The Messier Monster...

by Mark Wagner

After a winter of poor skies, the opportunity recently arose for my 10 year old daughter, Mimi, to use the 10" f/4.5 Coulter Odyssey I bought her several months ago. We had a nice time out in our suburban backyard, observing together. Mimi asked when my next trip would be to Fremont Peak, as I had been promising to take her once the night temperatures rose above meat locker. One of my observing friends has been talking about two nights at Fremont Peak this week, since conditions looked unusually promising, and since Mimi was on spring break, I offered to take her, the 10" and my 20" f/5 for a night of observing. Mimi has almost grown up going to Fremont Peak. She's seen rangers come and go, made friends, lost them, explored the terrain up there, and in general, feels about as familiar and comfortable up there as any old timer. Needless to say, she was overjoyed at the thought of the first trip of 1999.

We enjoyed the drive together, a rare opportunity to spend some extended time with my daughter just one on one. The ride up San Juan Canyon Road, with the lush greenery, running stream, boulder strewn fields, sheep, cows, wild turkeys, horses, hawks and turkey vultures was, well, a tranquil and relaxing backdrop to a conversation with a young girl who is growing up. Anyway, we arrived at the Peak to find Jeff Crilly waiting. Shortly thereafter, Jeff Blanchard pulled in. We were all wondering who's tent was set up... it was Rashad's.... he had been the first to arrive, but decided to return home for some additional equipment. After dark, he arrived back at the observatory, and our party was complete.

Mimi was raring to go. She immediately zeroed in on M42 and started her observing log. She found the Trapezium interesting, but it was not completely dark yet and the nebula was not fully showing. She would come back to it later. After waiting longer for the sky to darken, she asked me to suggest a target.

The Big Dipper was high and rising, and I knew that she knew the asterism. So, I suggested she try for M97, The Owl Nebula, just off the end star of the bottom of the bowl. After a moment's discussion of approximately where to look, I suggested she just try, and I would be over at my scope viewing if she needed help. I turned to walk away and heard "I think I've got it"....

I turned, stunned. I think a few others in the group were stunned. I looked in the eyepiece and surely, the nice round visage of The Owl was just off center. Everyone came to look and congratulate Mimi on her first real Fremont Peak Star Hop.

"What's next, Dad" ... a phrase I would become very accustomed to over the two nights. But, surely, she will not find them all so easy.... and I described M108, saying it was close to M97 and she should scan around, always trying to keep a known star in the eyepiece so she'd know where she'd already been. I turned to walk to my scope and...

"I think I've got it!!!!" I could not believe it. I chuckled. She said "It's a small slash of light, right?" I said yes, and took my confirming view... and it was good. More congratulations, and the 10 year old was bouncing, almost vibrating with excitement. With the number of nights she's seen her dad hunting objects with friends, the methods must be, by now, genetically coded into her being. She hit her first two real objects in seconds.

So, where should she go next? What would be an easy target, but not too easy? M51.... I can find it, but I rarely "land on it".... so this would be next. I had a bit of trouble explaining its position, so Mimi and I went to the tailgate of my truck where my laptop computer was running The Sky. It occurred to me I might not get any observing in at this rate.. but ... well, my thoughts on that in a bit. We looked at The Big Dipper again, on screen. I showed her how I found M51, forming a right angle with a star below the handle midway between the end star and the middle handle star.... but she told me she had an easier way, and she was right. Over to the scope she went, and... well, first, I have to describe what an excited 10 year old looks like moving the scope...

Mimi hugs her scope. She loves the scope. Calls it Cassiopeia, the sky queen. So, she hugs it while moving it. When she thinks she's on the right spot.... wham!!!! Up go her hands.... off the scope in a flash up into the air, like someone responding to a hold-up command "get your hands up"!!!! It kills me to see this, makes me laugh... but it works for her.

Anyway... M51. She nailed it. It was becoming obvious to everyone that a monster was being created. What else? How about a few naked eye objects. I told her M45, the Seven Sisters was a Messier object. She asked me how Messier could mistake it for a comet. Good question! She put the scope on it to officially register it as a telescope object on her list. Now I described a star hop into Cancer, off Pollux and Castor in Gemini, telling Mimi to look for a fuzzy haze, where M44 would be. She found it easily, marvel ling at the naked-eye smudge. When she looked in the eyepiece, she said it was "beyond words" and she could see why it is called the Beehive.

Next she moved on to M65 and M66, telling me there was a big edge on galaxy in the field with them. She'd picked out NGC3628. She was dancing. What fun!

And I was having fun too. I've coached plenty of people, but had never taken time to help my own daughter. This was as good as it gets. I knew it didn't matter if I did my own observing that night.... she'd improve and be able to be on her own soon enough... and probably sooner than that at the rate she was going. I decided I would surely be up later than her, and my observing would happen after she went to bed.

About this time, another observer, Robert Perri, showed up, setting up his truss tube 10" Dob. If you are a local reading this, you should get a look at Robert's design. It is amazing. His scope is a "front seat" telescope... no reclining the seat, and nothing touching the floorboards.

A few of us helped tell Mimi where to find M104. I think Jeff Crilly told her about the little group of pointer stars near it. We looked on the computer and found a naked eye star just below the galaxy. At the scope, she found the pointers in no time, then said "I think there's something at the edge of the eyepiece"... she'd done it again.

My daughter knows the mythology of Corvus, Crater and Hydra, and saw on a star chart that M68 is just below Corvus. She measured the distance below, and soon checked off another M object.

I reminded her that she'd found M95 and M96 in her scope from our backyard, and that they'd look much better at the Peak. It should also be noted here, that this night there was a good cover of fog over the valleys and coast, and the sky darkness was like the Peak "used to be".... it was quite dark. Mimi checked her chart, found M95, M96, M105 and NGCs 3384 and 3389.

She had her fill for the night, and was soon tucked into her sleeping bag in the back of the truck.

The next night we returned to Fremont Peak after a trip home so I could get some work done (and so Mimi could shower). There was no fog at the Peak, and though the sky was much brighter, the transparency and steadiness were both 10's. It was a great night.

Mimi began with M43, as I had told her it was essentially part of M42, or seemed to be. Mimi decided she wanted to get all the Messier 40's tonight, as a project. So, M41 was the next quarry. Easy pickings. I looked and confirmed. She found that by taking the foot of the dog (Canis Major), drawing a line to Sirius, and making a right angle above it the same distance, she'd be about on M47. The bright coarse cluster was gorgeous. I said M46 was just a short way off, and after a bit of poking around, she said "this MUST be it".... and it was. I asked if she saw a little dim ball in the cluster, and she identified NGC2438, the planetary in the big cluster. She looked at it on the computer and mentioned how it was at the apex of a dark "triangle" pointing into the cluster. She must have better eyes than I do!

After a late night the night before, fatigue was beginning to catch up with her. We looked for M48 in Hydra. It was an interesting star hop from Procyon in Canis Minor (using the "other" star in the little dog to draw a line), to two dimmer stars to the east, and just off a visual triple star. Sure enough, it was in her eyepiece. I was looking at our only observing partner for the night, Rashad, and shaking my head. Mimi was awesome. She described M48 as like "being inside a diamond mine" and I think she's right.

Asking about M40, I said she should forget about that one until some other time, as a double star is not very exciting, and difficult to confirm. So, she asked about M49.

M49.... where was it? I didn't remember. We checked. Ouch!!!!! Right in the heart of Virgo.... the beginner's graveyard. Virgo strikes fear into newbies. It strikes fear into a lot of people with poorly developed star hopping skills (in Virgo, you need galaxy hopping skills). But Mimi insisted, she would get it.

We used the computer to map out a strategy. Mimi went to her scope and swung it toward Virgo. Looking in her eyepiece she immediately said "I've got it!!!!" .... but, she didn't. I told her Virgo had sooo many galaxies that it was a tough area to work. Again, at the computer, she determined she'd looked at the wrong star in the sweeping curve of Virgo's bright "arms"... so .... back to the scope.

In a matter of seconds, M49 was hers.

Smiling, content, the Messier Monster was done, but only for the night. There will be no stopping it. An observer is born.