Deep sky observers in the bay area are truly fortunate. Compared to other urban locations around the country, we have a great number of observing sites to choose from within a short drive. South of San Jose is an example, Henry Coe State Park. Just nine miles up East Dunne Road in Morgan Hill, Coe has wonderful horizons and skies are quite satisfying to the south, east and northeast. When fog shrouds the valleys it is an island of dark 2600 feet high.
Coe is an excellent choice to enjoy this month's objects. Here are a few objects placed within a two hour window rising in the east beginning at astronomical dark (R.A. 01:18 - 03:18).
Begin in the south on a nice chain of galaxies in Cetus. Move just over 2 degrees east-northeast of Theta Ceti to find NGC584. At mag 10.5 this elongated galaxy is the brightest in a chain including NGCs 596, 615 and 636. This is a fun group, including many dimmer galaxies beyond the mag 12.5 limit of this writing.
From there move east-northeast and find the star Menkar (Alpha Ceti). Use this as a guidepost to Gamma and then Delta Ceti, to enjoy views of M77. M77 is an active galaxy and shows its very bright core with tight spiral arms well with enough magnification. Try to get NGC1055 into the same low power field of view - there is a nice contrast between the brightness and shape of these two galaxies. On nearly the opposite side of M77 are two more galaxies under mag 12.5 limit NGC1087 and 1090.
Move northwest to M33 in Triangulum. It is easy to locate and visible in a binocular or magnifying finder from a dark site. This large pinwheel galaxy has a thick core and two major arms extending from it, looking to me almost a barred spiral. In a dark sky with good transparency this object is spectacular. See how many HII regions you can pick out. A few are bright enough to make you think they are small satellite galaxies.
Pick up your binoculars again and swing them a bit over eight and one half degrees north-northeast, two-thirds the way from Alpha Trianguli to Gamma Andromedae to find the big open cluster NGC752. Local observer Albert Highe described this as an easy naked eye object, during an observing trip to Arizona. Jamie Dillon saw it naked eye too at Fremont Peak.
From here move eight and one half degrees east-northeast toward Algol to find the bright galaxy, NGC1023. Jamie Dillon described it "with a complex core full of dust lanes, big arms spreading out at least 8' across the field." At visual mag 9.4 and a size of 8.7 x 3.0, this one is a can't miss. Jane Houston Jones noted "a little spur on the tip" - a satellite galaxy.
Move your scope just over three and one-half degrees north and find M34 (NGC1039), one of several outstanding Messier "30's" open clusters that decorate the winter Milky Way. Its large size (35') and numerous bright components make this another binocular object.
Move another three and one-half degrees, but west, to find the outstanding edge-on galaxy NGC891. Looking like a faint twin to NGC4565, this galaxy is a challenge in all but dark skies but rewards the keen-eyed observer with an obvious dust lane bisecting its major axis. Oh, how I wish this was a brighter object!
Continue west another three and one-half degrees to Gamma Andromedae. This is a beautiful double (actually spectrographic quadruple) star, appearing like a closer Albiero.
From there, go nine degrees north-northwest to the mag 4 star Phi-Persei, then just under one degree further north to find M76 The Little Dumbell. Jay Freeman can detect this planetary nebula in instruments as small as a 7x50 binocular. But in an 8" scope even from a moderately light-polluted backyard, this object can contains wealth of interesting detail. Try it with a UHC filter.
Sitting equidistant seven and a half degrees from naked eye stars Phi Persei, Delta Cassiopeiae and Gamma Persei, is the naked eye Double Cluster (NGC869 and 884). It is hard to go wrong with this object - it sparkles in a binocular or rich field telescope. I won't provide a description, if you've never seen it take a look, even if it is the only one you have time for.
Finish up the December tour with some more open clusters. While not as flashy as the Double Cluster, just under seven degrees northwest, toward Delta Cass, is M103. Matt Tarlach described M103 as "beautifully situated in the winter Milky Way and contains a pretty pair of contrasting orange and blue stars." This diminutive gem is a great jumping off point toward a series of fun opens in Cassiopeia. From there try for NGC659, 663, 654 and 637. These all lay near the five degree line between Delta and Epsilon Cassiopeiae, each having a unique and interesting personality. If you find you like these opens, try for NGC609, 559 and IC 166 in the neighborhood.
Next month we look forward to more wonderful winter objects, famous old friends, and some little, relatively unknown nuggets. My favorites are the wispy reflection nebulae in Orion, Gemini and Monoceros. Get your scopes out, and enjoy those clear dark skies so close by!
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