Thursday, March 13, 2008

Messier Madness

I've never cared for galaxies. Sad, as I live in one.
Seriously, aside from the little cluster of galaxies in Andromeda (M's 31, 32 and 110), I just haven't cared. For me, going after objects that lie far beyond our Milky Way is the stuff for far more professional astronomers than I. However, sooner or later, you find yourself in the position of having to locate them. Hence the Astronomical League's Messier Certification.
This certificate is given to those who have identified at least 70 Messier objects, record their findings and report this to the appropriate authorities (the League). It so happens that if you deduct the 40 galaxies on the list, you are left with 70 other objects. Sounds easy, right?
Not really. Some of these objects are still faint, more so than some of the galaxies. M1 (the Crab Nebula in Taurus), for instance, is less noticeable than M33 (in Triangulum). There are planetary nebulas that are difficult to pick out under even the best of conditions (M76) and faint nebula that disappear in even slightly light polluted skies (M43). Some of these galaxies turn out to be necessary to the certificate (the M31 group is the best example).
That said, I decided it was high time to get my Messier certificate and decided to nail as many of these even more distant objects during the Messier Marathon that NEFAS scheduled the weekend of the 8th and 9th of March. The clusters and most of the relatively nearby objects I've observed dozens of times before (pretty much all of the clusters on the list, in fact). I figured that it would be a cake walk. That evening, I showed up at the site with my 7 x 50mm binoculars, 4 1/2"/114mm Newtonian "Isaac", 80mm RFT refractor "Benjamin", my new 65mm ED RFT "Bruno" and my little 50mm refractor "Anne", plus eight eyepieces and plenty of hopes and gumption. I was also accompanied by my partner in life Jamie, who was there both for moral and material support.
Nature had other plans.
Late winters here in northeast Florida are fickle. Saturday the 8th was one of those fickle nights. It started out windy, but that died down not long after sunset. That was when the temperatures began to drop. NEFAS uses a pond (actually a forestry service water dip) located in the northern reaches of the Osceola Forest as its deep sky observing site. That there are mosquitoes is a given. On cold nights, a few of the larger variety can manage to get airborne and make numerous strikes, which they did for the first hour or two. After 10pm, though, the temperatures became the threat. The cold manifested itself initially with heavy dew than begun blanketing my equipment.
By midnight, I had only observed 28 objects (though it is probably 27, since I am not 100% certain that I managed a view of M74 at all), and it was now below freezing. A heavy coat of water was building up on all of my equipment, and the slightest breath caused the optics to be almost completely unusable. To further complicate the matter, every break I have ever had, and especially the adhesion that occupies the place where my gall bladder once dwelled, was throbbing. The next set of items, a group consisting primarily of galaxies, was almost at zenith, and needed to be a little further to the west due to the huge light dome that is Jacksonville. It was a good time for a nap.
When I came back out at 3am EDT (2am by my internal clock), it was worse. The frost had settled on all of my instruments now, and my adhesion hurt the worse. I decided to simply pack it in.
A few years ago, prior to the surgery that removed my gall bladder, I could have taken the other pains. But the feeling in my gut just below my ribcage was akin to being stabbed. Couple that with the frustration of not being able to see anything due to the frost... it was simply too much.
The long drive home was not as anticlimatic as I was expecting; I was actually happy. Given the conditions and my physical limitations, I did pretty good for a first attempt, even though I had seen most of those objects before. Before sinking deep into bed and a good morning's sleep, I was more determined than ever to try this again.
Next month. When it's warmer.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Operation Moonpie Results

This is the culmination of Operation Moonpie... a simple image that shows the size variation of the Moon at perigee and apogee. It's not terribly dramatic, but for a one month period is still impressive.

I am considering doing an Operation Moonpie II, where I will actually go for images of the extreme perigee and apogee. That image ought to be interesting!