This time of year south bay amateur astronomers look forward to observing from Dinosaur Point, arguably the darkest local site. Use conditions currently include access only via special arrangement with the park administration, so if you want to go it is best to watch for discussions on TAC's mailing list at http://www.observers.org to see when "gatekeepers" will be going.
Located at the end of the Dinosaur Point Road at the summit of Pacheco Pass on Highway 152, between Hollister and Los Banos, this site can be excellent when winds die down between October and March. It features a large paved parking lot with shaded picnic benches, barbeques, bathrooms and a wonderfully tranquil atmosphere. But, do not attempt to go casually to this site. While the drive is no longer than to Fremont Peak or Henry Coe, knowing a group leader (gatekeeper) is going, and what times people will be able to leave during the night will prevent your being locked out.
This month our two hour eastern observing window beginning at astronomical dark is between right ascension 23h 30m and 1h 30m. Some outstanding targets are in that swath of sky — I'll include observing notes from several local deep sky observers.
Begin with NGC157 in the south, an elongated mag 10.4 galaxy in Cetus that appears dimmer with a surface brightness of 12.9 due to its large 4.2 x 2.7 size. Richard Navarrete described it as "big and bright between two bright stars" reminding him of M1 (12.5" dob).
Robert Leyland used a 17.5" newtonian to report on one of my favorite planetary nebulae NGC246, also in Cetus. "A really nice spherical outline, enhanced by changes in brightness across the face really pop this one into full 3-D perspective. Four brightish stars inside the nebula and a couple outside provide great contrast with the gauzy nebulosity. It is a fine sight at 100x, and an OIII filter at 200x provided wonderful contrast, clearly showing the increasing brightness on the edges of the bubble. One side of the nebula did seem a touch fainter also."
David Kingsley viewed NGC246 in a 7" Newtonian — "NGC246 is a beautiful large textured planetary nebula floating superimposed on 4 or 5 stars. This is one of the brightest, biggest, and most interesting planetaries I have seen that has not been awarded a common name." However, NGC2 246 has been (unofficially) referred to as the "Skull Nebula" and recently the "Voodoo Mask" Nebula. It shines at mag 10.9 and is large at 240" x 210".
While in the area, drop down from 246 to NGC253. If you have not seen this target before you are in for a great treat! NGC253 rivals any of the big bright Messier galaxies.
Jamie Dillon used an 11" Dob to report "NGC253 was once again unbelievable, the big galaxy with the long shapely legs in Sculptor, clear dust lanes, looping arms. Phwoo." This one is a must see!
Take a quick side trip a few degrees south to see globular cluster NGC288. William Schultz remarks that in his 11" SCT the globular "was not too populated and very easily resolved below 200X." NGC288 has a visual magnitude of 8.1.
Before leaving Cetus follow Albert Highe's view though his 12.5" Newtonian of NGC584 a 4.2 x 2.3 mag 10.5 glow with a surface brightness of 12.9. Albert reports: "One of the highlights of that evening was a string of four galaxies in Cetus spanning approximately two degrees: NGC584, 596, 615, and 636."
Of course this time of year everyone will want to enjoy views of our sister galaxy, M31 The Great Andromeda Galaxy. On good nights you can see two prominent dust lanes and the glow of NGC206 a bright cluster of blue super giant stars in the galaxy's arms. Look too for the nice satellite galaxies M32 and M110 both worthy targets that would be more famous were they not situated so close to M31. Don't forget to look at the big galaxy in binoculars to appreciate its entire expanse in a single view.
If you didn't know, M110 and M32 are not M31's only satellite galaxies.
NGC185 is another. Its magnitude is 10.10, but the large angular size dims it considerably. NGC185's surface brightness is only 14.3. I estimated its size at about 10'x10', found it to contain a bright core and a possible hint of a spiral arm or some form of elongation along the object's western extremity.
NGC278 sits very close to NGC185. NGC278 is a bright and compact round galaxy with a bright core, at magnitude 11.5, surface brightness 12.2, and 2'x2' in diameter. The core seems to diminish noticeably about 2/3rds of the way toward its periphery. Look too at NGC147 also in the area, and another satellite of M31.
Want a really easy target? NGC404, a pretty bright round galaxy that resides in the same field as bright star Beta Andromedae. Bruce Jensen reports "The two make a striking pair, the bright pinpoint and the faint cottonball. The galaxy was plenty bright enough to overcome the distracting light of the star, which is not always the case with this type of arrangement."
Finally, Robert Leyland, using an 8" Newtonian writes "NGC436 & NGC457 — next to phi Cassiopeia, a neat little double star (wide separation), forms the edge of open cluster NGC457, two wings of stars spread out on either side of the cluster and give it the look of an F/A-18 on afterburners, with phi Cas being the engines. (45x)."
Ahead of 457 (in the direction the plane is flying :-), is NGC436 a small knot of stars. Going to higher magnification (85x) shows numerous fainter stars in the core area, returning to 457 at this same power show many double stars inside the cluster. Maybe NGC436 is the "target" of 457.
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