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