Monday, March 15, 2010

All Arizona Messier Marathon 2010

Every year during the new moon weekend in March, amateur astronomers gather around the world to do the Messier Marathon.  Arizona is no exception and we are fortunate that the Saguaro Astronomy Club in Phoenix coordinates this wonderful event.  It is held yearly at Farnsworth Ranch south of Arizona City and can draw several hundred astronomers.  Essentially, the marathon entails hunting down all 110 objects cataloged by French comet hunter Charles Messier in the early 1800's.  The March new moon provides the best opportunity to see all of the objects in one night.  This was the third year that I have attended the marathon with my very good friend Jerry Farrar.  Other than that first year where I observed 102 objects, I mostly spend my time getting to know other amateurs and observing some targets that I may not be able to see as well from the Lost Pleiad Observatory.  Take a look at the picture to the left and you will see Venus riding high above the horizon as the sun set on Friday night.  To the right, are my telescopes cooling down for the evening observing run.

Having recently read Sue French's column on deep sky observing in Lynx, I had decided to utilize my Celestron 9.25 inch SCT to observe some of the targets she reviewed in her column in the March issue of Sky and Telescope magazine, including:
NGC 4236 ~ at 7 million light years away, this magnitude 9.9 galaxy spans 22 arcminutes and as a result is quite faint in the eyepiece.   There was no discernible core, however, the galaxy is quite elongated and there are many faint stars in the field of view making for a very pretty sight.
NGC 2419 ~ More commonly known as the "intergalactic wanderer", this globular cluster is 300,000 light years away!  Despite the distance, it spans 4.1 arc minutes and appears as a mottled patch in an attractive star field.
NGC 2782 ~ This is a small and round galaxy, with a bright core and diffuse halo.  It is approximately 10 million light years distant and is magnitude 11.3.
NGC 2683 ~ Clearly the show stopper for me, I decided to sketch this magnitude 9.6 edge on galaxy.  At 11 million light years away, this galaxy appears with an extremely bright core and long thin extensions.  The sketch was made with black pencil on white paper and I scanned and inverted it to provide an image closer to what I saw at the eyepiece.

At this point, I wandered around a bit to see what others were up to, and to find myself a nice large dobsonian owner (large scope, not large owner) who wanted to share some views.  I ran into my new friend Kevin who has a 16 inch dob, and he showed me the "Horsehead Nebula" through his scope.  I must say that having observed this object through another 16 inch dob about a year ago, the view that Kevin showed me was the best I have ever seen of this elusive object. In fact, what is usually observed utilizing averted vision as a notch in nebulosity, was very clearly shaped like a horse head using direct vision. That is Kevin to the left with his very pretty scope.  In addition to the horsehead, we looked at M46 and the planetary nebula NGC 2438 superimposed on the cluster.  I very clearly saw two cluster member stars behind the nebula and a hint of a third.  Very cool indeed!

Back at the ranch, Jerry broke out the chips ahoy and we were ready for hunting down some more faint fuzzies.  I wrapped up the night with some interacting galaxies Jerry showed me, NGC 5353 and 5354, as well as viewing comets 81/P Wild, and 2007 Q3/Siding Spring.  Finally, I took a look at NGC 4605 in Ursa Major, a 10th magnitude oval shaped  galaxy.  This galaxy is fatter to the west and tapers somewhat to the east.

After a good nights sleep, Jerry and I set up our solar scopes to take a look at the Sun and share the views with the other party goers.  In terms of equipment, I was using my Lunt 60mm Hydrogen Alpha scope, to see feature such as active regions and prominences.  And for the first time, I was also using my TEC 140 apo refractor equipped with a Herschel Wedge (to the left) also made by Lunt Solar systems. The wedge enables white light viewing of the sun to reveal features such as sunspots and facula. Jerry had his new Lunt 152mm Hydrogen Alpha telescope...yes, you read that right, a 6 inch dedicated solar telescope!  There he is on the right with the scope.  The views through the Lunt 152 were simply jaw dropping.  The resolution and contrast of the hydrogen alpha image were simply beyond compare.  But enough about the equipment, this is after all an observing report!

I made two sketches of the Sun on Saturday, one using my 60mm Hydrogen alpha scope and the other using my TEC 140 with the Lunt wedge.  What is remarkable is the enormous prominence that is visible in the northwest in the hydrogen alpha the short time I have been observing the sun I have never seen a prominence as large and bright.  Approximately 30 minutes after the sketch, the prominence had completely detached from the limb and was almost rotated 90 degrees!  Thirty minutes later the prominence had virtually disappeared. The white light sketch reveals  a large number of sunspots within active region 11054, as well as some facula on the solar limb.

Instrument: Lunt 60mm Ha/BF1200                                                       TEC 140 apo/Lunt Herschel Wedge
Eyepiece: Baader Hyperion Zoom at 12mm                                             Lunt Zoom at 7mm
Time of sketch 1550 UT March 13, 2010                                              1645 UT March 13, 2010
Solar Diameter: 32.18'
Carrington Rotation: 2094

After a day of awesome solar activity and observation, Jerry and I grilled some meat, washed it down with a couple beers and got ready for night number two.  I should mention at this point, that in addition to the astronomy, part of what makes this event so memorable is the camaraderie with other observers- and one of my favorite is George Robinson, known affectionately to us as The General Gorge.  The General references his rank in the US Army, and the Gorge references the misspelling of his name on the plaque he was awarded last year for finishing first in the marathon.  Not only did he finish first, but he conducts the entire marathon from memory.  He has not only memorized the order of the 110 objects, but he has memorized their positions in the sky.  The picture to the left is General Gorge patiently waiting for dark next to his dobsonian.  If you look carefully you can see the red ski goggles that he dons prior to dark to begin the dark adaptation of his eyes so that he may better find the faint objects that set shortly after the sun.  He is a great sport, an even better observer and we are fortunate to share his company each year.  He keeps Raquel Welch to himself, but we can live with that.

The seeing was not as good on the second night and again I busied myself with a couple more objects in Lynx as well as some other galaxies such as:
NGC 2424 ~ a very faint galaxy in Lynx at magnitude 13.1 that rewards patient observing with a brighter core and a spindle like shape.
NGC 2537 ~ known as the "bear paw" galaxy, resembles a planetary nebula more than a galaxy.  It is quite diffuse with a subtle unevenness to the glow.
NGC 3621 ~ a 9.2 magnitude galaxy in Hydra- mostly a faint smudge but this galaxy was sitting low to the horizon in the light dome from Tucson.  Clearly oval in shape and framed by some nice faint stars.
NGC 4125 and 4121 ~ 4125 is a small yet bright 9.9 magnitude galaxy in Draco, likely a tilted spiral.  It is accompanied to the south by the extremely small galaxy 4121 at magnitude 13.5.
NGC 5866 ~ A large and bright galaxy in Draco, at magnitude 10.2 it resides 38 million light years away and is mostly smooth in appearance.
NGC 4656 ~ known as the "hockey stick" galaxy in Canes Venatici.  This galaxy is magnitude 10.2 and interacting with NGC 4657 in the northeast which gives it the hockey stick shape.  the southwest extension of 4656 is much fainter.
NGC 4490 and 4485 ~ Also entry 269 in the Arp Atlas of peculiar galaxies, I decided to sketch this interacting pair.  Again, the sketch was black pencil on white paper and I inverted it after scanning to try and better represent the eyepiece view.  Each galaxy is actually a spiral galaxy that has been distorted by the other. In photos hints of spiral structure are still evident in the smaller galaxy. These galaxies have already passed their closest approach (perigalacticon) and are now speeding away from each other. A tail of stars stretches between the galaxies (not seen in the eyepiece!) which are separated by at least 24,000 light years

Next, I took aim at IC 3568 the "lemon slice" nebula in Cameleopardalis...Hubble photos reveal a yellow planetary nebula that looks like a slice of scope revealed a smooth round disc of nebulosity with a 12th magnitude star to the west...please pass the iced tea. 

After another brief walk around, I decided to revisit comet 81/P Wild that I had observed on the first night and make a sketch.   Again, the sketch was inverted for your viewing pleasure.  It has a fairly bright, somewhat condensed nucleus and a diffuse coma.  Note the very faint tail extending to the west.  The tail is probably slightly exaggerated in terms of brightness, but I could not sketch it any fainter and represent what I saw.  Currently the comet is approximately magnitude 9.5 in the constellation Virgo.  It is approximately .714 AU from us, or 5.9 light minutes.  It is quite slow moving, covering approximately .4" of sky per minute...had I sketched the comet on the night before, it would have been located just to the lower left of the center of the star field in my sketch!

I went to bed quite satisfied with the event, and upon getting up Sunday morning Jerry and I decided we should do some more solar prior to packing up and heading home.  Again, I made both a hydrogen alpha and a white light sketch of the sun, using the same equipment as yesterday.
Time of sketch 1600 UT March 14, 2010                                           Time of sketch: 1520 UT, March 14, 2010
Carrington rotation 2094                       
Solar diameter 32.17

All in all this was a fantastic marathon, and if you have read this far, well, thanks!

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