After reading Jay Freeman's report about finishing his list of Burnham Handbook objects, I finally decided to get off my butt and finally attempt to finish off my last 6 Messiers.
All of my previous observations had been with 7x50 binoculars and a Bushnell 60mm f/11.7 refractor. Although this limited arsenal was a little frustrating, I frequently had naked-eye limiting magnitudes near 6.0 and I managed to find 104 of the objects on the 110 object list, mostly in 1987-1989. I was progressing through college by the end of this time, and pretty much quit amateur astronomy except for the occasional bright comet or sunspot observation.
Lately, I've been doing a lot of astrophotography with camera lenses, but I've still never managed to buy the better telescope I've wanted for a long time. I was planning on going out after moonset (~9:00UT) on the morning of the 17th to get a second photo of minor planet 324 Bamberga to detect it's motion over a multiple-day period. Since we're getting close to Full Moon, I knew that I might not have another good chance for observing for a couple weeks. Luckily, my remaining objects were spring galaxies, perfectly placed on a January morning at Last Quarter. Thus, I decided to pack along the 60mm, sans tripod (I can mount it on my barndoor camera platform), and Uranometria 2000.0. In addition, I brought along the spiral notebook which contains my notes about seeing the previous Messiers, except for the obvious ones. The first page of the notebook even contains some nice sketches of Comet Halley through binoculars!
My usual observing site is about 8 miles west of the west edge of Laramie at a road turnout for an Overland Trail marker. Thanks to our dry, high-altitude air and being in the middle of nowhere, even here limiting magnitudes are routinely 6.5 or better above 45 degrees elevation except looking directly above town.
Since it was Thursday night and this is a college town, I decided to wait until about 2:30am to leave to let any possible traffic from the bars clear out. I arrived at the site at 9:45UT (notice the deft switch to UT once the astronomy starts) and it only takes a few minutes to set up the camera equipment. It was a typical night so I didn't make any kind of detailed limiting magnitude check; I could fairly easily see a 6.3 magnitude star near Polaris and that was enough to confirm the first impression.
My astrophotography program was quite spartan; a couple of shots with the 135mm lens for 324 Bamberga and a couple of other short exposures for other things. Thus, by 10:00UT I was ready to whip out the scope and Uranometria and go nuts. Hey, where's the book? Right where I left it on the damn sofa. The decision wasn't hard and I decided to suffer the half-hour time penalty (and the extra sleep deprivation) and go back home to get it.
By 10:45UT I had the telescope set up and was ready to roll. The only high quality eyepiece I have is an Orion 18mm Kellner, yielding 39x and a 1+ degree field of view. I should mention at this point that the temperature was around 5F/-15C or perhaps a little lower, and the calm air early on gave way to a 5-10 mph breeze.
Now the observing program. Four of the galaxies were in the Coma/Virgo cluster and I started with M91. This object almost killed the entire project! First of all, I didn't bring the finder for the telescope because it's almost worthless, thus the star-hop was somewhat intricate and lengthy. Second, it took 10 minutes at the proper location to see the galaxy. Part of this was due to not giving myself quite enough time for dark-adaptation, but this was still the faintest object of the night. Next was the pair M89 and M90 just 2 degrees south of M91. Without a true equatorial mount, I did a quick star hop to find these. They fit in the same field and seemed to have about the same surface brightness but M90 was larger. Then I had to star-hop 5 degrees west-northwest to M98. It's just 30 arcminutes from a 5th magnitude star so it was easy to locate. This was fainter than M89 and M90, but brighter than M91.
Onward to Leo! I got bogged down here trying to find Kappa Leonis in the scope, and on top of that I was finally starting to get cold. I could visually see the four-star trapezoid of Kappa, Iota, Rho, and 46 Leonis but it proved difficult to get Kappa in the eyepiece. From here it was a short star-hop to M105. There are three galaxies clustered together here and I had a note in my observing log from May 1989 of possibly seeing one of the galaxies. Here I got my bonus object of the night as I was able to see both M105 and NGC 3384. In my notes I compared M105 to M90 and NGC 3384 to M98.
One more to go! I had deliberately left M95 for last. It lies in the same field as the brighter M96 and I tried to see both galaxies for 10 minutes on an excellent night back in March 1988 but could only barely see M96 let alone M95. However, I didn't have the 18mm Kellner then and I didn't have such good skies. These galaxies are less than two degrees from M105. I moved down and caught one galaxy, and then a bit over to get two. For completeness, I stifled my enthusiasm and verified which was which.
Yaaaaay! As much as anything, I was glad to be able to stand up and get the circulation going again. I was glad to be able to finish the list with the 60mm; I still want a larger telescope, though!
By now it was 12:00UT so I also got to see Hale-Bopp. Even looking east across Laramie's light pollution, it was easily visible in 7x50s without using a finder chart just 3 degrees above the mountains (about 85 degrees from zenith). Of course, just the brightest part of the coma was visible, with no visible tail. I was too cold and tired to hang around and wait for it to climb higher, and frankly I'm content to wait for early February when it will be more favorably placed.
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