Messier Marathon 2010 - Akarsh's account

By admin; Published 24 Oct 2010

I really thought I should blog about the wonderful Messier Marathon experience I had this year. Compared to the "EPIC FAIL" of 2008, this was far better.

Let me summarize the event first:

Date: 13th ~ 14th March 2010
Venue: Doddamallayanapalya, Koratagere, Tumkur Dist, Karnataka.

Sky conditions: Reasonable. Hazy in the south east almost all
    through. Haze in the north west during evening (damn!).
    Alternating times of clarity and haze. Skies marginally better
    than 6th mag.

   1. Rakesh Nath - primarily 10x50 binoculars
   2. Amar Sharma - 25x100 binoculars
   3. Keerthi Kiran - 8" equatorial telescope, 10x50 binoculars
   4. Achyut Jamadagni - 20x80 binoculars
   5. Akarsh Simha - primarily 17.5" f/5 dobsonian telescope
   6. Madan Kumar - primarily 10x50 binoculars.

Number of Messier objects observed:
   Rakesh Nath -- 57.
   Amar Sharma -- 100.
   Keerthi Kiran -- 95.
   Akarsh Simha -- 105 (by memory).

I also did an NGC-object marathon, covering a total of 209 objects (by memory / found-in-the-FOV, i.e. without using a star chart).

Okay, now I start with my account of events.


Well, this was one Marathon I religiously prepared for. I spent the night of Friday with KStars, trying to learn the positions of the 110 Messier objects, and practicing finding them on KStars. Towards the morning hours of Saturday, I compiled a list of NGC / IC objects that were well known to me (eg: Ghost of Jupiter), or easy to see (eg: NGC 4565), or were in the field of the Messier objects I was pointing to (eg: Companion galaxy of M 51). Although I had planned to come up with a list of 110 NGC / IC objects, I managed to come up with only 90 towards Saturday evening (with a lot of recommendations from Amar. Thanks, Amar!), so as to make the total number of objects 200. While I did not need an time-ordered listing for Messier objects (as is typical of people who do M-cubed), I did need one for the NGCs, so that was one "non-memory" bit. So, I was pretty well-prepared to do the Marathon.


When we started off (later than planned) from Bangalore, the skies were full of white haze, and we were praying for clear skies all night. I was trying hard not to give up in compiling my list of NGC objects. This being a Marathon, it was critical that we had clear skies all through. It turned out that clear-skies actually happened, except for some evening haze in the west which denied us the evening-rush objects.

The evening rush:

The evening rush turned out to be bad, with haze marring the views of most of the objects. While we could all find Andromeda Galaxy and one of it's satellites (M32) unlike my last attempt (yes, we actually didn't see M31 in 2008), I missed out on M 52 (which is very low in the horizon during MM from Bangalore's latitudes), M 74, M 33, and M 110. As for M 103, I needed to confirm it's location after having found it and gotten confused, so I took Amar's help to distinguish it -- but it turns out that I had got the correct location the first time, but got misguided. In any case, I'm counting this object since I saw it, but it was not "entirely" by memory.

The rest of the night:

The rest of the night until morning went of smoothly with some occasions of haze-cursing. The skies were average, but enough for a Messier Marathon. With 17.5 inches of aperture, it was not at all hard to pick out all the NGCs I had listed.

After the dinner break (I took it after finishing Leo), we had some visitors, so I was showing them a few bright Deep-Sky Objects (that were on my list!) and Saturn and Mars with my telescope. They did enjoy the observations! That was like a loss of 1.5 hours of Marathon-time, but I knew it wouldn't matter because of the rate at which one could finish the Virgo cluster.

The Virgo cluster was the best part. I took some time off to show people the beautiful Markarian Chain. I also observed the 'Siamese Twins' for the first time -- they were beautiful (they were on my NGC list). Also worthy of mention is an interesting pair of galaxies -- NGC 4302 and NGC 4398 -- one was a faint face-on and the other an elongated edge-on that was at first glance difficult to separate from the face-on. I also happened to see the IC galaxy near M 40, which was unexpected.

Through the night, I learned of the power of a 25x100 binoculars. I was surprised to see almost the entire Markarian Chain through Amar's 25x100 binoculars! Amar's binoculars also showed (with great difficulty) the edge-on galaxy NGC 5907, which was in fact hard to detect even in the 17.5"!

The morning rush:

Just before the morning rush was a star-hop to M 75 in city-sky conditions, which happened to yield success.

The morning rush started with frantic attempts to find any of Enif, Beta Aquarii, or Eta Aquarii. Sadly, I didn't get the orientation right while memorizing, so it took me a real long time with 10x50 binoculars to locate Eta Aquarii and what Shashank calls the "sickle of Aquarius!", which I used as a reference to find M 72. In complete city-sky conditions. I pointed the scope to an approximate location of M 72, moved a bit lower, and then scanned across (like comet-hunters do). It was an extremely exciting moment for me when I nailed down M 72, which would have been impossible without the aperture power. It was easy to then go down to M 73. Finding M 15 and M 2 was hard again, just because I didn't know where to look. I happened to luckily run into M 15 in the 10x50, after which I located Beta Aquarii and then found M 2 with a 10x50. That left only M 30, which I did attempt, in vain. But by then, I was very very satisfied.

Some concluding remarks:

I'll write down here what I learnt from this year's Messier Marathon.

What it takes to do an M^3:

An M^3 is actually not that hard. One just needs to have found a lot of Messier objects and know the catalog by-heart. It kind-of comes with some experience in finding Messiers, and some memorization before the event. An M^3 is actually better, in that it is fast because you never need to refer a star chart. Besides, the locations can be easily memorized because it is visual. I do this every time to escape the fact that I can't find all 110 objects :P.

Remembering the order is not an issue again. I learnt something very important from here -- that categorizing the objects would greatly help! So I categorized objects by constellation in my mind, and then categorized constellations as "Evening Rush", "Winter Milky Way", "Galactic Region", "Prelude to Summer Milky Way", "Summer Milky Way", and "Home Stretch". This paid off and I was able to execute the Marathon without missing a single object because of not having the order sheet. (Last time, I had the list of objects in time-order on a sheet)

I practiced a lot using KStars. The idea was to simulate the real sky by removing constellation lines, star names, Messier objects etc, and marking the FOV of my telescope. Then, I would try to center the objects in the sky map, zoom in till the FOV filled the screen, and then enable deep-sky objects to see if it was in the field.

What it takes to see 200+ objects in a night:

A good finder scope, a good visual memory, aperture power and speed. I greatly benefited from having a Telrad, and a wide field of view (1.3 degrees). I had to just memorize approximate locations for most objects and just point using the Telrad.

I did better this time because:

1. I reached the venue early.
2. We pre-aligned the Telrad and collimated the scope well in time
3. I had done better preparation on each object to avoid forgetting
4. Better equipment helped a LOT. Aperture Power + Telrad worked together in making most part of it trivial.