The Messier Monster
by Mark Wagner
After a winter of poor skies, the opportunity recently arose for my 10 year
old daughter, Mimi, to use the 10" f/4.5 Coulter Odyssey I bought her
several months ago. We had a nice time out in our suburban backyard,
observing together. Mimi asked when my next trip would be to Fremont Peak,
as I had been promising to take her once the night temperatures rose above
meat locker. One of my observing friends has been talking about two nights
at Fremont Peak this week, since conditions looked unusually promising, and
since Mimi was on spring break, I offered to take her, the 10" and my 20"
f/5 for a night of observing. Mimi has almost grown up going to Fremont
Peak. She's seen rangers come and go, made friends, lost them, explored
the terrain up there, and in general, feels about as familiar and
comfortable up there as any old timer. Needless to say, she was overjoyed
at the thought of the first trip of 1999.
We enjoyed the drive together, a rare opportunity to spend some extended
time with my daughter just one on one. The ride up San Juan Canyon Road,
with the lush greenery, running stream, boulder strewn fields, sheep, cows,
wild turkeys, horses, hawks and turkey vultures was, well, a tranquil and
relaxing backdrop to a conversation with a young girl who is growing up.
Anyway, we arrived at the Peak to find Jeff Crilly waiting. Shortly
thereafter, Jeff Blanchard pulled in. We were all wondering who's tent was
set up... it was Rashad's.... he had been the first to arrive, but decided
to return home for some additional equipment. After dark, he arrived back
at the observatory, and our party was complete.
Mimi was raring to go. She immediately zeroed in on M42 and started her
observing log. She found the Trapezium interesting, but it was not
completely dark yet and the nebula was not fully showing. She would come
back to it later. After waiting longer for the sky to darken, she asked
me to suggest a target.
The Big Dipper was high and rising, and I knew that she knew the asterism.
So, I suggested she try for M97, The Owl Nebula, just off the end star of
the bottom of the bowl. After a moment's discussion of approximately where
to look, I suggested she just try, and I would be over at my scope viewing
if she needed help. I turned to walk away and heard "I think I've got it"....
I turned, stunned. I think a few others in the group were stunned. I
looked in the eyepiece and surely, the nice round visage of The Owl was
just off center. Everyone came to look and congratulate Mimi on her first
real Fremont Peak Star Hop.
"What's next, Dad" ... a phrase I would become very accustomed to over the
two nights. But, surely, she will not find them all so easy.... and I
described M108, saying it was close to M97 and she should scan around,
always trying to keep a known star in the eyepiece so she'd know where
she'd already been. I turned to walk to my scope and...
"I think I've got it!!!!" I could not believe it. I chuckled. She said
"It's a small slash of light, right?" I said yes, and took my confirming
view... and it was good. More congratulations, and the 10 year old was
bouncing, almost vibrating with excitement. With the number of nights
she's seen her dad hunting objects with friends, the methods must be, by
now, genetically coded into her being. She hit her first two real objects
So, where should she go next? What would be an easy target, but not too
easy? M51.... I can find it, but I rarely "land on it".... so this would
be next. I had a bit of trouble explaining its position, so Mimi and I
went to the tailgate of my truck where my laptop computer was running The
Sky. It occurred to me I might not get any observing in at this rate.. but
... well, my thoughts on that in a bit. We looked at The Big Dipper again,
on screen. I showed her how I found M51, forming a right angle with a star
below the handle midway between the end star and the middle handle star....
but she told me she had an easier way, and she was right. Over to the
scope she went, and... well, first, I have to describe what an excited 10
year old looks like moving the scope...
Mimi hugs her scope. She loves the scope. Calls it Cassiopeia, the sky
queen. So, she hugs it while moving it. When she thinks she's on the
right spot.... wham!!!! Up go her hands.... off the scope in a flash up
into the air, like someone responding to a hold-up command "get your hands
up"!!!! It kills me to see this, makes me laugh... but it works for her.
Ray Cash, Mark and Mimi Wagner, Jim Shields, Steve Gottlieb... and
Mimi's 10" Coulter on a Tom Osypowski Equatorial Platform near the Sierra Buttes.
Anyway... M51. She nailed it. It was becoming obvious to everyone that a
monster was being created. What else? How about a few naked eye objects.
I told her M45, the Seven Sisters was a Messier object. She asked me how
Messier could mistake it for a comet. Good question! She put the scope on
it to officially register it as a telescope object on her list. Now I
described a star hop into Cancer, off Pollux and Castor in Gemini, telling
Mimi to look for a fuzzy haze, where M44 would be. She found it easily,
marveling at the naked-eye smudge. When she looked in the eyepiece, she
said it was "beyond words" and she could see why it is called the Beehive.
Next she moved on to M65 and M66, telling me there was a big edge on galaxy
in the field with them. She'd picked out NGC3628. She was dancing. What
And I was having fun too. I've coached plenty of people, but had never
taken time to help my own daughter. This was as good as it gets. I knew
it didn't matter if I did my own observing that night.... she'd improve and
be able to be on her own soon enough... and probably sooner than that at
the rate she was going. I decided I would surely be up later than her, and
my observing would happen after she went to bed.
About this time, another observer, Robert Perri, showed up, setting up his
truss tube 10" Dob. If you are a local reading this, you should get a look
at Robert's design. It is amazing. His scope is a "front seat"
telescope... no reclining the seat, and nothing touching the floorboards.
A few of us helped tell Mimi where to find M104. I think Jeff Crilly told
her about the little group of pointer stars near it. We looked on the
computer and found a naked eye star just below the galaxy. At the scope,
she found the pointers in no time, then said "I think there's something at
the edge of the eyepiece"... she'd done it again.
My daughter knows the mythology of Corvus, Crater and Hydra, and saw on a
star chart that M68 is just below Corvus. She measured the distance below,
and soon checked off another M object.
I reminded her that she'd found M95 and M96 in her scope from our backyard,
and that they'd look much better at the Peak. It should also be noted
here, that this night there was a good cover of fog over the valleys and
coast, and the sky darkness was like the Peak "used to be".... it was quite
dark. Mimi checked her chart, found M95, M96, M105 and NGCs 3384 and 3389.
She had her fill for the night, and was soon tucked into her sleeping bag
in the back of the truck.
The next night we returned to Fremont Peak after a trip home so I could get
some work done (and so Mimi could shower). There was no fog at the Peak,
and though the sky was much brighter, the transparency and steadiness were
both 10's. It was a great night.
Mimi began with M43, as I had told her it was essentially part of M42, or
seemed to be. Mimi decided she wanted to get all the Messier 40's tonight,
as a project. So, M41 was the next quarry. Easy pickings. I looked and
confirmed. She found that by taking the foot of the dog (Canis Major),
drawing a line to Sirius, and making a right angle above it the same
distance, she'd be about on M47. The bright coarse cluster was gorgeous.
I said M46 was just a short way off, and after a bit of poking around, she
said "this MUST be it".... and it was. I asked if she saw a little dim
ball in the cluster, and she identified NGC2438, the planetary in the big
cluster. She looked at it on the computer and mentioned how it was at the
apex of a dark "triangle" pointing into the cluster. She must have better
eyes than I do!
After a late night the night before, fatigue was beginning to catch up with
her. We looked for M48 in Hydra. It was an interesting star hop from
Procyon in Canis Minor (using the "other" star in the little dog to draw a
line), to two dimmer stars to the east, and just off a visual triple star.
Sure enough, it was in her eyepiece. I was looking at our only observing
partner for the night, Rashad, and shaking my head. Mimi was awesome. She
described M48 as like "being inside a diamond mine" and I think she's right.
Asking about M40, I said she should forget about that one until some other
time, as a double star is not very exciting, and difficult to confirm. So,
she asked about M49.
M49.... where was it? I didn't remember. We checked. Ouch!!!!! Right in
the heart of Virgo.... the beginner's graveyard. Virgo strikes fear into
newbies. It strikes fear into a lot of people with poorly developed star
hopping skills (in Virgo, you need galaxy hopping skills). But Mimi
insisted, she would get it.
We used the computer to map out a strategy. Mimi went to her scope and
swung it toward Virgo. Looking in her eyepiece she immediately said "I've
got it!!!!" .... but, she didn't. I told her Virgo had sooo many galaxies
that it was a tough area to work. Again, at the computer, she determined
she'd looked at the wrong star in the sweeping curve of Virgo's bright
"arms"... so .... back to the scope.
In a matter of seconds, M49 was hers.
Smiling, content, the Messier Monster was done, but only for the night.
There will be no stopping it. An observer is born.
E-mail Mimi the email@example.com
A Happy Monster
by Mark Wagner
[As posted on The Astronomy Connection a mail list of Bay Area Observers --that's what "TACos" are. 2/23/00]
I was looking at the sky from my backyard tonight, between drenchings. A
few clouds low over the mountains to the south, small puffs here and there,
but mostly clear. A bit hazy I thought, but still, after what we've been
through, any sky is good sky. I thought about the TACos on Montebello
hill, hoping the dew would be kind to them and some photons enjoyed. Then
it occurred to me, my daughter had finished her homework and was sinking
back into the couch to watch some of the Grammy Awards before dessert and
bedtime. Why not haul her 10" Dob out back and let her get two of the
three remaining Messier targets she lacks to complete the survey? I went
back in, looked at her and began thumbing through an old copy of Tirion's
Sky Atlas 2000, in such a way as to get her attention.
It didn't take long. "What do you have that out for dad?" I didn't say
anything, just smiled, a small, sly smile. "Is it clear outside?" I
answered, and before the "s" in yes was out, she was up and heading for her
Out came the scope. On went the Telrad and in went the 20mm eyepiece.
Mimi, the Messier Monster, lacked M50, M93 and M83. With Orion beginning
his decline toward the west, both M50 and M93 were in prime position. Mimi
usually uses my laptop computer in the field while observing. She can
point and click _The_Sky_ with nearly the proficiency I have gained in the
past few seasons. But this was new. Tirion SA 2000 made her turn pages,
operate without constellation lines, and experience a new way to navigate.
With her fingers, she measured the distance on the page from Sirius to
Procyon, figuring out how far it was to M50 between the two bright points.
After a bit of trial and error (observer's rust), she was on a bright large
open cluster. "I think I've got it." Boy, have I gotten accustomed to
those words. I looked, and thought, well, maybe. We checked the chart,
then into the house to the computer to fire up _The_Sky_ where we
identified several bright stars surrounding the cluster. Back to the
eyepiece, a bit of fiddling to get it back in, and Mimi identified the
marker stars. She then said "I think I've seen this one before." It was
only then that I told her I thought so too. But it was a great start.
Immediately she wanted to hit M93. Over to the charts, insisting on
finding the right page herself, I showed her where the next object was
located. "Find the dog's tail, and right angle up to the three stars in a
line, then just west of the middle star" I told her. She looked at the
chart and agreed. Over to the scope and bang, right on the spot. "Its
beautiful" she said, and paused for a good look.
She went on to look at M42, showing nicely in the bright city sky. "What
else can I look at?" Here we go. I looked up and said, well, how about...
and she jumped in "The Beehive!" Well, yes, but its so bright out here...
still we found it on the chart, saw where it was somewhat between Leo's
head and Castor, and she was gone... at the Telrad and again, on the
object. "It's not a Beehive, it's a diamond mine" she said. I had to
agree, the great spread of bright stars was like a treasure chest of bright
gems. How fun to get out for a while, even on a school night, with such
enthusiasm and imagination.
Before the night was finished, all within an hour, she continued to find
NGC2903 in Leo, a beautiful view of M45, amazing me by getting a good view
of M1 (I guess the transparency must have been pretty good after all), on
to NGC 2362 (the gorgeous small bright cluster with Tau Canis Majoris a
foreground object.... also known at times as "The Mexican Jumping Star"),
as well as noting how amazing it is that these things are just dim points
in the sky when you look up, but they take on a whole other meaning through
the telescope. It is a sense of amazement.
She finished up wondering when she'd be able to get that last elusive
object, M83. We could see the head of Hydra rising up south of Leo, and I
explained that the "snake" was the longest constellation in the sky, and
M83 lay low on the horizon, or perhaps below. It would have to wait for
another night, it was a school night. Finally, she looked up and made a
comment all amateur astronomers come to realize... she said "you know dad,
the sky is not just stars anymore, when I look up, there are areas.... its
broken up into pieces now." The constellations are falling into place for
her. She will always have that wonderful intimate familiarity with the
night. It will be with her long after I am. She was a happy monster. I
was a happy dad. An hour is all it took.
Good night, TACo friends.