Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Skunked in Los Gatos

Last night, I pulled my 10" f/5.6 Dob out to my Los Gatos backyard, anticipating an hour or so of clear skies and relaxation. As the twilight faded, I was looking at star images and enjoying just stumbling across colorful doubles and tiny asterisms. It was not completely dark yet, so in I went, to look on the computer for anything of interest (other than work). Half an hour later, I was back outside.

The sky appeared bright, but then, I'd not been out in my backyard for a few months, so it was really difficult to determine what sort of night it was. I would think about Lassen, but that is just too unfair a comparison. I did note that I could not see any hints of the Milky Way in Cygnus though.

Averting my vision from the neighbor's kitchen window, and noticing how I could do hand shadows on the back of my house from the light pouring out (I was too lazy to put up my astro-blind for a short night), I began watching Ophiuchus for the stars to show and allow me to star hop.

I was using an old Tirion Sky Atlas 2000 and the descriptive companion book in order to select objects. Usually, I use a laptop computer, but it is fun to dabble around with a printed chart now and then. I decided first to hunt down a couple globular cluster on page 15, NGC 6517 and NGC 6539. Both are near 64 Ophiuchi, at the eastern boundary of Ophiuchus where it meets the southwestern portion of Serpens Cauda.

Using my 20 Nagler and an 11x70 finderscope, the star field was no problem to locate. The double star 69 Ophiuchi bracketed NGC 6517 between 64 Ophiuchi. The double star is part of a very nice elongated parallelogram of stars I came to know well. Well, I looked and looked, but could only sometimes imagine I was getting hints of the cluster. It is described at mag 10.3, and rather small at 4.3', so its surface brightness should not be too poor, but it just wasn't there.

Nudging the scope up just north of 69 Ophiuchi, I tried for NGC 6539, another globular cluster. This one is technically in Serpens Cauda, and is described as having a low central concentration of stars, faint, and small. You can probably guess... no dice.

Well, this was frustrating. Much time back and forth at the charts, looking at the sky, wondering if it was just a bad night, back at the eyepiece, more wondering.

How about NGC 6426, almost on a line between the easy naked eye stars 60 and 62 Ophiuchi? Nothing. Well, it is also described as dim, so, heck, I was kidding myself with this one. I saw that a short distance away was NGC 6384, a galaxy described ad pretty bright, small, etc. at mag 10.6. Well, I've been down to almost mag 12 in my backyard so I searched for a while. The star fields in were very easy to identify, but again, skunked.

Maybe higher in the sky would work. Up into Aquila, nearby Altair is NGC 6804, a planetary nebula described as quite bright, small, irregular/round with a well resolved ring. Sitting right next to a mag 7 double star, this one should be easy. Nope. Not there.

About now, frustration was setting in. The sky was looking washed out. No Milky Way... I had thought I was just not dark adapted (is that possible in a suburban backyard). I shot up to the Ring Nebula. Yes, it was still there, along with the pretty little Alberio-like blue and gold double close by. But the ring looked dull, not a bright object like usual.

Next, I went to M4 in Scorpius. Yes, it was there too, but it was a poor view.

Finally, I headed up high, into Hercules. M13 showed "ok" but not great. And that was in the best part of the sky.

How disappointing! The evening stunk! I'd been skunked. The moon was due up, and all I had for my efforts was a few poor views.

I packed up everything but the scope and went it. Played on the Internet for a while, then took the dog out back.

Looked up, and guess what? No stars. Only a gray blanket. No wonder I was having trouble... low clouds were probably hazing out the sky from early on, finally filling in and putting backyard astronomers out of business.

I am glad to hear Montebello was nice. At least somebody got some observing in! I hope Coe turns out well on Saturday...

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