A Solo Messier Marathon

Yeah, I did another Messier marathon, You know, that crazy exercise where you attempt to find all 110 Messier objects in a single night. A bit crazy, but also rather addicting. I am a somewhat of a purist, I use no computerized telescope, just a chart, a Telrad, and my knowledge of the night sky. This makes a Messier marathon a real challenge.

The Clouds at Sunset
A few clouds wandering across the western horizon, some near, some far. At least there is some blue sky!
I had invited a few other folks to join me at the Kaʻohe observing site on the side of Mauna Kea. A few other observers had indicated they would be there, I even had a DLNR permit for a small group to join me and a few extra checklists printed out. It was the clouds that convinced the others not to make the attempt. Thus, in the end I had the night to myself. Mostly.

Even if the clouds spoiled the event there was not much to risk. May as well pack up and drive to the site, as the organizer I pretty much had to be there in case any of the others responded to my invitation. This outing would not take much preparation, a cooler packed with munchies and drinks to get me through the night and one of my smaller telescopes. There is not much question as to which telescope I will use… Primero, my 6″ RFT and the veteran of many Messier marathons. it is this instrument with which I achieved my one perfect 110 score at the All Arizona Messier Marathon many years ago.

As I reached the site I found no one else there. It was then that my phone started chiming with messages… Yes, everyone else bailed, concerned with the clouds hanging on the side of the mountain clearly visible in the satellite images. Not that I can blame them, my drive was relatively short, only 25 minutes needed to reach the site, some of the others would be coming much longer distances, from Kona or Hilo, over an hour away. And the clouds were there, a partial layer overhead, streaming off the summit. However, much of the western sky was clear, the situation was not totally hopeless, it looked as if a marathon would be possible. If the western sky remained clear and the clouds overhead dissipated after sunset like they usually do, this could still work. At worst I would get in a decent observing session. I just kept telling myself that the clouds here dissipate after sunset, they usually do… Usually.

Then the fog rolled over me.

Yes, thick fog, right at sunset. One of those small puffy clouds just sort of ran into the mountain, I could not see the tops of the trees fifty feet away. I was nearly ready to give up myself. I was thinking… Maybe is was good I had not sucked the others into this disaster. I was starting to break down the telescope when I realized that the fog was thinning. Well? I held out for a bit longer, ate my sandwich dinner, and watched as the fog dissipated into the gathering darkness. By the time it was dark enough to make out the brighter stars the fog was gone, disappearing as quickly as it had come.

With the stars of Cassiopeia visible I located and checked off the first object, the star cluster M52. From there it was on to the M31 group with M32 and M110. There was still a line of clouds across the western sky and a bright crescent Moon scudded through clouds overhead. It was only a thin clear zone between the clouds and the horizon where I could hit those first evening objects. Unfortunately working down low I just could not see the fainter objects, thus M33 and M74 escaped me. With both M76 and M77 I knew I was looking in exactly the right spot, but could not detect them until I put in a higher power eyepiece to get better contrast in the moonlight.

Having finished the time sensitive evening rush hour I sat back and enjoyed the night. Slowly the clouds overhead were dissipating, so too was the dew that had been starting to cover my gear. A light breeze sprang up and the humidity dropped. As the clouds vanished and the air dried out I was left with a perfect sky. There is about 300 degrees of horizon here. From Mauna Loa to the south, Hualalai looming to the southwest, a sweep of Pacific Ocean and even a bit of Haleakala showing, it is quite the view. I could count five volcanoes in sight, if the lower elevations were clear you could add West Maui and Kahoʻolawe to that count for a total of seven.

MIlky Way Arching over Hualālai
The winter Milky Way arches over Hualālai with Orion and the setting Moon at the center, taken from the Kaʻohe observing site, panorama of five images taken with a Canon 6D and a Rokinon 14mm lens with over 300 degrees of horizon

This is what I love about the Kaʻohe site, a stunning view from high on the side of the mountain, yet not so high as to be brutally cold or windy. On the back side of the mountain from the trade winds the site is often quite sheltered. I never got chilled as I hunted M’s through the night, it was cool but not cold. Unlike the MKVIS the site often provides much better seeing, the southwest rift zone and cinder cones put you on a ridge and the cool down-slope airflow slides off to either side, not overhead. I took a look at both Jupiter and Saturn during the night, pushing my 6″ RFT to its maximum power with a 4mm eyepiece. The views were quite nice, you could make out quite a bit of detail in the cloud bands and the moons were obvious disks.

The Virgo cluster represents the challenge of the night. I had plenty of time, no reason to hurry. I carefully star-hopped across the cluster, matching the star patterns with the chart to confirm each galaxy. Even in the 6″ quite a few of the non-Messier galaxies are visible, but not so many as to provide galaxy confusion. I have marathoned with the 18″, every galaxy looks bright, there are so many visible that identification can become a real hassle!

Around eleven I noted a car driving in. They parked off the main road not far from me, but had obviously not noted my presence. It was the green laser slicing the sky that let me know that they were here for the same reason I was, to enjoy a beautiful sky. Wandering over I said hello. It was a fellow who runs one of the local tour companies on his way home to Kona. He had stopped to enjoy the stars for a bit and to give a friend a tour of the constellations. We chatted for maybe an hour and shared the views in my ‘scope before they headed on home.

On with the list, only half way through… I suspect I can do about half of the Messier list from memory. It was fun to hit so many objects without a glance at the chart, just putting the ‘scope on the right piece of sky with the Telrad and seeing the cluster or nebula sitting in the eyepiece view without even searching around. Still, there are so many I could not do that with, I am always impressed by those, like Don Machholz, who can do the whole list from memory.

So how is the Kaʻohe site for a marathon? Not bad. Given the site and the latitude the evening objects were easy. Without the clouds I could have nailed all of them with ease and time to spare. The morning objects were more trouble, where I had setup the eastern horizon was not as clear as needed. If I arrange a marathon here again it would be good if the date were later in the month, maybe mid or late March instead of early? I also need to adjust the setup site slightly in order to move out from behind the line of pine trees. They are nice to have, blocking the trade winds if blowing, but also blocking too much of the eastern horizon.

I anticipated a perfect run for the rest of the night, but it was not to be. High cirrus moved in during the wee hours of the morning, blocking much of the eastern sky. Perversely the western sky remained clear, the clouds only blocked what I needed! I struggled to get the last objects through the thin patches of cloud, each check mark a minor victory. No matter my efforts, five objects escaped me! As dawn lightened the sky I was forced to admit defeat. The growing light did reveal the extent of the cirrus, at least it was pretty in the rosy glow of dawn. I spent a few minutes looking at Saturn, the only object bright enough to enjoy before taking the eyepiece out of the ‘scope and calling it pau.

Thanks to the two objects missed in the evening (M74 and M33), and the five I failed to get in the morning (M55, M75, M72, M73 and M30), my score was a mere 103. Not my best marathon. Still, I do enjoy a good marathon, it is a test of skill and a great way to refresh my familiarity with the sky. Over the course of the night I visited many objects I do not usually observe, and as I was star-hopping I reviewed star names and other information I rarely cover. Truly a chance to renew my knowledge and skills. A good dark night, bright stars overhead, a telescope… Worth it.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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