|Slieve Croob a Messier 2004 Success!|
On 10th March, I had been looking over the weather predictions from Metcheck.com on any weather windows within the 15 days of the Messier Marathon window. The only night I could see was a Wednesday and the long range was predicting showers for the next morning. Even though this was 7 days in advance (and after discussion with our society chairman) I tentatively "put the feelers out" by means of an e-mail to the EAAS members. After a few days with not so much as a whisper, I began to do some heavy steam rolling enrolment which went without success - is there no-one interested in even getting out and observing for a few hours??? I'm in an astronomical society, right??? Ah well, my own enthusiasm would keep me going and at least John McConnell FRAS would be there for the craic :-) Another short e-mail 3 days before the 17th confirming the time and place finally aroused a few interested people, wishing to observe. On the day of the 17th I took the time to go through all of the Messier objects and write down the rise and set times of the harder to see ones using Starry Night Pro - this proved invaluable on the night. Everything was ready and the forecast was for 0% high, medium and low cloud but after 0300hrs, the forecast was showing 30% low cloud; at least it would be a good evening's observing even if we don't get to see all 101 objects. The meeting time was set for 1930hrs to arrive at Slieve Croob, County Down though I had never been there before. Previous arrangements to acquire the key of a gate that led to the summit proved fruitless, and we ended up having to cold call a farmer's house who was most amused at our predicament.
When we finally did get to the summit, it turned out to be too windy to observe with telescopes and there was no shelter so we retired to the entrance car park and picnic area. Already, the time was approaching 2100hrs and the sky was a beautiful dark black. The stars were not twinkling, which is always a sign of good stability in the upper atmosphere. The transparency was just incredible; I have not been to a site in Northern Ireland as good as Slieve Croob. The constellations were laid out on a blanket of stars going down to around Mag6.5, possibly more because as we were setting up, the Beehive Cluster was clearly visible naked eye as well as the Rosette Nebula and the Double Cluster in Perseus!
Thankfully, setting up the telescope was quite quick as I have the setup of the 10inch Meade LX200 down to a fine art. Even lifting all 61 pounds of SCT onto the super wedge was a simple matter and didn't take long. Polar alignment happened in a flash with the red dot finder (Note to self: please remember to turn this off after use - luckily, I had a spare battery) and Arcturus was the alignment star rising in the East but by now, all hopes of a Messier Marathon were setting in the West!
By this stage, it was 2110hrs and the first few Messier objects were racing towards the horizon. The conditions were perfect and this was the first night for a long time that I was able to identify all the stars of Ursa Minor with no difficulty whatsoever. As I tentatively typed in M74 on the Meade handset, I feared the worse. Why oh why did this have to be a Mag9.2 galaxy with little surface brightness when I'm trying to see it through 10 times the amount of atmosphere as is normally healthy? At 2110hrs after breathing deeply, I had a look in the eyepiece and discovered a very faint patch of brightness that was confirmed by the neighbouring stars in the eyepiece. There was still hope! I quickly moved to M77 which was slightly easier to see at Mag8.8, and I breathed a sigh of relief. From here on in it would be plain sailing. M31, the Andromeda Galaxy showed remarkably little structure as it sunk in the Northwest (compared to other observing times) but M32 was easily viewable and M110 was quite good viewing. On to M33 the Triangulum Galaxy which had some structure to it's outer arms. M52 was a rather open cluster and M103 had 2 bright stars in the midst of it's open cluster. M76 , the Little Dumbbell Nebula was quite dim but did show some shape to it. The M34 open cluster was breath-taking with every star resolved pinpoint-like.
At this stage I thought every thing was going well but then M79 had already set in the West 15minutes previous. I had known about this and noted down that this was an early target but the lateness of starting meant I didn't get time to look down the Messier Marathon list and observe this one first :-(
Well, off we go again. M42 , the Orion Nebula and M43 were our next targets. WOW!!! I have never seen so much nebulosity before and fine structure in the extending arms around the central trapezium. This proved to me that the dark site was a must for this marathon as I had never seen so much detail in the nebula before. Also, NGC1977 the Running Man was not just a few stars, but had a definite nebulosity round it! Two things I forgot to have a look at were the Horsehead Nebula and the Flame Nebula as I'm sure we could have picked them up under those dark skies. M78 was more of a challenge as a diffuse nebula, but it was visible as a faint fuzzy blob. Next up was the Pleiades M45 but no nebulosity was visible visually. M1 , the Crab Nebula was a distinct elongated shape and proved quite difficult to see in the binoculars.
Next was a series of open clusters, M38 , M36 , M37 , M35 , M41 , M50 , M93 , M46 , M47 , M48 , M67 and M44 . M35 was particularly beautiful, but all of them had distinctive and unique structures.
Galaxy time again and this time we observed the Leo trio M65 , M66 and NGC3628 along with M95 , M96 , M105 , M81 , M82 , M108 , M97 Owl Nebula, M51 Whirlpool Galaxy with it's satellite galaxy NGC5195, M109 , M40 (double star!), M101 Pinwheel Galaxy very dim with little structure seen, M102 Spindle Galaxy, M104 Sombrero Galaxy which was quite beautiful and easily recognisable, M63 , M94 and M106 . Throughout the evening I had been using only one eyepiece, the 2inch Siebert Optics 32mm which gives a magnification of x78 with the LX200. This proved to be an excellent choice though a wider field would have been nicer. Certainly, M51 through the wider field TAL 150mm Newt was a better choice due to the brighter image.
Next up were 2 globular clusters M3 and M53 , both of which were resolvable down to the core. I think I now see why some people like looking at star clusters as they are easier spotted and more visually impressive through a telescope than a dim and diffuse nebula or galaxy.
Now for more galaxies :-) M64 , M85 , M60 , M59 , M58 , M89 , M90 , M91 , M88 , M87 , M86 , M84 , M99 , M98 , M100 . By this stage it was 2318hrs and I decided to take a break. Saturn, Jupiter and M57 the Ring Nebula was quite stunning but now the cloud started to hamper progress. At one stage, the whole sky was covered in a blanket of cloud but as quick as it came, it went away. There was definitely more moisture in the air and the dew was starting to form slowly. Between the patchy cloud, Jupiter and its moons looked impressive and 2 of Jupiter's moons were very close to each other. Ganymede and Europa were quite close and this was the first time I had seen them in that position. The Ring Nebula was quite special as the background stars that would normally be invisible from my home location were like a blanket with the ring nestled in the middle. The popular Mag12 guide star used by astro-photographers was visible visually, but the central star wasn't. The fine structure of the ring was excellent with the darker shades at two ends and the more diffuse edges. At approximately 2330hrs, I was standing by the scope talking to John who was looking at Jupiter when I thought that David had taken another photo but when I turned round towards the East/Southeast, I saw the end of a fireball quite low to the horizon heading east. It was fairly slow moving and left a smoke trail that lasted for around 4-5 seconds. Walter Martin and I both saw it and the smoke trail. I looked this up and have found it to be an early Virginid Meteor which usually peaks around March 24th. A couple of CB guys who were on the mountain to get a greater range also joined us for their first views of the starry sky. They were able to talk to people in Australia and Africa from the top of Slieve Croob. One person, who shall remain nameless, said that they were mad driving about at night and going up a mountain just to get better reception, Mmmm :-)
On with the marathon! M49 , M61 , and M13 which was resolvable down to the very core and a fantastically sharp image. Next was M92 , and M57 again just for luck. At this stage, no more could be observed until they had risen far enough in the sky and this proved to be the downfall of the observing location. The SE view was partially blocked by the side of Slieve Croob. John, David, Neill and Martin now left for their beds and it was only me, myself and I on the mountain along with a few boy racers who past the car park a few times. I rested for a while in the car and had some tea and snacks to keep me going.
The dew was coming down thick and fast now and the wind had turned from a light breeze to a gustier blow. Clouds came and went now but the depth and transparency remained consistent in the clear sky. I got M56 at 0020hrs and then waited for the others to rise. By 0120hrs, the battery pack was nearly depleted at 12.2volts so I slewed back to Polaris and changed to a fresh one. The dew heater was now an essential observing aid and I had to fit the dew shield as well, even though the wind had risen significantly and was buffeting the scope.
Another waiting game and I then went on to M68 , M12 , M107, M14 , and M27 . The Dumbbell Nebula was quite exquisite and I have never seen it as set in its place with a lot of dim nearby stars surrounding it. The nebula itself was very finely detailed it texture and I could see hints of the nebulosity towards the pointed edges of the eye shape. Now yet more waiting around, as I sat in the shelter of the car and got warmed up.
I was beginning to see a problem brewing in the latter stages of the marathon. While the DSOs had risen above the horizon, I could not see them as the side of the mountain sloped down towards the East and Southeast. As the DSOs rose above the hillside, I realised that there was a possibility that the last few may rise too late into the dawn to be seen. Another 10 minutes pass and there was a large dark cloud to the East forming and looking almost stationary. While some cloud patches past overhead and occasional blankets of cloud rolled in and then rolled out again, this ominous cloud stood hovering over the eastern sky in a very threatening manner. M71 rose in the Northeast, M39 while being circumpolar rose over the hillside then I observed M29 , M26 , M16 , M83 , M80 , M10 , M5 , and M11 . I had to wait on some for a few minutes as the hillside was proving to be a thorn in the side. If anyone has some free time on their hands they could probably plot the height above the horizon the hill was from my observing notes as nearly all the DSOs were observed as they rose over Slieve Croob! What surprised me in many ways was that these star clusters were quite visible through so much atmosphere.
Next up were M9 , M17 , M4 , M18 , M24 , M23 , M15 , M19 , and M25 . Phew! Almost there! At 0400hrs, somebody turned the wind on and suddenly there was now a 25mph wind blowing right through the observing site. Undeterred I had a look for M2 as the black cloud in the East still lingered and was growing wider. The sudden rush of wind and noise of the wind led me to think that rain was imminent but the skies continued to be deep black and the depth was still probably around Mag6.5. I knew it wouldn't last much longer so a trip over to M51 again proved rewarding as the contrast was better and the spiral arms more structured.
The dark blue in the East quickly changed to light blue and I knew the last few DSOs were not going to be easy. Added to the fact that I had to wait longer than necessary for them to rise over the side of the hill. Seeing was definitely more difficult as the wind buffeted the scope and stars were becoming blurred. Finally, M21 rose and a most unusual thing happened. At 0420hrs, a satellite past through the field of view in a downward and NE to SW direction. The satellite was quite bright, maybe around Mag3. After that I observed M20 and M8 . M2 was still hiding in this large Eastern cloud so I persevered, watching for any thinning in its clutches. After a few minutes of being buffeted by the wind, I caught a glimpse of a fuzzy core of stars; that was all I saw of M2 . I had to wait another 10 minutes for more Messier objects to rise and already the visible stars were disappearing fast.
From 0500hrs the sky seemed to brighten very quickly and I was considering packing up. Using the red dot finder, I could see that M28 was getting closer to appearing in the sky and, as it rose in the east I could only see the core as the other stars were already fading into blue. Finally, a few minutes later M22 rose and I knew this would be my last observation. It was very small and just a central mass of stars surrounded by blue. Dawn was upon me and while other messier objects had risen, they were hiding from view, behind Slieve Croob.
Total tally was 98 Messier objects out of a possible 101 objects from this Latitude. As I packed up, I felt a certain sense of pride and accomplishment as I don't know of any reports of such a complete Messier Marathon from Ireland . The 10inch Lx200 didn't seem as heavy packing it away, even though it was 0530hrs in the morning, and the brightening sky brought a sense of completeness to the whole night. Next time, I'll maybe try imaging them all in one night; now that would be a challenge!
Thanks go to Donald Campbell from the Met. Office who also predicted the weather and told me of the clear skies and... "…At worst, patchy cloud around further east. That may make it a little frustrating at times, but still looks like the best night of this week." His predictions came true.
Thanks goes to Walter Martin, Neill McKeown, David Goudy and John McConnell who turned up on the Wednesday evening to observe and were greatly rewarded with a night of spectacular viewing. M51 was quite beautiful in Neill's TAL 150mm Newt, not forgetting Venus in Walter's Sky Traveller.
Messier confirmation by John McConnell FRAS