M is for March and March is for Messier!
By Don Selle
Image Credit – from Wikipedia - Michael A. Phillips - http://astromaphilli14.blogspot.com.br/p/m.html official blog
Editor’s note – M is also for Mars. Way to go Percy! That’s how you stick a landing!
Well, it was touch and go for a few days in February, but we are finally on the downside of winter in SE Texas. From now until early May when it starts to get warmer, we usually can expect more temperate weather, though perhaps punctuated with a few thunderstorms. No need to get bundled up in three or four layers of clothing to spend some quality time under the stars.
For me, March means the beginning of “galaxy season”. By mid-March, the winter Milky Way is low on the western horizon later in the evening, and the North Galactic Pole (NGP) (located in the constellation Coma Berenices) is well up in the east.
Compared to the dense stellar regions in and around the Milky Way, the star count near the NGP is relatively sparse. The lack of stars and interstellar dust allows us to see more clearly out beyond the Milky Way galaxy and into intergalactic space. It is our big picture window to look outside the swarm of stars we call our home galaxy. Here with our amateur-sized scopes, we can see literally thousands of other “spiral nebulae”. Perhaps other beings call some of them their own home galaxies.
The advent of galaxy season for me means changing my imaging OTA from a 90mm f/6.7 refractor, which is good for wider field Milky Way imaging, to a 200mm f/9 modified catadioptric scope, which is much better for imaging galaxies. I had everything ready to go just before the winter storm came in.
After it stopped snowing, the skies cleared, and the intense cold took all the moisture out of the atmosphere. While I did not have the motivation to set up my scope, I did get outside to for a look. The cold temps and rolling blackouts combined to make the skies as dark and clear as I ever remember seeing them at home!
Besides being the beginning of Galaxy season, March is also associated with observing the Messier objects. This is for two reasons, the first of which is that 40 of the 110 Messier objects are galaxies. Except for 5 Messier galaxies which are setting soon after dark, the other 35 are rising and well placed to be observed by midnight or soon thereafter.
The second reason is that late March is the time for Messier Marathons. Because in late March, it is possible to observe all the Messier objects between sunset and sunrise, several amateur astronomers in the 1970s independently came up with the idea of observing them all in a single night! The idea caught on and since then there have been Messier Marathons organized every year.
This year, the new moon in March falls on the weekend of the 13th and 14th, a little early in the month to give you the best chance to observe all of the Messier objects, but even so, it is really worth giving it a try. The best advice I was given was to be prepared - script out your observations including timing, and it is best not to work alone.
My amateur astronomy “career” started in 2003, and by mid-2005 I had finished the observations needed to complete the Messier Observing Program and receive my first Astronomical League Award. It wasn’t until 2009 though that I tried my first Messier Marathon at the HAS dark site.
While I was prepared and had good intentions, I was only able to log 78. I got bogged down early confirming which of the many galaxies visible in my 8 inch dob were the true Messier galaxies. The result was that I got behind schedule and decided it was best to skip ahead. Maybe if I had an observing partner, I would have done better.
Later that year, at the Texas Star Party, I saw a composite image similar to the one at the top of this article. All 110 images were captured in one night. I was amazed and located the astronomer who had accomplished this and asked him how he did it.
At the time to me it seemed magical that someone could possibly accomplish such a feat. I learned that there really was no magic involved, just an SCT with a Fastar lens on the front and a sensitive DSLR camera.
Back then it was a wonder, today we call it EAA (Electronic Assisted Astronomy). The wonder to me today is the number of virtual Messier Marathons you can participate in this year. The technology has improved some since 2009, but that’s not the driver for the virtual events. It’s us, adapting to a new reality. It’s what the beings in this home galaxy are pretty good at. Let’s hope we keep staying ahead of the game.