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 Ka Ľohe 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.

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Mauna Kea Messier Marathon March 12

We are good to go! I have the DLNR permit for using the site. We will hold the Mauna Kea Messier Marathon 2016 on the evening of March 12 at the Ka’ohe observing site.

GyPSy in the Night
The 11″ NexStar GPS telescope, GyPSy set up at Ka’Ohe
Sunset: 18:31 HST
Astronomical twilight ends: 19:44 HST
Astronomical twilight begins: 05:19 HST
Sunrise: 06:32 HST

Please arrive before sunset so as not to annoy other observers with lights and dust, allowing a few extra minutes to find the setup site. This will provide plenty of time to set up gear and have a picnic dinner. I hope to be at the site around 5:30pm. I will sign the group in at the check-in station with the permit number, you need not sign in.

For those who wish to marathon I will have a checklist available for the effort. There are a lot of MM checklists, the one I provide is optimized for our 20N latitude which changes the priority of the evening and morning objects. If you do not want to participate, just come to observe.

If you are participating in the MM I would also suggest a low-power, wide field instrument. Smaller telescopes are actually better at this pursuit than larger. For MM I leave the 18″ at home and bring a 6″ telescope. Any finding aids are acceptable, including GOTO. If you are a purist like me? I will use nothing but a chart and a Telrad to locate the objects.

The site is to be found along the old Saddle Road just above the Kilohana hunter check in station. There is a line of pine trees a couple hundred yards above the gate, I plan to set up on the makai side of the trees where you will find a large flat area and a big pile of gravel stockpiled. A precise location and Google map for the Ka’ohe site can be found here.

A reminder that the DLNR permit has a few restrictions, nothing we would not do anyway… No open flame, no hunting, and please keep the area clean.

Now all we need is clear weather for a successful Marathon!

Mauna Loa Messier Marathon

I was determined to get out and use the telescope during the March new Moon, but had planned to go observing with the guys at Hale Pohaku on Mauna Kea. At the last minute I decided to accept an invitation from the Hilo group to observe from Mauna Loa instead. The guys planned on running a Messier Marathon, something I have enjoyed many times before.

Our usual observing location is Hale Pohaku, at 9,000ft on the south side of Mauna Kea. Hale Pohaku is a great observing site, high enough to be above the clouds, but well below the summit where thin air, wind and frigid temperatures can be miserable. It is impossible to do a complete Messier Marathon from Hale Pohaku, the bulk of Mauna Kea blocks too much of the northern sky making a few objects, most notably M52, difficult to impossible.

Mauna Loa Road
The Mauna Loa access road, carved through the lava and paved with red cinder asphalt
The road and climate research station on Mauna Loa sit on the northern face of the mountain, offering a perfect vantage point for the Messier catalog objects given our 20° latutude. The only issue is the road. While Hale Pohaku is reached by six miles of quite nice state highway, Mauna Loa requires navigating an 18 mile drive up a single land paved road. Use of the word “paved” is somewhat casual, as is the maintenance on the road. The first few miles feature new pavement. Beyond that? Not so much, the road becomes a pothole obstacle course. Driving the road with a delicate telescope in the back is rather nerve-wracking.

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2005 All Arizona Messier Marathon

A Messier Marathon, one of the crazier ways we celebrate our love of the night sky. Try to find all 110 objects on Charles Messier’s catalog in a single night. It is possible, barely, to do this. It is a challenge of skill and perseverance, and a lot of fun. In 2005 I joined a group of friends at Arizona City at the 2005 All Arizona Messier Marathon. This site has hosted the most successful marathons anywhere, a great site and a large group of very skilled observers makes the competition tough.

Ready to Marathon
The author waiting for dark
My immediate competition was my young friend Carter Smith. Carter and I marathoned together, often racing on objects and comparing scores through the night. I had meant to quietly work on H400 galaxies in Virgo, but Carter sucked me into marathoning with him. Great night with good transparency and for once this winter and spring, NO clouds. Seeing was great at sunset with wonderful views of Saturn while we waited for full dark. The seeing deteriorated badly after dark with cool and warm breezes warring over the site. But transparency is what you want for a perfect marathon which is what we got.

Marathon Briefing
Briefing the attendees on the rules of our messier marathon
I managed to stay ahead of Carter most of the night using my 18″ while he was using a 10″. Actually parts of the marathon are much harder with a big scope, particularly the Virgo cluster where a big scope sees all of the dimmer galaxies and not just the M’s you want. I used the setting circles only to confirm objects a few times, so both of us ran this one manually. We ran on purist rules, Telrad and charts the only tools allowed to find the object! The All Arizona Messier Marathon allows setting circles and GOTO scopes, but we are free to make our own rules a little tougher.

Late in the night Carter found my weakness, the 18″ will not depress below 5 degrees elevation, so he could get objects coming over the horizon before I did, after that he was ahead most of the time. Except a few occasions when guile won out against youthful enthusiasm and young, sharp eyesight. In the end we both scored a 109, the best that was possible with M30 being impossible. We had to work on M74, M73 and M72 together to be sure, but the spottings were confirmed by both of us. All in all a great marathon!!!

Messier Marathon Mosiac
The observing field at the Farnsworth Ranch, with the Silverbell Mountains in the background and Kitt Peak just visible at far right. The field is unusually green after heavy spring rains. The clouds are rapidly departing to the east.