Reflections in the Eyepiece, March 1990

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Last touched 2001 December 4

Originally published in M-111, the Newsletter of the Richland (Ohio) Astronomical Society

Reflections in the Eyepiece

by Robert Bunge

Author's note: In Central Ohio, there is this famous observer named Biff Smooter. Biff is sort of local folk legend stuff. His observing skills are second to none. He was looking for the horse head years before any of us. Perhaps Biff's most remarkable skill is how he only has to find an object once to memorize it's position forever. Many times over the past five years, I've had the honor of observing with Biff. Each time, it's a lesson I never forget. This is the story of one such observing trip.


As the Mit-e-Lift observing platform coasted down toward the floor through the cold, early morning air, I planned to steal some of Biff Smooter's hot coffee that was downstairs in the clubhouse.

I normally don't drink coffee, but I was cold and thirsty. And I needed something to keep me awake. Biff and I had decided to risk death on the drive home after a week night all-nighter because neither of us had done any observing throughout the winter months.

The promise of both spring-time galaxies and a clear, moonless night had prompted me to risk drooling on my notes in meteorology class tomorrow when I fell asleep during lecture. The instructor might understand. He's an amateur, and was probably out tonight as well.

So while I was observing clusters of galaxies in Leo and Ursa Major with the 31-inch, Biff was happily outside, using Tom Burns' 17-inch (I assumed he had permission).

While I was busy identifying each galaxy, taking notes and making drawings, Biff was doing a completely different type of observing.

The Mit-e-Lift door banged closed behind me. The clocks on the wall said it was 3 a.m..

Outside, it was quiet and calm. I couldn't believe no one else had ventured up to the hilltop on such a great night. Biff was the only person outside.

The frosty grass crunched as I approached him. He was staring off into the southeast sky, puffing on his cigar.

The glow from the tip of the rolled up bunch of tobacco lit the scene with a dull red glow. Biff didn't use a red flashlight. He just puffed a little harder.

Whatcha waiti'g on Biff?


How you're doing so far?

Sixty two.

That's what I like about Biff. Straight and to the point.

How bout a break, Biff? I need a wake up.

No... gotta wait for M-4 and M-80.

Ok, Biff but it's pretty hazy in that direction. Good luck.

Puff, puff, replied Biff as I headed down the steps.

Twenty minutes later, the silhouette of Biff and the 17-inch came into view as I climbed the stairs. Biff hadn't moved. He was still staring off toward the southeast.

Still waiti'g Biff?

M-8, M-20.

You find four and eighty?

The red tip of the cigar moved in such a manner as to point toward the eyepiece of the 17-inch.

A glance through the scope showed nothing. I pulled on the dobsonian, and bumped it up a field. There, faintly, through the muck was a faint M-80.

That make 64?

Nope. Seventy-five, replied Biff. Did the summer Milky-Way while I waited.

Good luck, as I started back for the 31-inch dome.

Puff, puff.

Biff, if ya ain't careful, you're going to cause a temperature inversion with that thing.

Puff, puff.

Biff was doing a Messier Marathon. Having never done one, I decided to find out why he liked doing this annual observing event. So during the drive home, I grilled him with questions.

But first we had to get on the road.

After loading up the car in the morning twilight, Biff carefully placed the butt of his cigar, with the lit tip sticking out of the top, in a freshly poured cup of coffee. Then he got out three sticks of BIG RED chewing gum. He unwrapped each one, and popped them in his month. When finished with each stick, he bumped the cigar so the ashes fell into the coffee. After a minute of hard chewi'g, he pulled the cigar out of the coffee, took a swig and then a drag of cigar smoke.

What is it Biff?

A Messier Marathon? You stay up all night long and try to look at all the Messier objects. It's tough. Some of the objects are close to the sun and hard to find. At times you have a lot to look at, and only a few minutes to find them before they set or morning twilight drowns them out. By morning, you're preeeetty doopey in less you have some these ciiiigars.

Why do a marathon?

It's a challenge, and it's fun. It's a great way to learn how to find a lot of Messier objects, especially the fainter, rarely observed ones that nobody ever looks at. Besides, there is a bigger reason.

What's that Biff?

You get to see how the universe is put together. In the evening, you start out with the local group of galaxies, then a few minutes later, you swing south and explore another arm of the Milk-Way galaxy. After working your way up the winter Milk-Way, you peak through a hole in our galaxy to examine the Coma-Virgo cluster. After that...

I get the drift, Biff.

But, who does this thing?

Amateurs the world over, Bob. It started in the seventies... I think. Brent Archinal and John Kerns turned me onto it in '81. That year at Perkins (Observatory, near Delaware, Ohio) we saw a great aurora and 108 objects. I do it every year.

When do you do it?

See that's the trick. It turns out that there is a hole in the sky where there aren't many Messier objects. At the end of March, beginning of April, the Sun is in that section of sky, and you can see more than a 100 of the 110 objects on the list. Remember, it's got to be dark all night, so it needs to be near new moon.

How do you do it?

You get or make a search order list. You just can't go by R. A., or you're be all over the sky, going from north to south and then back north when you could have saved time and stayed in the north. (Sort of like this sentence) John Kern's search order list is good because it's grouped for use with Astro-cards. If two objects appear on the same card, he put them together on the list. You also need the list in order not to forget objects. Otherwise, you forget things like M-32, M-110, M-44 and M-45. Oh yea, it's better to use a smaller scope. I use the 17-inch because I know it so well, and I've been doing this a while. A ten or six inch is perfect. A few years ago, a fellow in Columbus used a 3-inch refractor, and found ninety-some objects. You wouldn't want to use the 31-inch... it's too big and slow to point.

Were do you do it?

Somewhere dark, with a good horizon. get there early and be prepared to stay reallllly late.

With that, Biff lit a new ciiigar and cranked up some bluegrass music. When I started to choke on the smoke, he cracked his window.

How the hell are ya going to stay awake if you don't get some stimuuulaates in your body?

I didn't answer. I was dead asleep.

Good thing he was driving.

John Kern's Messier sequence taken from the March, 1983  Nebula, newsletter of the Ohio State University Astronomy Club (OSUAC).

		Messier  Constellation

		74		PSC
		77		CET
		79		LEP
		31		AND
		32		AND
		110		AND
		33		TRI
		34		PER
		76		PER
		45		TAU
		42		ORI
		43		ORI
		78		ORI
		41		CMA
		93		PUP
		47		PUP
		46		PUP
		50		MON
		48		HYA
		1		TAU
		35		GEM
		37		AUR
		36		AUR
		38		AUR
		44		CNC
		67		CNC
		95		LEO
		96		LEO
		105		LEO
		65		LEO
		66		LEO
		81		UMA
		82		UMA
		97		UMA
		108		UMA
		109		UMA
		40		UMA
		106		CVN
		94		CVN
		63		CVN
		51		CVN
		101		UMA
		102		DRA
		3		CVN
		53		COM
		64		COM
		85		COM
		100		COM
		98		COM
		99		COM
		88		COM
		91		COM
		86		VIR
		84		VIR
		87		VIR
		89		VIR
		90		VIR
		58		VIR
		59		VIR
		60		VIR
		49		VIR
		61		VIR
		104		VIR
		68		HYA
		83		HYA
		5		SER
		92		HER
		13		HER
		57		LYA
		56		LYA
		12		OPH
		10		OPH
		107		OPH
		9		OPH
		80		SCO
		4		SCO
		39		CYG
		29		CYG
		27		VUL
		71		SGE
		11		SCT
		26		SCT
		16		SER
		17		SGR
		18		SGR
		24		SGR
		23		SGR
		25		SGR
		21		SGR
		20		SGR
		8		SGR
		28		SGR
		22		SGR
		19		OPH
		62		OPH
		6		SCO
		7		SCO
		69		SGR
		70		SGR
		54		SGR
		52		CAS
		103		CAS
		15		PEG
		2		AQR
		75		SGR
		72		AQR
		73		AQR
		55		SGR
		30		CAP

Copyright 1990 Robert Bunge


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