe beforehand, starting with 104, the “Sombrero.” At times we seemed to fly through them, but at times there was a long pause to identify carefully which was which in the cluttered view at the eyepiece.

Midway through the galaxies in Virgo, my list had M68 to observe in Hydra. Tried for about 20 minutes to find this globular Cluster from the stars of Corvus, without any success. Like M79 in Lepus, it looked easy enough in the Pocket Sky Atlas, but at 11 arcminutes, was small and was the first Messier that I had to pass that evening.

Back to Virgo and was soon at M89 and M90. M90 was discovered by Charles Messier on March 18th 1781, here we were observing them from France 235 years later! The final galaxies to find were a little higher and in Coma, M91, M98, M99 and M100.

Hydra was proving to be very difficult as M83 was next, and another I could not see, despite this galaxy being bright, it was very low, and some hazy cloud had arrived.

Next up on my list was M13, the first deep space object that learned to find some 6 years ago, M92 was next and them onto the Ring Nebula in Lyra, a tiny object even with the 9mm, but it was great to be on the “home turf” of the Summer Triangle. Had to wait a while for M56, cloud had arrived and the sky looked a little grey, time for another drink and snack break.

A quick visit to Serpens and the bright Cluster of M5, before we were into Ophiuchus, starting with M107, followed by M10 and M12; using Zeta Ophiuchi and Epsilon or (Yed Posterior) to form a triangle to hop from. M9 is at the base of Ophiuchus, I noticed that Antares was higher now, and was impatient to get into Scorpius, especially as the sky was definitely lighter, so it was a quick look only at this globular Cluster.

By now, Altair was visible, next on the list was a favourite, M11, the Wild Duck Cluster. The view was disappointing though, it was lower in a grey sky compared to how I’ve observed it previously. To the West and a little lower was M26, unimpressive I noted, but another Messier ticked off the list.

       Collage of photographs taken on the night by Gabin

Messier Images

Over to Scorpius, M4 and M80 were easily seen; it was at this point last year that I’d stopped; defeated by tiredness, cold and eyepieces repeatedly dewing up!  Not this time.

M29 and the slightly harder to find M39 were seen and ticked off in Cygnus, M27 next, an easy find, especially as the sky was clearing in a slight breeze; I noticed how much higher Vega was too. M71 in Sagitta I’ve seen many times, but this was the briefest of looks, it was about 0430 and there were the objects in Sagittarius to see soon.

On to M16 and M17, the Eagle and Swan. I’d had a reasonable look at these last Autumn, but just as they were sinking into the murk of the horizon, now they were rising, but so was the sun, c’mon! It was to M19 and M62 in Ophiuchus, next as both were at a reasonable height; although just for M62 though, bloody trees! Surely as Virgo is to Galaxies, Ophiuchus is all the globular clusters; there are so many.

I’ll never forget my first view of the Butterfly cluster in Sagittarius, seen distinctly in my eyepiece though with branches in the foreground! It’s said Ptolemy saw this naked eye! No such luck with M7 Ptolemy’s cluster, despite it being larger and brighter than M6, it was lower, and was lost within the trees / murk. My third Messier not seen.

Next was M8 the Lagoon, I first observed this in the Autumn of 2016, it’s enchanting to observe. Usually spot the stars of the cluster before the nebulosity appears, only to lose this star forming region into the horizon. Now it was rising, but the skies were noticeably brighter, there was the nebulosity, this early morning I lingered a little admiring the view. Just above the Lagoon is the Triffid, an emission Nebula, slightly northeast of the Triffid is the small open cluster M21. Next on the list to be ticked off was M23 another open cluster, followed by the Sagittarius star cloud M24, I’d seen this only once before and was stunned to stumble across it in early Autumn. Slightly less impressive, but probably due to the increasing brightness of the sky. It’s a target worth hunting down even from the UK’s skies. M25 is a widely spaced open cluster, it’s South East of the Star Cloud and a nice contrast.

At the top of the ‘lid’ of the ‘teapot’ is Lambda Sagittarii, to the North, North West is the small globular cluster of M28, another ‘first time seen’ Messier. Completely stunned to move East of Lambda Sagittarii and see for the first time M22. This globular is huge, larger and brighter than M13, a ‘wow’ moment. At magnitude 5, it’s meant to be naked eye visible on a clear night, one to look for in the future.

M54 was next, an easy hop Westwards from Zeta, and another Messier seen for the first time for me.

Sadly M55 was hidden behind the trees from me and too low down to see, as was M70. I could just see though a gap in the trees though to M69, which was to be the last Messier i could see in Sagittarius; although 75 was much higher according to my Pocket Sky Atlas, it was hidden in the trees!

View our video of the night here on our YouTube Channel

After the excitement of seeing targets for the first time in Sagittarius, the next two were comparatively easier, M15 found from Enif, is a Globular Cluster I’ve looked at lots, as was the final Messier I managed to see M2 in Aquarius…in the brightening dawn I could just about see Sadalsuud, Albali the hopping point for M72, although higher was gone in the grey dawn sky…I’ve found M72 twice, both times after much searching with a high power eyepiece and knew that if I could not see Albali, I’d have no chance with either M72 or M73.

The final target M30 being much, much lower than M72 & M73 I did not attempt.

The following night, I spent 45 minutes tracking down M68 in Hydra, using binos to find a star to jump from, and using the 9mm Nagler eventually after much cussing and cursing found the faint fuzzy!

So just not quite able to complete all 110 of the objects in the Messier Marathon, managing 102, with Gabin from Limoges Astro Society managing 106 with his computerised rig.

That said it was a superb experience, the Messier marathon to me is really is about challenging yourself to track down and observe a catalogue of “non comets” over one night, it was superb fun, and probably the best night of astronomy I’ve ever experienced, in the company of enthusiastic amateur astronomers. An experience that will stay with me for a long time.


A New Experience – Claire Wardlaw

My first ever marathon, of any kind [no lycra in sight!], was much anticipated and began in wonderful sunshine in the early evening at Astrofarm. I am fairly sure we all covered at least 26 miles during the course of the event. What a pleasure to prepare and set up my kit with all the other astronomers.  As the evening began and we got settled into our spots the excitement and a palpable feeling of nerves became obvious to me. The pace of the night was clearly going to be so very different from anything I had ever shared in astronomy before. Oh wow,I was not sure just what to expect.

One of the most enjoyable things of the event was to feel, see and hear the real joy and delight of those around me in response to finding and observing each new Messier object. My scope is so good optically and suited for observing many objects in the night sky but it was also fascinating to observe through and learn about the possibilities of other types of scopes, mounts and methods of approach. A real team spirit and an open helpful atmosphere lasted through till the wee small hours. I learnt so much from the rest of the group about searching and learning the sky for yourself. The hands on learning which was possible while sharing and asking about other equipment, technology and ideas is the best learning.

I loved the clear and beautiful skies, the time spent with the great people and seeing so many Messier objects for the first time. M97, the Owl Nebula was one of many highlights.

After the many hours of searching, looking and discussing with others I find I have become so much more confident about using my own setup, and exploring the sky. The last object we watched floating across a lightening sky was the ISS. A great end to the night. That always gives me  such a positive feeling about what is possible. Sad in a way to see the sun come up.

Looking forward to next year already.