With one hour and twenty minutes of exposure and several hours of processing, I have finished my work on the Pleiades Star Cluster. Also known as the seven sisters, its stars are surrounded by blue nebulae, which are difficult to see in a telescope but easily visible through long exposure photography. As the blue stars move through these dust clouds, their light reflects off of them creating the nebulosity in this image. I am really pleased with the faint details of the clouds and their complex structure.
M74-The First Attempt
With two dim galaxies left to go on the Messier List, I arrived at Back Creek Valley Overlook around 8:15 PM to skies that were clear and steady, ranking a 6 for transparency and very good to excellent for seeing conditions. I first turned my attention to M74, one of the dimmest and most difficult objects to view on the Messier List. The pattern of stars were right where they should have been, but no M74. After a few more failed attempts, I decided to move on to my other object of the evening.
M33: The Triangulum Galaxy
The Triangulum Galaxy is massive and, due to its size, has a low surface brightness. A 2 inch eyepiece providing 32x magnification gave the best views of this large galaxy, which was easier to distinguish from the background sky than I expected. With M33 documented, I now was down to my final Messier target, but the surprising ease of observing the dim M33 made me concerned that M74 wasn’t going to show itself tonight.
M74-The Final Attempt If M74 wouldn’t show itself under these ideal seeing conditions, I had two options. Drive to a darker location or use a larger telescope next time I was observing with friends. I didn’t feel like driving any farther tonight and was determined to get all of the Messier targets with my own 8 inch Dobsonian. Around 8:30 PM, my attention turned exclusively to observing M74, and it still wasn’t showing itself. After about 10 minutes of attempts, I thought some faint signs of cloudy detail were possibly coming through, but it was nothing I was comfortable with documenting as a sighting. I then spent the next 15 minutes with a sweater draped over my head to create a “dark room on the Parkway”. Going between 48x and 96x magnification, some more stars slowly started to appear where just a few minutes before there was only darkness. Finally, around 8:50 PM, my “darkroom” was paying off, and the ghostly smudge of a galaxy core began to lift itself out of the background of space. With the extremely faint smudgy core of M74 now appearing exactly where it needed to be on my star chart, I documented my last Messier target at 8:54 PM on October 24, 2019.
After 27 separate observing sessions spanning nearly two and a half years, my journey through the 110 objects that make up the Messier List fittingly ended on two dim fuzzy galaxies viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Here are some stats regarding my time observing the Messier List.
The Messier List Project Began: June 11, 2017 Project Completed: October 24, 2019 Time Elapsed: 2 Years, 4 Months and 13 Days
Observing Sessions: 27 Nights
Most Objects Viewed in One Session: 11 Averaged Viewed Per Session: 4
Objects Viewed from Home: 94 Objects Viewed from Parkway: 16
The Andromeda Galaxy is one of the most impressive spiral galaxies in the night sky. Even at a distance of 2.5 million light years its massive central core takes up about as much sky as a full Moon. This image captured over 1 hour worth of light from Andromeda’s 1 trillion stars and took about 3 hours to process and edit!
“The heavens declare the glory of God” Psalm 19:1
In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing I purchased some memorabilia. The 50th anniversary stamps and coins released by the USPS and US Mint are wonderful collectors items to commemorate one of our greatest achievements!
Of the seven Messier targets remaining, none can be viewed from my home and with time off from work coming to a close, few opportunities remain to complete the summer portion of my list. This was the setup for my trip to Back Creek Valley Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway July 28/29 from 10:45 PM to 12:45 AM.
Arriving at the site, I was relieved to see that no one else was present. This was my first time observing on the Parkway by myself. At first I was a bit uneasy, but after setting up and focusing on the targets of the evening, it was quite a peaceful experience. When I stepped out of my car the brightness and density of the Milky Way stretched from the dark horizon facing South to the Northern horizon where it was absorbed into the light dome of the city. It was a spectacular site that I have never seen stretched across the entire night sky.
Tonight’s Big Three: M20, M24 & M16 Using Saturn as a starting point, I worked my way through the dense core of our galaxy first coming across M20, the Trifid Nebula. Trifid appeared quite dim with some visible structure and two bright stars right at its core. Even under dark skies this was a difficult target but averted vision did help to reveal some of the famous cracks in its core. M24, the Sagittarius Star Cloud is one of the few Messier objects that I have needed to use a 2 in. eyepiece to properly observe. The wide field of view revealed the stunning density of this cluster. Viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway, it was much more impressive than at home. M16, the Eagle Nebula was the most difficult target to view this evening. It was actually more visible through my 9×50 finder scope than through the telescope. An O-III filter and averted vision helped to bring out the nebulosity and structure that surrounded several stars. As I worked my way up the core of the Milky Way I came across some objects viewed before but that were much more impressive for a darker sky location. The Omega Nebula was truly stunning and appeared to pop out from the background sky with a three dimensional quality and the Lagoon Nebula was a much more impressive sight than its nearby neighbor Trifid. Using the 9×50 finder scope and 2 in. eyepiece to slowly work up and down the core of our galaxy just to see what I would come across was one of the most unique observing experiences of my life.
Two More for the Night: M55, M72
Moving away from the Milky Way led me first to M55, a large but dim globular cluster appearing more like a round nebula. The size of this globular was impressive and some fine detail was apparent at higher magnifications. M72 was an unimpressive small and dim globular cluster with no fine detail.
The Final Two…
After finding the five main objects for the evening I made an attempt at M33, the Pinwheel Galaxy and M74. Both were too low to the horizon for such dim objects. My plan is to come back to the Parkway in early November to observe them which would bring an end to my Messier list before the end of 2019.
Io casting an impressive shadow as it moves between Jupiter and the Sun. Tracking these transits across the surface of Jupiter is a really interesting observing opportunity and shows the ever evolving dance between Jupiter and it’s many moons.