martijn straub astronomy

Messier Marathon La Palma 2018

March 17th ’18, Roque de los Muchachos, La Palma (Canary islands, Spain)

During this trip to La Palma I undertook my third attempt to complete the Messier marathon. The first one was done in 2016 (March 9th), getting to a total of 109 objects (only missing M30). A year later, on March 25th 2017, I quit the attempt after missing M74 in the evening and that was only 5 days after the ideal date. But In 2018, chances for success are a bit better; M30 will be the most difficult Messier object, but I have yet to discover how much more difficult this will prove to be…

Tonight’s weather forecast is excellent for the island, because at the highest point (2400 mtr) on the Roque de los Muchachos, there will be no high clouds and low cloud cover will only have the advantage of blocking the small light domes from the townships below. Besides, the air flow has traveled thousands of miles over a cool, flat ocean and the seeing is unparalleled here. So it’s no wonder that the top is littered with telescopes. In short, the observation conditions here are close to ideal.

I say “almost”, because there are places on earth where it gets even darker, such as Namibia or Chile. Despite the fairly constant SQM value of 21.8, there is still some visible light pollution near the horizon; in the south that of Los Llanos and in the east that of Tenerife (another Canary island), but this is all relative and I won’t complain 🙂

telescope view Roque de los Muchachos before Messier marathon

So what is this Messier Marathon exactly and how does it work?

Well, the idea of the Messier marathon is to see all Messier objects in one single night and it has emerged in the 1980’s . However, to achieve this goal there are a number of conditions that should be met first:

Date:

First of all, the best night to do a Messier marathon is as close as possible to the Spring Equinox around March 20th. It is on this day that you have the greatest chance of seeing the evening objects on time before they sink into the twilight (M74, M77) and the morning objects just before the sun rises (M30).

In addition, the Messier marathon will have to take place during new moon. Two days before or after the ideal date are still possible, but outside this bandwidth the moonlight will probably disturb too much and the full score can’t be achieved.

Also the weather forecast plays an important role because it must be virtually clear all night long, especially near the horizon.

In short, within a window of only five days a year, the best evening should be selected or multiple attempts must be made.

Longitude:

Secondly, it is theoretically possible to see 110 Messier objects in one night between about 5° N and 45° N. But beyond that bandwidth it’s (as far as I can find) impossible. Thus, in the Netherlands, a maximum of 109 can be seen in one single night, with M74 and perhaps M77 sinking too low in the evening or M30 to be swallowed in the morning twilight. However, La Palma is at a convenient location at around 28° N. But it’s worth mentioning that going up higher can help a bit to increase this bandwidth.

Horizon:

Thirdly, the horizon must be free on the west and on the south-east, because of the low position of the Messier objects after sunset and before sunrise. As a result, it’s very difficult to find a location where you have a clear, unobstructed view. Again, it can help to go up.

Light pollution:

This is a no-brainer and won’t be a problem on La Palma. However, the only disadvantage is that M74 is positioned in the zodiacal light in the evening!

Preparation:

A good preparation is the key to success, so you need to know in advance in which order you are going to view the Messier objects and at what time this should take place. Even more, you even have to know it EXACTLY for a few objects. You should also be aware at what times it will be hectic and when there is time for relaxing and eating. That’s why I use a memo recorder to save time and a (analog) clock next to the telescope. So all I have to do is to record my findings at the eyepiece and then write down the time on a printed observation /sequence list. It goes without saying that the telescope must be completely in order and that no unexpected repairs have to be carried out or batteries need to be replaced.

OK, so all ingredients are present today to achieve the full Messier Marathon score. This will be a walk in the park … right?

At 16:15 a friend and I start the winding road that takes us to an altitude of 2400 meters in 50 minutes. It certainly is a beautiful route, starting in a hilly landscape with beautiful views. Later on it takes us through dense pine woods where we occasionally see the altitude that we’re at in a hairpin bend. The tree line lies just below the top and the landscape suddenly becomes bare and moon-like. See the timelapse below that we made of the journey (on another day).

Facing some setbacks

Arriving at the top we face the first (major) setback. Namely, the road to the east side of the mountain is closed with a barrier and there is a guard next to it. We suspect that due to the strong wind some stones fell on the road that caused too much danger. Before traffic can pass again, these rocks must first be cleared. But that’s just a wild guess… We were planning to first drive all the way to the parking at the top from where you can start walks and then afterwards set up our gear at a side path of the “Mirador de los Andenes”. We decided to first do that now and later check if the road is open again. As always, the views are phenomenal:

caldera view from the Roque de los Muchachos

However, the wind is merciless at the top and observing with a telescope is impossible now without shelter, setback# 2 … After 45 minutes we drive back to the barrier and hope that it is now open, but unfortunately that’s not the case. The guard does not speak English and we do not speak Spanish, so it is not clear what is going on. Another disappointment…

There are now 3 possibilities:

  1. Cancel the mission, observe at the house and see how far we get;
  2. Going back to the parking lot to start the Messier marathon under less than ideal circumstances and hope that we will not get sent away by the authorities;
  3. Start the first part of the Messier marathon at a slightly lower altitude and return later, hoping that the main road will be open to the east side of the Roque.

We choose the latter… Driving down for eight minutes, we come across a small lane of about 50 mtr. away from the road. There are a few high trees, but this means that we have some shelter while there is still sufficient view to the west and south. We decide to build up our gear, still in daylight, and see how far we get.

sumerian alkaid 10 inch setup before messier marathon

At around 19:30 we see the sun set and soon after a striking Venus and Mercury emerge above the trees.

sunset Roque de los Muchachos before messier marathon

Slowly it’s getting darker and the Messier Marathon is about to commence!

All the following observations are done with the Sumerian Alkaid 10” trussdob in combination with a Panoptic 24mm (50x), unless otherwise stated.

Pisces

We’re waiting for the stars to appear so that an attempt can be made for M74. Soon, twilight starts and the first bright stars appear. A little later the autumn constellations become recognizable and also those of Aries, needed for the first object. Further down towards the horizon I see η Psc (Kullat Nunu) at some point and the star hop can be made.

At 20:26 it’s time and for the first object as a ghostly glow can be seen with averted vision, but unmistakably at the correct spot. That is fifteen minutes before the start of astronomical darkness at declination of a comfortable 16° and is not at all that bad. It’s remarkable how the situation changes in a week time, because last year I did the Messier marathon on March 25th and the galaxy was already invisible then. But the ease with which the face-on system can now be seen does mean that in the morning M30 will be a very difficult target.

Cetus

After this it’s M77’s turn (20:30) in Cetus which can clearly be seen as a bright, wooly dot alongside a bright star. Next I look at Uranus, because after seeing the inner planets I want to see as many of the other planets too this night. It’s bright and shows a nice blue / green disc.

Andromeda

Now I have to move the telescope a bit so that Andromeda peeps through the trees. This helps and the closest Messier galaxy to our own is quickly found. M31 (20:41) stands out like a needle, with the well-known pearly core. M32 (20:41) is right next to it as a clear dot. M110 (20:41) is clearly visible too, not only the core, but also the elliptical glow around it.

Cassiopeia

Just above the hood of the car I can see M52 (20:44) as a grainy glow in the shape of a flower bouquet. One bright star jumps out.

I now have to relocate for M33 (20:47) as this one too is low. Despite that, it’s found fast and gives a nice view, it’s very large and has a vast core zone. The emission nebula NGC 604 can be seen, as well as a hint of the spiral arms.

Now back to the spot next to the car for M103 (20:52) in Cassiopeia. This Messier object is located in an incredibly star-rich area, but it still stands out clearly. The shape is somewhat triangular and the center has a bright red star. At the edge of the field, two less bright white stars can be seen and another dozen weaker ones in between.

Perseus

The crucial evening objects have now been completed, so I can breathe again and take some more time for the next series in Perseus. M76 (20:57) can be viewed at leisure in the 5mm (240x) with OIII filter and with that magnification the hourglass shape is clearly visible, as well as one of the tufts. After that I move on to M34 (21:09) and this is a naked eye object here. It is a large, rich and loose open cluster with some dark lanes through it. The bright stars are somewhat randomly distributed and the cluster is not clearly defined. In addition, many weak stars can be seen in it.

Taurus

Slowly we arrive at the winter sky in Taurus and at M45 (21:12) I linger for a while because it’s beautiful and the Merope nebula is huge. Outside of the well-known triangular shape of it, the nebula reaches much further out. I have never seen this so striking before and that is why I also try the Maia nebula, but unfortunately this one remains invisible. In any case, there is no difference in the glow that I also see around the other bright blue stars.

Lepus

M79 (21:20) is the only Messier object in Lepus and is not very large, but much better to observe here than in The Netherlands because of the higher altitude. One third consists of core, the rest is a glow. The graininess can be seen with averted vision and there is still a circle of loose, weak stars around it. Also there’s a kind of “tail” of faint stars that I had never noticed before. It turns out to be a surprisingly nice object.

Orion

M42 (21:25) is as wonderful as ever and I increase the magnification to 120x “to take it all in”. As an extra detail, I see a nebula within the “fish mouth” as a tiny patch and the E and F star are steady and permanently visible. Next to it, M43 (21:25) shows the well-known pacman shape and apart from the bright star in the centre, I also clearly see two dark “eyes” and some more black spots.

Looking at the sky you really have to do your very best to see the stars blinking ever so slightly. Because the seeing is sublime, a sidestep to Sirius is easily made. It appears rock steady with spikes that cross the entire field and the star does not show any phantom colors, but is just white … pure white and beautiful. And it appears that I’m not looking at just one star, but at two… continuously… For the first time I see Sirius B! Well, isn’t that a nice bonus.

Looking at my list, I see that only 15 Messier marathon objects have been checked off so far, time to move on… M78 (22:01), the third object in Orion, shows a nebula around two stars in the form of a pine cone. Also around one of the two stars underneath it’s a bit “misty” and next to the main nebula I see some nebulous patches.

M1 (22:03) in Taurus is clearly visible in the shape of a stretched “S”, or a thick lightning bolt.

Gemini

Gemini surprisingly knows only one Messier object and that’s M35 (22:04), also a naked eye object. This one is large, with a star chain in the shape of a five-pointed star. Neighboring cluster NGC 2158 is also nice to see as a blurred, round spot with a grainy structure.

Auriga

Then it’s the turn of the Auriga Messier clusters, M37 (22:05) is fantastic with a lot of weak stars and a bright red lucida in the center. It has a kind of spider shape and resides in a very rich star region. M38 (22:07) is perhaps even more beautiful, it has a “cross” or “+” shape with a slightly red star in the middle with a bit of a void around it. NGC 1907 in close vicinity, with 10 specks of light in it and against two bright stars. Finally, M36 (22:09) has a kind of spiral arms of bright stars. It is a bit looser than the other two and also seems to contain fewer stars. It’s lovely nonetheless.

Canis Major

The previous three Auriga clusters can all be seen with the naked eye (barely) and the same applies to M41 (22:11) in Canis Major, however this one is a bit easier. Likewise, this OC can be seen as a big blurry spot and in the eyepiece it’s large and has a somewhat irregular shape with winding star chains. It does not clearly stand out in the rich star environment.

Puppis

Meanwhile, Puppis houses three beautiful open clusters, one of which is M93 (22:15) and is located in an immensely rich star region. But it’s compact and consists of somewhat brighter stars than the surroundings ones. Just outside the “anvil” shape two orange stars particularly stand out. Surprisingly, this cluster too can (just) be seen naked eye (!). M47 (22:17) too, mainly because it contains some bright stars. It is not very striking, but there are a few long star chains running through it. It’s large, just like neighboring cluster M46 (22:18), but the latter is much richer and dimmer and has the form of a spider. Only 1 or 2 slightly brighter stars are noted. The nebula NGC 2438 is also easily seen at 50x and you can even see the ring shape with a weak star on the edge. All in all a very fine area to view from here.

Monoceros

It has been a while since I last visited the only Messier cluster in Monoceros. And that’s a pity, because it looks cool: M50 (22:20) has the shape of a helicopter (flying towards the observer), with curved blades at the top and a circular star chain at the bottom. It stands out well from the surroundings and I count more than 70 stars.

Hydra

M48 (22:24) in Hydra can be seen by naked eye, but I still need a few minutes to find it in an area that I don’t recognize very well. The clear U-shape of stars ends in a point  which makes me think of an ice cream cone. We will encounter this elongated constellation again much later tonight.

Cancer

Cancer harbors two Messier objects; M44 (22:29) is of course very large and does not fit in the 24mm. The “Beehive” is very loose and open and there are many bright (double) stars and some more weaker ones to be seen. On the contrary, M67 (22:31) is compact and well defined. It is filled with many stars, mostly of similar brightness, and the weaker stars can all be resolved but give the cluster a bit of a background glow. The pacman shape is missing in this view and it now looks more like a mirrored Euro sign. There is a bright star next to the cluster.

And with this object, the open clusters come to an end for now and a leap to Spring is made. From here a fresh box of galaxies will be opened!

Leo

M95 (22:40) and M96 (22:40) shine their light together in one field, of which the first is the least bright. It’s almost round with a clear core and a circular glow around it. The second has a very luminous core with a somewhat shorter ellipse-shaped glow around it. Just below it are M105 (22:43) and two more galaxies in a “hooked” shape. The Messier is the brightest and the other two are NGC 3384 and NGC 3389 I see later on (not written in the PSA). Then on to the Leo Triplet: M66 (22:43) and M65 (22:43), the first of which is the brightest, has an oval shape and the bar is not completely parallel to the glow. The second has a pretty needle-shape and a somewhat round, elongated core. Furthermore, there is a third member: NGC 3628.

Ursa Major

On to the next two objects within a single field in Ursa Major. Firstly M81 (22:45), primarily a LARGE oval glow with two weak stars in it and one just outside of the system. The spiral arms can also be seen with averted vision, actually quite well. M82 (22:45) next to it, the well-known cigar, shows a somewhat brighter center and the dark lines in it can also be spotted. Further on is M97 (22:47), the Owl Nebula. A beautiful, evenly illuminated soft sphere with some darkening in it, although it is difficult to see as two eyes when observed for such a short time. Next to it is the Surfboard Galaxy M108 (22:48) and this one can be seen as a streak with a clear foreground star just off-center.

M109 (22:51) seems to suffer quite a bit from the glow of γ UMa (Phecda), but is nevertheless easy to see. It is somewhat elliptical with a round glow and a bright, stellar core. There is a star next to it, just inside the glow. M40 (22:55) then, the dubious binary star with two stars of equal brightness. Further, a galaxy is below it that can be seen with direct vision: NGC4290, in a 90 degree angle with a bright star. Right next to it are two more averted vision galaxies, small and round. These are NGC 4335 and NGC 4358.

Canes Venatici

This constellation comprises a small area of sky, filled with beautiful galaxies. First is M106 (23:00), which is especially interesting because of what can be seen around it. The galaxy itself is large, bright and quite flattened, in pretty much the same angle as M31, with a very bright and compact core. The south side is somewhat sharper edged. Next to it is a very vague streak of light; NGC 4248. And if I descend a bit further I arrive at a group of stars next to which the elongated galaxy NGC 4217 stands, but also has a weak star in the soft structure itself. M94 (23:03) is quite small, but very clear and round with an ellipse-shaped glow around it. With averted vision, I see a dark circle around the core on two sides, with which the galaxy betrays at least two spiral arms.

M63 (23:06) then is not very large (at least for a Messier object), but it’s readily visible next to two bright stars, one of which is almost being touched. It has a fairly clear, pearly core that is not completely at the center of the oval (2:1) glow. However, I don’t see anything of the spiral structure. On to M51 (23:09) and NGC 5195 then. Here the spiral arms are clearly visible, it would have been easy to draw them now. One arm is hooked and also quite some detail can be seen in the neighbor, although the bridge between the two is invisible.

It’s getting a bit colder by now, so I put on my ski trousers and insert two foot warmers in my shoes. Luckily, gloves are not needed yet. After that, we quickly eat a large piece of pie, drink some coffee and continue the Messier Marathon

We now say farewell to the Big Dipper with another face-on galaxy, a good opportunity to compare them side by side. M101 (23:20) is a lot bigger and the arms are a bit harder to see than with the previous object. The core is compact and brighter than the surrounding area and a foreground star is visible next to it. The arms can still be seen by looking away from them and I could draw these now too. There are some patches of nebulosity here and there which are a bit brighter than the immediate surroundings.

Draco

Next in Draco then NGC 5866, the galaxy that should pass for M102 (23:26). It is not large, but forms a nice triangle with two stars and resides in an area with a few nice and bright stars. The core is fairly expansive and slightly brighter than the rest of the long oval.

Coma Berenices

A globular cluster is up next now in Coma Berenices: M53 (23:29), which already produces a beautiful sight at 120x and can mostly be resolved. The core seems a bit square because it is flattened a little at one side. I also take a look at NGC 5053 afterwards and I am surprised that I was able to see it two years ago with the 15×70 binoculars, because even in the 10 inch this thing is very weak. It is a large, ghostly stain with a few dim specks of light in it. M64 (23:35), the Black Eye Galaxy, is a bit bigger than I remember. It certainly is a bright glow with a bit of a stellar core and the dark edge around it is clearly visible (with AV). Nice one.

Back to Canes Venatici, which also houses a very nice glob: M3 (23:36) is a naked eye challenge and I can indeed see it without optical aid. It then looks like a double star, but of course one of the two stars is the glob. It is nice and big and I also take a look at it with the 5 mm, which makes it possible to largely resolve the cluster.

Virgo

Then it’s time for the long series of galaxies in Virgo and Coma Berenices, 17 to be precise! Firstly M98 (23:46), a needle-like galaxy with a woolly core. M99 (23:47) then is round and not very clear, there is an star on the edge. It appears to consist of one-third core and two-thirds of glow around it. M100 (23:49) looks a bit like its predecessor, but is a tad larger and brighter and has a slightly more stellar core. There is a small needle next to it which is NGC 4312, it can be seen with direct vision. Also M85 (23:51) is quite a bright one. Especially the core within an oval glow and a star inside. In addition, next to it is a small galaxy with a very bright core, where I even doubt if it’s not a foreground star and this is NGC 4394.

Markarian’s Chain

Moving on to M84 (23:52) and M86 (23:52), they can be seen as part of Markarian’s Chain. Both are almost round and have an almost stellar core. Further, M87 (23:55) is really bright and close to two stars. It appears almost round with a fairly large core and a halo that fades out smoothly into the background. On the other hand, M89 (23:58) is very small and almost stellar, there’s a short glow around it. Another moderately sized galaxy is close by and this is M90 (23:59). It is a long oval where one side is slightly more defined than the other and the core is star-like.

Another galaxy then, M88 (0:01) is bright and stretched and the long oval-shape has a fairly compact core. Moreover, it is close to a double star. M91 (0:02) is a bit dimmer than the one before, but it can also be seen clearly. It’s only slightly smaller with a fairly stellar core. There is another (non-Messier) galaxy nearby, next to a star. Then M58 (0:04), again close to a bright star. It is a small galaxy with a round core and a small glow around it. M59 (0:06) is small and slightly stretched, but attracts less attention than the twin galaxies in the area that are a lot brighter, one of which is M60 (0:06) and has a smooth brightness, with only a short, weak glow around it. Also the neighboring galaxy NGC 4647 can be seen as a dim smear of light.

Now the search is failing me a bit, because I can’t find M49.

That’s because for some reason I have in mind that this should be the Sombrero, so it’s overlooked as I don’t see a familiar image. For this reason I first tackle M61 (0:15) and this one seems to have a somewhat awkward S-shape (so it’s a face-on). The core is slightly brighter. Then at last M49 (0:21) after I have discovered my error. It’s round with a cotton like core and has a large glow with an dim star in it. It’s in a very rich galaxy area, but for now I’ll skip the other galaxies because I have a tight time schedule! Finally, I can move on to the “real” Sombrero M104 (0:24) and this galaxy is bright, expansive and very sharply edged. Even at 50x I can see the dust lane with a bit of nebulosity above it. There’s a very beautiful asterism around it.

Hydra

After that we leave Virgo and go a long way back to Hydra for M68 (0:25), a glob in the vicinity of a bright star. It’s quite small and with averted vision some graininess can be seen. Moreover, the shape is not completely round, but more like a triangle. It has a fairly large halo of faint stars around it.

I now see that the next object M83 is still behind the hill and that it will take at least an hour before I can observe it. Also the Messier marathon objects hereafter on my list can’t be seen yet.

With more than half of the objects in the pocket, this is a good time to break up here and find a suitable location for the second half of the Messier Marathon: the Mirador de los Andenes

It’s a tense moment, because we don’t know whether the road will be open now… Twenty minutes later we drive back up and to our relief we see that there’s no longer any surveillance and the barrier has disappeared! It’s a 5 minute drive from here and on the way we indeed see that stones have been cleared and that the road is clean again.

At the viewpoint of the Mirador itself there are a few people with telescopes, but they don’t have any shelter from the northern wind, so it’s not a suitable place for us. Moreover because the view to the east is blocked by rocks. A little further down the road we park across a footpath, take our gear out and walk up. It takes a while to find a location that provides sufficient shelter and also has good all-round visibility, but finally we settle for a spot that appears adequate enough.

Stellarium indicates that M30 should be possible from here, although there is a hill that blocks a few degrees of horizon. We start setting up, this time under harsh conditions because some more wind can be felt and it’s colder too. The surface consists of gravel here and the strong wind makes the dust look like snow in front of our head lamps. Nowhere the surface is truly flat and for observing I therefore have to sit on my knees for the rest of the night… Not a pleasant perspective.

A short pause

Because of our relocation, a lot of time was lost, time that could otherwise have been spent on sleeping for example. Nevertheless, we take a moment to observe Omega Centauri, which is now culminating. Truly, it’s a fantastic sight: more than 100,000 stars packed together in a single view, how bizarre…

After that, without having taken a break, I continue with the list and I’m still on schedule when M83 (1:59) slides into view. The galaxy is large with a compact, bright core and the bar can just be seen, but the spiral arms remain hard, even from this location.

Serpens

M5 (2:04) then, a big globular cluster in Serpens that can be resolved for the most part. The 1/3 core is bright and even contains a lot of graininess. Around it, there is a beautiful circle of weaker stars and it’s in the vicinity of a bright star.

Hercules

To Hercules now and the “Keystone” figure is a bit difficult to find, laying on its side. But once found, M13 (2:06) quickly reveals itself and immediately its large core is visible in the 24mm. The star chains make a figure of a spider. M92 (2:08) on the other hand is smaller with a compact core and a not completely round halo of bright stars around it as if it has spiral arms.

During a short break we observe Jupiter and the SQM meter indicates a maximum of 21.83

Ophiuchus

Ophiuchus too, has awakened in the meantime and contains a large number of Messier globs. At last, the summer sky presents itself in all its glory! First one up is M107 (2:27) and this one is quite small and only slightly speckled. The largest part consists of core and the glob actually doesn’t look like much at 50x. M10 (2:29) is a beautiful piece of work, not terribly large, but with a large halo that can mostly be resolved. Also, it has a nice bright core with a huge peppered halo. M12 (2:31) is by no means inferior to it, but it may be a bit smaller and with a slightly less bright, compact core (a bit looser and a bit weaker). Here too there is a lot of graininess and a fair part can already be resolved. There are a few bright stars in a triangle around it.

Then I arrive at M14 (2:35) and that one presents itself more like a blurry, but bright glow. Seemingly, it contains quite a large core with a short halo around it. M9 (2:38) is a very small, but bright globular. The largest part is the core and appears a bit like a bar. But with averted vision, some speckles are noticed.

Scorpius

In Scorpius, M4 (2:40) is found and is a beautiful cluster, it’s large and loose with lots of individual stars. Most noteworthy is a straight line of stars that runs through the center and a curved line of stars below it. At a large distance around it, still a lot of stars are to be found. It is a true showpiece and there can hardly be a greater contrast with M80 (2:46) nearby. This one is very small and compact, but very bright. There are hardly any speckles to be found in the short halo.

Then back to Ophiuchus for two more somewhat smaller globs. Firstly M62 (2:49) that has a stellar core with a halo that seems to fade out to one side and here too, almost no stars can be resolved. M19 (2:50) is a bit flattened and the stars are gradually less condensed towards the halo, so it looks a bit like a galaxy. With averted vision, some stars can be resolved.

Lyra

Lyra is now at a height of 20°, so I can continue with M57 (2:54), the Ring Nebula. It shows a nice bright oval donut and for the first time I seem to see a somewhat blue color in it, perhaps because I look at it with the lowest magnification. M56 (2:56) is a small glob nearby in a terribly rich star region, but still stands out nicely against the background. Furthermore, a few loose stars can be seen around the bright core.

Cygnus

For now I had planned to tick off a few Messier marathon objects in Cygnus, but the constellation is still very low in the sky and I have to get away from my rock and face the wind to see them. Fortunately for the first object that is not a problem. M29 (3:00) must be one of the most boring clusters in the list. That is to say, it’s small, inconspicuous and has six bright stars in the shape of a cooling tower plus a few dimmer ones. But certainly the next object takes an awful lot of time…

M39 is now only at a height of 5° in a direction where there is also some cloud cover in the distance, in a direction where the wind is coming from… Every time I do the star hop, either the telescope loses its collimation and the RDF suddenly gets confused, or there are clouds in front of the stars. Only after 23 minutes (3:23) I am finally convinced that I see the cluster. It is a very loose one, contains around ten bright stars and ten weaker ones and not very noticeable in its surroundings. At a next Messier marathon, I will certainly move this object to a later time in the schedule!

Vulpecula

M27 (3:25) in Vulpecula is then quickly found despite its low position and the dumbbell shape is clearly visible. What a beauty!

Sagitta

Right next to it in Sagitta is M71 (3:27) and at 50x it is small and almost coreless. The shape is a bit pointy and it reminds me a bit of a “trident” or a “pawprint”.

The emerging mass of light, also known as the Summer Milky Way, rises above the horizon and that means it is time for:

Sagittarius

The first Messier object M23 (3:47) is high up in this famous constellation. It is a large cluster in the shape of a diamond with a number of star chains in it that are reasonably similar in brightness. Also, there is one bright star below it.

Now, there’s a brief intermezzo in Serpens for M16 (3:50), a nebulous cluster that seems to consist of two parts. One side is arrow shaped while the one appears more straight. The whole reminds me of an “E” in mirror image. The nebulosity can be seen in the heart of the cluster, but the “pillars” remain hidden.

Back to Sagittarius now for a meaningless and small cluster: M21 (4:00). It contains one bright star, surrounded by some ten less bright members and a bit weaker stuff (with averted vision). M20 (4:01), the Trifid Nebula, is of course a showpiece and consists of two parts around a bright star, separated by a dark lane. In the main part of the nebula, I can already at the lowest magnification see the well-known dark lanes that split the nebula into three parts, beautiful!

The most southerly Messier object

Moving on to the two remaining objects in the tail of Scorpius and both can be seen by naked eye. Of course M6 (4:04), the Butterfly cluster, large, loose and bright. Above all, the focus is drawn to four star chains moving away from the center and an arc at the bottom. The stars are of similar brightness, but one red star really stands out. Secondly M7 (4:06), which is also a loose cluster, but a lot bigger. The approximately 15 very bright stars are a bit randomly divided with around 20-30 stars in between. A small square of stars can be seen in the middle.

Sagittarius Star Cloud

Back in Sagittarius I now see M24 (4:09) and what a pleasure this is! The area is much too large for my lowest magnification and shows an ocean of stars. Clearly, we’re looking at the heart of our own galaxy here as there is so much to discover. The two Barnards are also clearly visible. M18 (4:25) afterwards is a disappointing cluster, because in the star-rich environment it can only just be seen separated from the environment. It looks a bit like a rectangle of a dozen more or less bright stars and a few weaker ones. Further, some dark patches can be seen around it.

M17 (4:28) shows a beautiful swan shape and the entire “neckline” can be followed, although the nebulosity at the beak can already be called weak. There are beautiful dark tufts in the body and misty patches can also be seen outside the main object. For this one I also slide in the 10mm with UHC filter in and leave it in the focuser for the next object. M8 (4:32), the Lagoon, shows nice nebulosity with two patches on the north and south side, which are slightly brighter on the north side. With the 5mm, the “hourglass” can also be seen with effort; this is the brightest (small) part of the nebula with a faint star on top.

Scutum

In Scutum I see M11 (4:38), again a beautiful object. It’s a very concentrated cluster, but the stars can all be seen separate from each other in a sort of H-shape. One bright star really stands out. M26 (4:40) is a bit of a disappointment after all the beauty so far. This because it’s small, with three bright stars and some weaker stars around it in the shape of a “C”.

Meanwhile, my friend takes some nice pictures of the Milky Way, with a clear “dark horse” visible, even to the naked eye.

Dark horse

milky way Roque de los Muchachos during messier marathon

Back for the final and long series in Sagittarius, it’s now the turn for M25 (4:43) and this is a really nice open cluster. It has the shape of the letter π or a dragonfly with a lot of bright stars around it. Moreover, it’s loose with a total of around 30 stars. M28 (4:45) is another clear and small glob that consists half of core and half of halo. With averted vision there are just barely some loose stars to be seen in it. Next is M22 (4:47), a very beautiful one and a real showpiece from this southern location. Consequently, it can largely be resolved in individual stars. The shape is somewhat oval, like a pointed-star, and one bright star pierces the center.

Saturn is also close by, so we pay it a respectful visit, just like Mars. They are already a nice sight, although it will take a few months before they reach opposition. It took a while for me to realize that the two planets were here, because I had a hard time orientating within the Archer. I didn’t know how to tilt the PSA in order to see the correct star pattern, and even after discovering that two planets were involved, I still found it difficult…

The final sprint

Looking for M69, I almost let myself be fooled by NGC 6652 even though this one is very small (only to be seen with averted vision). It has a bit of a halo, is unresolveable and just outside the halo is a weak star. I almost log it as the Messier object, but I sense that something is not right… So I do the star hop again and then notice my mistake.

The real M69 (4:56) is also quite small and close to a bright star. It consists half of core and half of halo where some individual stars can just be seen. M70 (5:00) seems even smaller than its predecessor, really small indeed. This is because it has a stellar nucleus with only a very short halo. Besides, there appears to be a tiny star next to the core. M54 (5:02) is again small, almost perfectly round and with a fairly bright core about 1/3 in size and a much weaker 2/3 halo.

Leaving the Archer

After some searching, I come across M55 (5:12), a very nice globular even when it’s still so low in the sky. It almost seems like an open cluster because it’s missing a real core zone. The light is evenly distributed on the surface, the edge is only slightly weaker and the shape is not completely round. M75 (5:18) is a bit difficult to find in a star-poor region and my RDF also has problems because it tends to move when I’m looking low. In contrast with M55, the glob is bright, small and just a little more cotton-like than a star. There are no individual stars to be seen in it and it looks more like a planetary nebula.

Pegasus

Meanwhile, we slowly arrive in autumn again and in Pegasus I find M15 (5:21). I now have to get away from my rock once more, but fortunately it’s a straightforward Messier object and quickly found. The core is bright and there is a large grainy halo around it. It is close to a few bright stars.

Aquarius

M72 (5:24) is still very low and nothing more can be seen of the glob than a small blurry spot, barely visible with direct vision. Due to problems with the star hop it takes a bit longer before I arrive at M73 (5:36). It is smaller than I remember and because of the low position I only see a small triangle of 3 stars. I can’t split the fourth star, but by switching the view with M72, I am confident that I’m looking in the right place. Eight minutes later M2 (5:44) is nailed. It’s an easy, bright glob with a large core and ditto halo. However, due to the low position I can’t see any individual stars in it.

I have now seen 109 objects and the 2016 Messier Marathon score has been matched!

That’s nice, but I know that the last object is also within my grasp. I just have to wait a while for that, because it will take until 6:04 before it even rises above the horizon and that’s 5 minutes after astronomical darkness…

To my annoyance, I also see that a black cloud “lies” on the eastern horizon like a line. The tension starts to increase even more when I suspect that the hill at 100 mtr away might after all be a little too high. So what to do …? After a minute of hesitation, I pick up the telescope in its entirety and embark on a maniacal hike to the hilltop. And that’s not easy on a rugged footpath with some steep climbs in it. But after a few minutes I arrive unscathed, with a muscle ache in my arms and I plant the telescope at the spot where I started the Messier marathon last year, a little less sheltered than the previous site, but still doable. Most importantly, from here the horizon is free.

Capricornus

It has by now turned 6:15 and I see that it is noticeably lighter, especially near the horizon. There is no more time to lose and I skip collimation. From θ Cap I go down to 36 and ζ Cap and from there a pretty large star hop has to be performed. In the PSA there is only one star in between, but in the eyepiece I come across several… Starhop after starhop is being performed but I see nothing. Then I suddenly remember that I’ve printed a detailed map of this area and I quickly grab it from my backpack. On the map, many more weak stars are depicted and the star hop should now be a lot easier. I do it carefully, passing the annoying cloud band on the way, but then I arrive at my last two stars where the globular cluster has to be…

I immediately notice the weak, but still quite big glow of, yes… M30! (6:19)

There, at only 3° above the horizon and 20 minutes after the end of the astronomical darkness, a spot can be seen that does not disappear when the telescope is slightly nudged. Yes!, YESSS! When changing to the 10mm eyepiece, the object disappears from view and I cannot find it any longer, perhaps it is already swallowed in the fast approaching dawn or maybe the magnification is simply too much.

After packing up and walking back to the car we drive to the entrance of the observatory site where the barrier is still closed. But at exactly 7 o’clock a man walks in our direction and tells us to enter. We now arrive well in time at the top to await the sunrise. We search for a good spot to take photos and it is not long before the first rays of sunlight creep over the horizon, a most beautiful sight. On the right in the photo hereunder you can see “El Teide”, the 3700 mtr high volcano on Tenerife, a nearby island.

Sunrise

sunrise Roque de los Muchachos after messier marathon

Within 10 seconds the light is already too bright to look directly into, so we slowly walk back to the car. When we look west, there is a beautiful belt of Venus in which a strange silhouette slowly emerges. It takes a minute before we realize that we’re looking at the shadow of the mountain on which we are now standing. The Telescopio Nazionale Galileo (TNG) can be seen in the foreground.

shadow Roque de los Muchachos in belt of venus

And then it’s finally time to take the drive down again, back to civilization. The ride goes smoothly and when we arrive at 8:30 our heads can finally touch the pillow… What a thrilling adventure this has been!

For anyone wanting to try a Messier marathon, here’s my timetable of the night. This should be helpful, but remember that it’s not rigid, so it can and should be adjusted to one’s own circumstances. Additionally, preparing with “Stellarium” is a good way to simulate the sky for your specific night. Good luck!

Messier Marathon Time Schedule

Messiertime observednote
M7420:26most critical evening object!
M7720:30most critical evening object!
M3120:41critical evening object
M3220:41critical evening object
M11020:41critical evening object
M3320:47critical evening object
M5220:44critical evening object
M10320:52 
M7620:57 
M3421:09 
M4521:12 
M7921:20 
M4221:25 
M4321:25 
M7822:01 
M122:03 
M3522:04 
M3722:05 
M3822:07 
M3622:09 
M4122:11 
M9322:15 
M4722:17 
M4622:18 
M5022:20 
M4822:24 
M4422:29 
M6722:31 
M9522:40 
M9622:40 
M10522:43 
M6522:43 
M6622:43 
M8122:45 
M8222:45 
M9722:47 
M10822:48 
M10922:51 
M4022:55 
M10623:00 
M9423:03 
M6323:06 
M5123:09 
M10123:20 
M10223:26 
M5323:29 
M6423:35 
M323:36 
M9823:46 
M9923:47 
M10023:49 
M8523:51 
M8423:52 
M8623:52 
M8723:55 
M8923:58 
M9023:59 
M880:01 
M910:02 
M580:04 
M590:06 
M600:06 
M610:15 
M490:21 
M1040:24 
M680:25break after M68
M831:59 
M52:04 
M132:06 
M922:08 
M1072:27 
M102:29 
M122:31 
M142:35 
M92:38 
M42:40 
M802:46 
M622:49 
M192:50 
M572:54 
M562:56 
M293:00 
M393:23M39 should move to a later time!
M273:25 
M713:27 
M233:47 
M163:50 
M214:00 
M204:01 
M64:04 
M74:06 
M244:09 
M184:25 
M174:28 
M84:32 
M114:38 
M264:40 
M254:43 
M284:45 
M224:47 
M694:56 
M705:00 
M545:02 
M555:12critical morning object
M755:18critical morning object
M155:21critical morning object
M725:24critical morning object
M735:36critical morning object
M25:44critical morning object
M306:19most critical morning object!

Messier Sketches

Messier marathon historic results

The Messier marathon report and more in Dutch

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