Lake Sonoma Messier Marathon March 28-29, 2003

by Jane Houston Jones

With Don Machholz for inspiration and his Observers Guide as a roadmap, I hoped the skies would permit me to complete a Messier Marathon Friday night, March 29th, 2003. As Venus peeked through the branches of a California coastal oak tree at dawn, I looked back on the previous 11 hours in a happy haze. I had just observed 105 Messier objects out of the total 109, plus NGC5866 which most marathoners count for the Messier 102 boo boo, for an official grand total of 106 Messiers. I missed four of them. M77 was behind a tree in the evening sunset haze. M30 was not due to rise until after sunrise. And M72 and M73 were caught in horizon hugging clouds, and try as I might, I couldn't coax them out for confirmation.

I unloaded my 17.5-inch f/4.5 LITEBOX reflector, Hagrid, at the highest point with the best horizons at Lone Rock Flat, Lake Sonoma, CA, 90 miles north of San Francisco. I wasn't even sure until I began if I was going to go for the marathon or not. But finding the first object, M74, happily sealed my fate for the night.

A couple other observers were on hand for most of the night. One observer was intent on re-observing and describing a couple dozen Messier objects for his Astronomical League Messier Certificate. Another - a newbie - was just happy to be there and interested in seeing and finding as many Messiers as he could for the first time through our astronomy club 8-inch f/5.7 loaner telescope. A third was an astronomer from our California Central Valley, in the area for a family memorial service. He was after some solace and stars and received both. He happily sketched a couple of the Messiers through my 17.5-inch Hagrid for a book of sketches he was drawing for his young daughter. A couple additional astronomers were on hand working on their own non-Messier projects.

The amazing display of the universe and our place in it unfolded as the hours passed pleasantly by. The glow of sunset was replaced by the bold and bright planets Jupiter and Saturn and our brightest star, Sirius. The triangular glow of the zodiacal light obscured many of the first visible stars in the west.

As soon as alpha and beta Arietis were visible, I lowered the big telescope nearly to the horizon, knelt on a gardeners kneepad until I finally coaxed M74 (and gamma Arietis) out of the murky horizon above eta Piscium. Unfortunately, M77 slept with the fishes for this years marathon. This part of Cetus was obscured by a particularly beautiful clump of oak trees. I already knew M30 was impossible for me to see on this night, and threfore the magic number of 110 was unreachable. My galaxy quest pushed on toward Triangulum and Andromeda and I logged local group members M33, M31, M32 and M110. It was now 8:00 p.m. PST.

My next stop was on the outer rims of our own Milky Way galaxy, which is the second largest of the Local Group of galaxies, second only to M31. Cassiopeia and Perseus are located in the outer Perseus arm of the Milky Way. M52, M102, M76, M34 are to be found there. Then on to Taurus, Orion, Lepus and Gemini, located in the Orion arm of the Milky Way. The Orion arm may just be a spur of the outer Perseus aArm. This is where our sun is located as are M42, M79, M43, M78, M1, M35. Then on to Auriga I hopped. I swiftly viewed M36, M37. Then I swung over to Monoceros and Canis Major, Puppis and Cancer and enjoyed M41, M93, M47, M46, M50, M48, M44, M67. When we look at the winter Milky Way, stretching east of Orion, we are looking through the galactic plane toward the outer limits of our galaxy. This is the home of the galactic star clusters, and we had seen about half of the nights clusters already.

Galaxy time! It was time to leave the Milky Way views for only first time since the beginning of the night. M96, M95, M105 in Leo are favorite star party showpieces in Leo. They are part of the Leo I group of galaxies, 38 million light years distant. M65 and M66 are probably related to the M96 group. The galaxies of Ursa Major, M81, M82 are among those nearest to our local group. M108, M109 and M106 came next, plus planetary nebulae M97. Then M40 for dramatic punctuation. Many of the Messier galaxies are part of galaxy groups near our local group. M94 and M64 are one group. M51 and M63 comprise another group. M101 is part of another and even M102 (NGC5866) is part of a galaxy group.

Globulars M3 and M53, far from the galactic center were next. Then supercluster time! I powered thought Virgo's M98, M99, M100, M85, M87, M89, M90, M88, M91, M58, M59, M60, M49 and M61 in record time, but stopped and switched eyepieces to the 31 Nagler for a long look at M84 and M86 and the surrounding view I call the 9 gals(axies). M104, M68 and M83 were next and then back to the Milky Way!

The glorious globular clusters of the galactic center - the Milky Way central region and the familiar summer Milky Way now came into prominent view. I looked at M5, M13 and M92. Then the next inner arm - the Saggitarius arm of our Milky Way and the obscuring dust clouds of the great rift appeared. This is where the great diffuse nebula and open clusters in Scutum and Cygnus are found. M57, M56, M29, M39, M27, M71, M107, M12, M10, M14, M9, M4, M80, M19, M62, M6, M7, M11, M26, M16, M17, M18, M24, M25, M23, M21, M20, M8, M28, M22, M69, M70, M54, M55 and M75. Whew!

The final push was M15 (4:23 a.m.) and M2 (4:32 a.m.). These turned out to be the last Messiers I could see. M72, M72 and M30 were not visible.

The Zodiacal light after sunset delineated the ecliptic plane brilliantly, with a little help from Jupiter and Saturn. The winter Milky Way's galactic plane crossed this angle. As the earth rotated over the hours of Messier Marathon night, our view of the sky changed. First outward, then towards our galaxy again. Then outward looking toward intergalactic space and finally ending with a look at the galactic center. From the Andromeda galaxy, to the open clusters of Cassiopeia, to Virgo galaxies and then to Sagittarius. From sunset to sunrise. The sky darkened at dusk and then brightened again at dawn. On the drive home Venus and the "C" shaped crescent third-quarter moon rose from its position far south of the ecliptic, showing the geometry of the sky once again on a new day.

DateMarch 28/29, 2003
LocationLone Rock Flat, Lake Sonoma, California 38 42' 90" N , 123 02' 43.7"
Altitude900 ft.
Instruments17.5-inch f/4.5 Litebox reflector, Orion 80mm reflector, 25mm 16x also
Oculars9mm (222x) and 16mm (125x) 31mm (64x)
SeeingSteady but not excellent. Relative humidity hovered near 45 degrees all night. Temperatures in the 50's
TransparencyLM 6.3 at 9:00 p.m. using LM Area 4 Alpha-Epsilon-Beta Gem, 14 stars, and also 6.3 LM using Area 16 Alpha Cvn - Epsilon - Eta UMa, 13 stars at midnight