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Observing the "M" Objects: 2006 report

March 25 / April 1, 2006

Jane Houston Jones and Morris Jones

Panorama at Chuckwalla Bench

More photos available here

Sunset clouds
The sky was gorgeous but ominous for our first Messier weekend session. Photo by Morris Jones
Preparing for the second observing session
Jane and Mojo setting up at "Ocotillo Flats" for their second Messier Marathon effort.
Observing in red light
Doing a Messier Marathon means spending a lot of time on your knees. Here's Jane trying to dig out one of the early evening Messier objects about to set.

When the sky is clear, and we're not out on the sidewalk showing the first quarter Moon or planets to our regular audiences, we pack the telescopes and get out of town. There are no dark skies anywhere near Los Angeles, and after months of in-town observing, we yearn for the Milky Way, dark clear skies, and a chance to observe objects in our galaxy and beyond.

We like to travel to a great location about 150 miles east of our Monrovia home. It's a nice spot in the eastern Colorado Desert just off Interstate 10 between Indio and Blythe, CA.

Each year, some amateur astronomers participate in an annual homage to the objects discovered by 18th century comet hunter Charles Messier. The Messier Marathon is a one-night attempt to find as many of the 110 Messier objects as possible. These objects, mostly star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies, are not evenly distributed in the celestial sphere. There are regions in the sky heavily crowded with M objects, especially the Virgo Cluster and the region around the center of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. For those of us in mid-northern latitudes, all 110 Messier objects are observable during one night in March when the Moon is near its new phase. This year March 25/26th was the best weekend for the marathon.

March 25-26, 2006

We arrived at our destination an hour before dusk, and by 7:00 p.m. with telescopes aimed nearly at the western horizon, we were trying to nail the first Messier objects, faint galaxies which set early. We were beseiged by clouds near the horizons. We soldiered on, missing only one of the first dozen objects, M77, a beautiful spiral galaxy, due to clouds. There were still 109 challenges ahead. By 8 p.m. we had seen the dozen first sunset objects, and took a break.

At 10:30 p.m. we were done with all the evening objects and had a few hours to wait for the Earth to rotate and for the summer milky way objects to begin to appear. We had observed 70 of the 110 objects, and took a three-hour nap. After 2 a.m. there is a mad rush to get the final thirty objects before dawn. The rising crescent Moon and bright Venus also graced the morning skies. We missed five of the last objects due to clouds, but were happy with our final tally of 104 objects.

April 1-2, 2006

The weekend was fast approaching, and with it, a four-day old crescent Moon would brighten the sky. The weather looked to be much better in the desert than at home, so we decided to try another marathon, this time armed with a few extra charts for the most difficult objects. In addition, I thought it would be fun to observe the Messiers on the Moon — the craters named in honor of Charles Messier are among my favorite lunar targets. While waiting for the sky to darken I used my favorite Moon reference Hitchhikers Guide to the Moon, which is based on Antonin Rukl's Atlas of the Moon, and checked off 90 craters, lakes, seas, rilles, oceans, mountains, bays visible on the slim four-day old crescent Moon.

As soon as the first stars were visible, we lowered the big telescopes nearly to the western horizon in search of the challenging galaxies. This time, we found M77, but failed to get the other early evening galaxy, spiral galaxy M74 in Pisces, one of the 20 faintest of the total list. Oh well. But we were successful with the next 109 objects.

In between the Messier Marathon, we also observed Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Venus, and 8 moons of Saturn, the 4 Galilean moons of Jupiter, and two comets. Added to the 90 lunar features, this brought my total to 109 additional observations.

Observing in the desert

The dry high altitude desert air is great for observing. We always bring plenty of water, and take frequent breaks. After every observation, we remembered to have a sip of water to keep from getting dehydrated. We also bring a trash bag which stays in the car, and bring all our garbage back with us, leaving nothing behind. We also bring plenty of layers of clothing. It was 70 degrees at sunset, and 38 degrees at dawn.

The Messier Marathon is not the best way to see these splendid objects. For example, the great Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is best viewed in the fall, when it is higher in the sky. Seeing it as it sets against the sunset haze in March shows a faint glow, if you are lucky. It reminds me of the view we have of our own sweethearts first thing in the morning. We know they are beautiful, but we also know they'll look a lot better after they've been up a while.

Observing from Chuckwalla Bench, CA Latitude 33 N Longitude 115 W
March 25-26, 2006 17.5 and 14.5 inch LITEBOX reflectors at 100 power and 80mm refractor at 25x
April 1-2, 2006 12.5 inch and 14.5 inch LITEBOX reflectors also 100 power
Conditions March 25/26 some clouds, April 1/2 excellent
Temps: 70 degrees at sunset and 38 degrees at dawn


Jane Houston Jones
Morris Jones
Old Town Sidewalk Astronomers