Monday, June 09, 2008

Messier shootout

My Musing yesterday on Halley's Comet brings to mind another Sky & Telescope sponsored trip, this time in March of 1991 to write an article that would be called "Shoot-out at Star Hill Inn."

The idea was to stage a Messier Marathon, an attempt to see in a single night all 109 of the blurry sky objects cataloged by the late-18th-century astronomer Charles Messier. Messier had no idea what he was looking at, only that the blurs were not comets (they didn't move). It turns out the objects were star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae of various sorts.

On only a few days of the year -- mid-March -- is a Messier marathon theoretically possible, catching the first objects as the Sun sets, and the last as the sky lightens at dawn. Moreover, to make the adventure more fun, Sky planned to pit a skilled sky observer against a computer-controlled telescope. In one corner, Tomm Lorenzin of North Carolina, manhandling his sleek, white, 18-inch Dobsonian, supplemented with his own 1000+ deep sky observing guide and star atlas. In the other corner, John Ebersole, Jim Connor, and Phil Mahon, fingers poised on computer keyboard and console buttons, piloting Jim's 14-inch Celestron with CCD camera and a 400-mm focal length reflector riding piggyback.

The power of raw experience versus the power of the microchip. The sensitivity of the human eye versus the CCD camera and a heap of electronics. This was to be the astronomical equivalent of John Henry and the Steam Driver, with me along with pen and notebook to record the long dark night at the Star Hill Inn in the foothills of New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

I was struck by the strangeness of it all, this gathering of grown men, most of who had traveled great distances, leaving behind important jobs to spend a night chasing after blurs of light in the sky. And what a night! After a frenzied few moments at twilight, things settled down during the midnight hours, with long stretches of sipping hot chocolate and enjoying the beauty of the night. At dawn things became frenetic again, and both Tomm and the computer team struggled to catch the final objects before they were lost in the gathering light, Final tally: images of 108 Messier objects stored in a Mac, and 107 on Tomm's retina (and verified by me).

Lorenzin was heartened by his close run to the computer. He observed: "The satisfaction I get is like that of a sailor who has learned the skills to navigate a large body of water" -- in this case, an ocean of inky New Mexico darkness containing a myriad of worlds.

(My account of the shootout was in the October 1991 issue of Sky and Telescope.)