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The Cosmic Fajitas Trip

by Russ Pinizzotto

It started out with an invitation to fly to San Antonio for the day, but ended up as a cosmic extravaganza in West Texas. John Rousseau called and asked if I would like to meet his cousin and spend some time flying on Sunday, March 14. Never one to turn away an excuse for some cross-country time, I said it sounded like an excellent plan to me. The next thing I knew, we were planning on flying along the Rio Grande down to some small town called Lajitas for lunch followed by floating down the river in tubes. John's cousin is also a pilot, so if we were all going to be spending time in a plane, we might as well go somewhere and do something. It was sounding better and better all of the time!

And then reality reared its ugly head. After arriving in San Antonio, John's cousin found out that he actually needed to attend the conference meetings that he was in town for and couldn’t wiggle his way out of them. Since our primary excuse for flying to San Antonio in the first place was to give him some flying time in Texas, the trip was off. I casually mentioned to John that someday in the future, if we were going to fly down to Big Bend anyway, we should plan to stay overnight. The Davis Mountains are considered to be the best dark sky site for astronomy in North America, and the McDonald Observatory of the University of Texas is located there. I'd bring my telescope and we could see for ourselves how much better the West Texas skies were than the light polluted haze of North Dallas.

On top of this, March is Spring Break for us university types, and this year it happened to coincide with the New Moon. These are perfect conditions not for beach parties on South Padre Island, but rather for a Messier Marathon! Charles Messier was a French astronomer and comet-hunter of the late 1700s who cataloged nebulae, star clusters and other comet-like objects that he found in the sky so that he wouldn't confuse them with real comets. By a quirk of fate, it is theoretically possible to observe all 110 Messier objects in one night around the time of the vernal equinox, March 21. I think that sometime during my talk with John, I mentioned that I wanted to try it.

On Monday, March 15, I did a Messier Marathon from the University of North Texas Observatory just north of Denton. My first attempt netted 54 of the objects. I spent a lot of time fighting with a 14-inch telescope and tried to see each object with the big scope, even if I had already seen it with my binoculars. Many of the Messier objects are in the southern skies, which in this case put them directly over the lights of Denton and Dallas. The biggest light polluter in Denton is . . . you guessed it, the University of North Texas! Only netting 54 of 110 was somewhat disappointing. Being in Denton, though, would give me a better appreciation for what was about to happen over the coming weekend.

John called that evening and asked my wife Robin if I still wanted to go to West Texas sometime that week. He was ready to take a day off from work and hit the skies! After getting some sleep on Tuesday, I called John back and asked if he really wanted to go to West Texas for some astronomy and flying. His emphatic positive response convinced me that we had a winner. Friday evening looked like it would have the best weather, with a cold front moving through on Thursday. We planned to fly to Marfa, and I found an excellent observing site on the peak just south of the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis: the Andromeda Galaxy Observatory. It's a private observing site with everything we would need to have a chance of pulling off a successful Messier Marathon.

On Friday morning, March 19, we loaded up N127B with enough stuff to last the two of us at least a week. I brought my 6" Criterion RV-6 telescope and mount, a Celestron C90 1100 mm spotting scope, my 7x50 Binolux binoculars, and a briefcase full of books and charts to be able to find and verify all 110 Messier objects. I also had all of my flying gear, including a laptop computer. John brought all of his flying gear, plus. We even had suitcases and munchies!

It was a drizzly morning with IMC. If I hadn't checked out all of the real-time satellite photos and weather forecasts, I would have been really worried about what to expect by the time we got to Marfa, but the GOES-8 satellite showed that it was perfectly clear west of Abilene. I flew the outbound trip because I knew I'd be up all that night. John could get some sleep and fly us home on Saturday.

We launched at noon into a 1000 foot ceiling and flew in deep IMC for about 20 minutes before breaking out of the clouds. The farther we flew to the southwest, the clearer it became. It was a good omen. As we approached Marfa, the mountains could be seen from 60 miles out or more. They were incredibly sharply defined and seemed very close indeed as we flew past the Davis Mountains and over Twin Peaks. The approach into Marfa sure looked strange. Flying the downwind leg to runway 12, the ground rises abruptly, causing a very unsettling sight picture through the windshield. It looked like we were flying right into the side of a hill instead of coming around to line up for final. The Marfa airport has a new building for the FBO, right next to a hangar used by the Border Patrol. An Army Medivac helicopter stationed there waited for us to land and taxi in before leaving.

After unloading the plane and loading the rental car, we drove into Marfa to check into our room, and then drove the 25 miles to Fort Davis for lunch/dinner. The Blue Mountain Diner turned out to be much more than we expected. It was fantastic and is heartily recommended to anyone who visits Fort Davis. We drove out to the Andromeda Galaxy Observatory early enough to get ready for an evening of following in Messier's footsteps.

The Observatory is definitely off-the-beaten-path. After heading west on Texas 166 for 10 miles to the Davis Mountain Resort, we had another 20 minutes of driving on dirt roads. The final hills were almost too much for the rental car. We slipped our way around the switchbacks with spinning tires. The name High Lonesome Trail was very appropriate since the altitude was 6500 feet MSL. McDonald Observatory was visible on the next mountain to the north. The Andromeda Galaxy Observatory has two surplus domes with telescopes in them, and several scopes either outside or on the porch, with data cables snaking in to the computers in the lodge. After meeting Gary, who lives there about 80% of the time, I set up both of my scopes on one of the concrete pads and got my charts all ready to go. By now, it was 7:00 pm and just beginning to get dark. As the sun went down, John and I used the Border Patrol Radar Surveillance Balloon to align the spotter scopes. A crescent moon and Venus were the first objects to light up the darkening sky, and it was immediately apparent why so many astronomers flock to West Texas. They say Venus is so bright out there that you can see your shadow when your back is turned to it! Saturn became visible next, just below Venus.

The setup at Andromeda Observatory

It was time to get to work, and the Messier Marathon starts with three difficult objects that are barely visible through the low skies and zodiacal light. M74 is a spiral galaxy in the constellation Pisces that I had never seen before. I found it at 8:10 pm! M77 is another spiral galaxy in Cetus that I had seen from my backyard in North Dallas, so I knew what to look for and found it 7 minutes later. M33 is a very large spiral galaxy in Triangulum that actually is larger than the full moon, but it's so dim that you can't see it without binoculars. Once I had bagged these three, I knew it might be possible to see all 110 and exceed my personal goal of 100 before the night was over. As the evening wore on, I found the open star clusters, planetary nebula, elliptical galaxies, diffuse nebulae, globular clusters, supernova remnants and asterisms that make up the rest of the list. Seeing this many galaxies in one night makes you believe that there is no way that are all alone in a universe that's so big. Until about 3:00 am, after finding each one I would call John over to the scope. He would take a look, confirm what I had seen and say, "Okay, get going to the next one!" It was a good thing he was there pushing me on (and supplying me coffee) or else I would have stayed to marvel at some of the Messier objects I was either seeing for the first time or seeing in a completely new way in the crystal clear skies over Fort Davis. I even spotted 34 of them in the binoculars.

From 1 to 2 am there was time for a break as we waited for the constellation Ophiuchus to rise in the east. Going back outside after warming up made it seem at least 10 times as cold as when I went in. John and Gary said they thought I might give it up because it was definitely getting into the 30s by then. But press on, press on through Sagittarius, Lyra and Cygnus! The cookies John had bought at the diner tasted great even if they were half frozen. At 5:00 am with only 6 to go, I could feel myself getting apprehensive. The goal was so close, and I hoped I could finish it up in style. It took me 17 minutes to find the small globular cluster M75 and another 12 to find the similar looking M72. I had used up more than 30 minutes and the eastern skies were definitely getting brighter as sunrise approached! Would there be enough time to finish? I found the next three in 11 minutes, and that left only M30, a globular cluster in Capricorn to complete the list. This is a major stumbling block for a lot of marathoners and numerous final tallies of 109 out of 110 are the proof. It took me a very nervous 15 minutes to find it: a small, hazy smudge that I positively identified using my star charts. Success at 5:58 am! Ten minutes later the eastern sky was so bright that it was impossible to see it any more.

I went inside the lodge and had a cup of coffee, and then loaded up the car. John and Gary woke up at about 7:00 am, and we talked about how successful this trip had been. In addition to the Messier objects, we saw Venus, Saturn and Mars, watched Mir traverse the sky, witnessed numerous meteors, some even leaving trails, and saw Omega Centauri, the largest globular cluster in the sky. John and I drove down to Marfa and I got about 3 hours of sleep before we drove back out to the airport. While I was sleeping, John finished our pre-flight planning, called Flight Service, and even found out what we had to do to make sure Customs didn't get too nervous about a small plane flying along the US-Mexican border.

We left Marfa at about 1:00 pm, after watching Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson arrive in a State of Texas King Air, and after inspecting a Lear Jet at the gas pumps. The Lear had a big bulbous nose and optical domes under the fuselage, definitely not standard equipment. It belonged to US Customs, and the pilots were on their lunch break. We were assured that the skies along the border were not left unguarded during lunch, however.

The flight to Lajitas (17XS) took about an hour. We flew over the Chinati Mountains at 8500 feet following US67 to Presidio. A sharp left turn had us following the Rio Grande. We were squawking transponder code 1234 and making sure we stayed on the US side so we wouldn't have to explain what we were doing to the Customs agents. John had called ahead so we could use the private strip, and after flying around a mesa to lose altitude we landed for lunch. There's a resort with a really good restaurant right across the road. It was built to look like an old Western town of the 1800s. What do these people do who live all the way out here?

Lajitas Mesa ----- Lajitas

What do you have in Lajitas for lunch? Why Lajitas Fajitas, of course!

After departing Lajitas, we headed southeast to follow the Rio Grande completely around Big Bend before flying home. We stayed well above the requested 2000 feet AGL through the National Park. In several places, the Rio Grande cuts directly through the mountains forming very steep-walled canyons that were spectacular to see from the air. Some were only a few hundred yards wide, but thousands of feet deep. Emory Peak rises to 7825 feet in the middle of Big Bend, and we flew counterclockwise around it to follow the turn of the river back to the northeast. The Sierra Del Carmen are across the river in Mexico and rise to over 8900 feet, well above our cruising altitude of 6500. The mountains, canyons and river made for a memorable flight up to Sanderson. There we set the GPS for ADS and headed home via Ozona, San Angelo, Brownwood, Stephenville and Fort Worth. We were vectored around the southern side of DFW and then over Navy Dallas to Love Field to ADS.

What a Spring Break flying trip! This even out did the Meandering Round the Metroplex extravaganza of 1997. We logged a completely successful Messier Marathon followed by flying through some of the most spectacular scenic areas of Texas. The Cosmic Fajitas Trip is going to be hard to beat.

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