My Mini-Messier Marathon

Venus, Jupiter and New Crescent Moon
Venus, Jupiter and New Crescent Moon (Fri 23 Mar 2012)

I left work Friday afternoon in a pouring rain. Nothing unusual in the grand scheme of things. It is late March and Spring had sprung this week, which usually brings rain. An entire week of rain, in fact. I had hoped, against all evidence to the contrary, that the rain would let up earlier in the day on Friday.  I resigned myself to retrieving my vanpool riders and slogging through rain drenched traffic for the next hour.   I wanted to participate in my astronomy club‘s Messier Marathon, but just didn’t think the effort would equal the returns.  I would have to pack up all of my astronomical observing equipment (telescope, tripod, eyepieces, control device, cables, portable battery, sky charts, observing aids, red flashlight, chair, some kind of table, etc) and then drive over an hour to the dark sky site way south near Butler, Missouri.  Early indications from other club members reported the dark sky site field was very wet and since I don’t own a four-wheel drive truck or SUV, I decided to stay in Lansing.

I had permission from my city council representative to contact the Chief of Police to make arrangements to use one of the city parks after dark.  I hesitated to bother the police.  That is a huge hassle to overcome, for me anyway.  And I still needed to re-train my telescope’s Alt/Az drives before packing them up, since that process requires daylight and a terrestrial object to focus upon.  Clouds still scudded across the sky while I set the telescope up outside on the lower back patio.  I trained the drives for five or ten minutes and then powered down the telescope until later in the evening.

Venus, Jupiter and the CrescentMoon
Venus, Jupiter and the Crescent Moon

After watching a couple of episodes of Jeopardy and squeezing in my exercise routine (and making my legs wobbly and rubbery by trying a longer version of one of the higher intensity activities), I slipped back outside to see how many stars were visible at just a few minutes past eight o’clock.  I spied the small sliver of a new crescent moon hovering just over my neighbor’s roof so I grabbed my camera (already on it’s tripod) and took a few photos (two of which I am including in this post).  I even got Terry outside long enough to witness the new moon and point out how much higher Venus has gotten over Jupiter in a week since the last time I photographed the pair of them.

By the time I finished snapping a few photographs, I had enough bright stars to attempt an alignment of the telescope with my newly retrained drives.  The Autostar easy alignment selected Sirius in Canis Major as the first star in the alignment process.  After I found and centered the Dog Star, the next stop on the alignment workflow became Capella in the constellation Auriga, another easily spotted star in the evening sky.  The Autostar reported a successful alignment so now for the first real test of the retrained drives.  I instructed the device to find Jupiter.  Surprise!  The telescope found Jupiter on the first try!  I did have to recenter Jupiter and it’s four glorious moons in the eyepiece, but I did not have to use either of my finder scopes.  I inserted a 2x barlowe and a 26mm eyepiece and could clearly see the cloud striations on Jupiter.  I could even see a hint of color.  I again pulled Terry out to the telescope to take a look at the gas giant and its beautiful alignment of moons.

Next stop on my pre-Messier tour became Venus.  Again the Autostar found our sister planet successfully.  I only had to re-center the very bright planet in my eyepiece.  I should have put a filter on the eyepiece, because even at only half-full, Venus almost hurt my eyes to look at.  I felt confident enough in the telescopes alignment and the retrained drives to begin my mini-Messier Marathon.

M74 spiral galaxy

My Messier Marathon Observer’s Form lists the objects in a ‘best viewed in this order’ arrangement.  I knew I would not be able to observe the first two items on the list, due to the nature of my site.  My house rests in a valley, behind a large hill to my west.  In addition, I have several tall trees in my backyard, as do my neighbors to the west and north.  Thanks to the highway just a couple of blocks to my west, I have ample ambiance (aka light pollution) and nearly all my neighbors must be afraid of the dark because they insist on illuminating nearly all exterior surfaces of their residences.  Still, I told the Autostar to go find M77, a spiral galaxy also known as Cetus A.  Unfortunately, the telescope came to rest pointing northwest, through at least three trees.  I moved on to the next item, M74, another spiral galaxy in the constellation Pisces.  But again, I saw only trees.  A shame, really, as I would love to see that beautiful spiral galaxy (shown in photo above and to the left).

Andromeda Galaxy (M31) as well as M32 (another galaxy)

The next three stops on the observation list also happened to be galaxies, including the famous Andromeda galaxy, designated as M31 on the Messier list of objects.  Since the telescope did not move appreciable away from the area of M77 and M74, I again couldn’t see the stars for the forest.  Yet another galaxy I desperately want to observe, so to ease the pain of defeat, I’ll provide another image of that marvelous gem.  The image above and to the right also includes M32, one of the other two galaxies I couldn’t observe.

Pleiades (M45)

I began using my Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas to assist me in locating Messier objects that I could actually view in my limited sky scape.  The Pocket Sky Atlas‘s last pages contains an index of Messier objects and the star chart they appear on.  I skimmed through the list of the next few objects and determined that M45 could be seen with the naked eyes.  The Pleiades is an open star cluster.   I still told the telescope to go find it and spent a few minutes marveling at the cluster of bright stars peering back at me through the eyepiece.  Finally, I got to check off one of the 110 objects on my Messier Marathon Observer’s Form, writing 8:42 p.m. in the blank provided.

The next two objects I found easily included M42 and M43, both found in Orion’s sword and more commonly known as the Great Orion Nebulae and De Marian’s Nebula (really part of the other one or an extension of it).  I wrote 9:07 p.m. in the blanks on my form.

Beehive Cluster (M44)

I spent the next thirty to forty minutes trying to track down several objects I should have been able to find since they were south or directly overhead.  I could not find the Crab Nebula (M1) and began to suspect I had messed up the alignment on the telescope.  I had nudged a tripod leg more than once, so I reverted the Autostar to star mode and went searching for Rigel, Betelgeuse, Sirius and Capella again to retune the alignment.  After that, I was successful in viewing several star clusters, including M44 (aka the Beehive Cluster), M48 and M50 (between 9:45 and 9:51 p.m.).

Supernova SN 2012aw (pointed at by arrow) is located in the outer arm of the barred spiral galaxy M95 in Leo. Greek amateur Anthony Ayiomamitis obtained this view on March 20th from his home outside of Athens. Image from Sky & Telescope article.

I got even more excited when I spied M95 on the list just two below M44.  This spiral galaxy gained fame this past week by spouting a supernova.  My earlier research also showed that Mars was just a few degrees away from M95.  So I took a few minutes to realign the telescope and enjoy the ruddy beauty of the fourth planet in our solar system.  Then I went on the hunt for M95.  I spent many frustrating minutes attempting to find the elusive spiral galaxy but to no avail.  The skies above Lansing are just not dark enough for my small telescope.  It can’t gather enough light and my aging eyes can’t ever seem to get acclimated to the annoying and obscuring local ground illumination to spot such a faint (9.7 in magnitude) object.  By a quarter after ten, I decided enough was enough.

And, for some unknown reason, the telescope had twice decided to go off on a tangent, causing the altitude drive to run off for no reason and would not stop when I entered commands into the Autostar.  Hmmm. There must be a bug in the latest firmware I downloaded last week.  I should probably hook the laptop up to it today and see if a ‘fix’ has been made available from Meade.

I enjoyed my mini-marathon of Messier objects and learned quite a bit about my abilities and the capabilities of my amateur astronomy equipment.  Tonight I will attend the monthly meeting of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City and tomorrow I will probably head south to Powell Observatory for a training session on the club’s large telescope.  By Monday, I should have purged my system of all astronomical cravings, at least until the next new moon.

Winter Circled Moon and Leonine Mars

I valiantly kept myself awake past my pumpkin transformation time (usually half past nine o’clock on weeknights), reading an ebook on my Nook Color while Terry dozed through the UFC fights.  When I finally got within twenty pages of the end of my book, I put the ereader aside and checked the position of Mars from my front porch.  The waxing moon hung at about the one o’clock position in the sky almost hidden behind my house and Mars shown redly at about the ten o’clock position. I decided to setup the telescope in my driveway, even though all the street lights and house lights concentrated their glows more intensely on the east side of my property.

I opened the garage door and began transferring the telescope and accessories from the band room (behind the garage on the west side of the house) through the garage to the driveway.  I had put on a sweater but only had flip-flops on my feet (something I would come to regret an hour or so later).

In setting up my telescope, I made an error in the home position and failed two attempts at an easy alignment.  When I finally realized my mistake, after having run the motors up to and beyond the stops twice, I tried a third time, but the Autostar control device disconnected itself from the telescope and reset itself twice.  I gave up and finally just pointed the scope at Mars, shining brightly and sanguinely from the constellation Leo.

Two of the stars selected by the Autostar alignment program included Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major, and Capella, in the constellation Auriga, and both of these stars could be found in the Winter Circle.  The waxing moon enjoyed center-stage in the Winter Circle on a cold clear late winter night.

Once I got Mars in my sights, I tried various barlows and eyepieces, but could never quite get a good focus on it.  I could dimly and vaguely see the polar ice cap and Mars definitely had an orange-ish and pink-ish cast to it.

By this time, I could barely feel my toes, but I didn’t want to stop observing, so I turned the telescope farther eastward, looking for Saturn.  I found Spica in the constellation Virgo.  Saturn is just a short hop to the left of Spica.  I clearly saw the rings, but did not take the time to look for Titan or any of Saturn’s other moons.  I wanted to get my feet warmed up, so I shutdown the telescope, packed everything up and transported it back to the band room.

I may repeat this entire process tonight, but from a different location.  I will take a nap this afternoon to allow me to stay up past my pumpkin transformation point.

Oh, and I did get my feet warmed back up while finishing the last twenty pages of my ebook.

Second Saturday Saturn

Despite a pre-weekend forecast for thunderstorms, Saturday stubbornly stayed humid (to the point of Midwestern Mugginess), windy (gotta love that Gulf air from the south) and sunny (well, more hazy than clear, but not really overcast).  After walking Apollo shortly after sunrise, I resolved to remain indoors and further test my new central air conditioner.  I wiled away the day with housework, reading and movies (three of them, or was it four?).

I finished watching Centurion via Netflix streaming (aka Watch Instantly) around nine o’clock.  I relinquished the remote to my husband so he could watch either UFC or F1 and headed north to my Dad’s house for some moon and Saturn observing.

I left the Meade ETX-90 with him last week to see if it needed a tune-up for it’s drive mechanism.  I found some helpful websites and he did crack open the case to confirm everything looked in good shape (nothing obviously broken or breaking).  So, tonight’s experiment involved attempting an accurate polar (or equatorial) mounting of the ETX on the field tripod.  Before the sun set, he had leveled and oriented the telescope per the instructions for the telescope, tripod and Autostar computer controller.

The libration of the Moon over a single lunar month.
The libration of the Moon over a single lunar month.

I arrived to a darker sky with less haze than I observed last week.  The moon had about a third of a crescent.  Dad had the telescope tracking the moon (for several minutes) so I enjoyed reviewing the craters visible along the terminator.  Absolutely stunning!  I really should have grabbed the digital camera out of my car and snapped a few photos.

Somehow, we disrupted the Autostar and lost the date/time and tracking as we fumbled in the dark.  We spent some time realigning the telescope using the Easy align feature of the Autostar, first confirming and centering the telescope in the ‘home’ position with Polaris visible through the eyepiece.  Unfortunately, the stock viewfinder that came with the ETX-90 is unusable in the polar mount ‘home’ position because the telescope is 90 degrees to the base.  You can’t get your head between the end of the telescope and the top of the drive mechanism!  I have a remedy for this coming soon.  On Friday I ordered a red dot finderscope from Celestron that I hope will eliminate this problem.


The first star on the alignment procedure was Arcturus (in the constellation Bootes), easily found in the northeastern-eastern sky by following the arc of the Big Dipper, and the brightest star in the northern hemisphere and fourth brightest star in the night sky (only Sirius appeared brighter last night in the southeastern night sky).  The second stop on the alignment tour asked for Capella.  I used the Field Guide to the Stars and Planets that I checked out from the Kansas City Public Library last week for a star chart containing that star.   I learned that Capella is one of the brighter stars in the constellation Auriga (and later at home I learned Capella is also the sixth brightest star in the night sky and third brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere.


Even though Capella is bright, with the moon in the same region of the sky, with increasing haziness and wind, I could only see with my naked eye one other star in Auriga — the beta star in that constellation.  I hesitantly told dad, who was steering the telescope with the Autostar and the viewfinder, that the right-most bright star above the moon was probably Capella.  He centered it and we were ‘aligned’ again.  Then we told the Autostar to ‘go to’ Saturn.  The ETX got close, or close enough for us to find it through the light pollution (courtesy of the southeast sky and Leavenworth, Lansing and Kansas City), the increasing haziness and the tree limbs of the tall trees along the eastern edge of dad’s property.

We observed Saturn for fifteen or twenty minutes, trying various eyepieces and barlows.  I had forgotten to check before leaving my laptop the location of Titan in relation to Saturn so I can’t confirm or deny whether I actually saw the moon Titan.  What amazed me about this observation period was the ability to continue to observe Saturn through the telescope, even through tree limbs and clouds!  I often couldn’t find Saturn with my naked eye, yet the telescope tracked it nearly flawlessly (so long as I didn’t use too high a magnification eyepiece).

We packed up the telescope once we could no longer see any stars with our eyes.  Even the moon was shrouded in haze and thin clouds.

Once I returned home, I re-researched polar mounting the ETX on the field tripod.  My dad had read and thought the latitude adjust on the tripod meant you had to subtract your current latitude from 90 degrees.  So, instead of setting the adjustment equal to our latitude (of 39 degrees), we tried setting it to 51 degrees.  I did notice that when the telescope attempted to find Arcturus, it was pointed northeast but down below Arcturus by quite a bit.  So, I re-read the field tripod’s user manual (via PDF from Meade’s web site) when I got home and confirmed that you set the tripod to your actual latitude, no math necessary.  We’ll just have to try it again later.  We also plan to re-train the drives in the ETX-90 per instructions in the Autostar manual.