Sunday, March 19, 2006

Observing report 3/18/06

We had a great public event last night at Crockett Park. I was obviously not the only one feeling photon deprived, as we had quite a good turnout of scopes -- at least 15 or 20. Not bad for a relatively cold, breezy evening. I made the limiting magitude out at about 5.2. I don't think the seeing was that great -- I took a stab at Saturn later in the evening and it didn't look too crisp. The public participation was low, which suited me just fine since I was hoping to do a practice run at the Messier Marathon.

It's not that I have anything against public nights exactly -- and when you get talking to someone who's really keen but not very knowledgable you certainly can feel like a hero --but overall I prefer club-only events. Mainly because I get out so infrequently that I feel like my time under the stars is precious and I want to jealously guard it. But also because public nights are noisy (kids) and bright (headlights, flashlights). Probably I'm just a crabby misanthrope. Most of the club member seem to love showing Saturn to newbies over and over and explaining what a planetary nebula is.

Anyway, I arrived shortly after sundown. Luckily the wind had died down almost completely, and it was probably about 40 degrees. Perfectly clear, dry, and good transparency. My equipment for the night consisted of binoculars and the Meade 2080 equipped with a 40mm Plossl and Telrad finder. It turns out binoculars are absolutely crucial for Messier Marathoning, because you can knock off a bunch of objects very quickly with them. I was able to locate galaxies M81 and M82 with them. Boom! Crossed off the list.

I had done my homework and came equipped with a list downloaded from Richard Bell's website and my Astrocards, reordered to match the list. The Astrocards were crucial. I've discovered that if I can't find something with the Astrocards, it's because I started from the wrong locater star. They always work if you use them correctly. And of course, a clip board, pencil, and my handy-dandy Ultra Darklight (a your truly product).

The other crucial piece of equipment I was trying out for the first time were my Carhartt insulated bibs. That's the first time I've ever actually been warm in cold-weather observing. Actually, I was HOT. Those things are the bomb. Nuff said. I just wish I'd bought them years ago.

Sadly, I was unable to find the very first object on the list, M74. I don't think it got dark enough. I was definitely in the right spot. I was able to detect M77, which was very faint and low on the horizon. My only other mysterious failure was M110 -- yes, the one right next to the Andromeda Galaxy. I dunno. I just couldn't find it. I've seen it lots of other times.

Anyway, I worked steadily through the list until someone near me said, "The moon's coming up." I had completely forgotten that this wasn't a new moon weekend. Even coming up through the trees, the waxing gibbous was so bright it looked like a beacon that lit up the whole field. I was really pleased with myself for staying out late and not feeling tired or hungry or cold for a change. I thought, it's really late, I wonder what time it is? So I went to check my cell phone clock and I was so shocked, I thought, that can't be the right time. It was only 10:40. Ha.

So, from about 6:30 to 10:40 I bagged 38 Messiers, not too bad. I think getting close to the 110 is possible, I just don't know if I have the will/stamina to stay out all night. Hopefully we'll get another good night next weekend when the actual club Messier event is happening, so I'll be able to have another go.

I'll say this about the Messier Marathon. I always felt secretly that it seemed a bit of a waste to just try and rocket through the list and not spend any time appreciating each object. Usually, I like to sketch and take my time trying to eke out as much detail as I can. But there is some value in finding an object and moving on: you really start to learn where things are. I was able to hit M35 in the scope for some tourists last night in about 3 second. That's got to be faster than slewing.


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