One of the most disconcerting experiences
in amateur astronomy is to head out to an observing site, binoculars or
telescope in hand, get all set up, wait until dark, then look up at the
night sky and not have a clue what you are are seeing or where to look.
The moon and the bright planets are usually easy to find, but once you've
seen those, what else can you look at? If you have someone nearby, say at
a star party, who knows the night sky, they can give you some pointers,
but you still have to wonder how they found this stuff to begin with. The
answer is books. I'll discuss several of my favorite books in this note.
The publisher's information is included at the end of the note.
The first thing to do is to find the main
constellations. The rotation of the Earth makes this a little bit
complicated. All of the constellations appear in the sky each 24 hours, as
the Earth rotates once around its axis. Unfortunately, the earth also
rotates around the Sun, so the constellations high in the south at 10:00
change day by day over the course of a year. This means you have to take
both the time and the date into account when you look up at the sky. The
easiest way to get started is to pick up a plastic rotating planisphere.
These cost just a couple of bucks and can be found here in Portland at the
OMSI store or the Nature Company. You can also see a good example of one
Catalog. You rotate the top piece of plastic to match up the time and
date. Then hold it up and you should be able to match the diagrams on the
chart to the sky. This is easiest in a fairly dark sky, so you can find
the bright stars. A *very* dark sky makes this harder since you will see
so many more stars.
The next book to get is an introductory
book such as Nightwatch : An Equinox Guide to Viewing the Universe
by Terence Dickinson. It is available from
Amazon.com for $19.95 or from OMSI or
the Nature Company. Nightwatch's strength is in telling you where things
are. Seasonal star charts are presented, along with naked eye and
binocular observing projects. It is everything you need to find all of the
constellations, any time of the year. The last part of the books is useful
for users of small telescopes.
Once you have the constellations down,
you'll be ready for any of the mainstream star atlases. An inexpensive,
handy star atlas is the Bright Star Atlas by Wil Trinon. The Bright
Star Atlas is available from
or from the RCA for $9.95. This atlas is everything you need to find all
of the Messier objects and many of the brighter deep sky objects. If you
can see it in binoculars or a small telescope it will be listed here. The
downside of the Bright Star Atlas is just what the name implies - only the
brightest stars are shown. The scale of the charts is small too, so you
don't get much help zeroing in on dim objects. But for a first star atlas,
this one can't be beat.
A work-a-day star atlas that is
particularly easy to use and detailed enough for many observing projects
is Sky Atlas 2000 by Wil Trinon. Available from Sky Publishing, Sky
Atlas 2000 is published in several different editions. They have color
desk editions, black and white field editions and even plastic laminated
versions. Sky Atlas 2000 covers stars down to 8th magnitude so can be used
to find dimmer objects. The larger scale makes it easier to keep from
being lost as you zero in on an object with your telescope.
The current "standard" deep-sky reference
atlas is Uranometria 2000.0 by Tirion, Rappaport and Lovi. This two
volume set is available from Willman-Bell, Sky Publishing or Amazon. The
two volumes total almost 600 pages of star charts with a limiting
magnitude of about 9.5. There is a third, companion volume, The Deep
Sky Field Guide to Uranometria 2000.0 also by Tirion, Rappaport and
Lovi. This volume is contains printed information on many of the objects
plotted in Uranometria. Uranometria is just the thing you need to track
down that 12th magnitude galaxy or the 10th magnitude planetary nebula. It
is also frustrating to use if you don't have other star charts to get you
"close". The scale is such that most charts only show a few of the stars
in any given constellation.
These are only a few of the most popular
sky atlases, ones that I have used myself. As noted above, the first thing
to do is learn the constellations and brighter stars. From this all else
Books referenced above:
Nightwatch : An Equinox Guide to Viewing
Paperback, 162 pages
Published by Firefly Books
Bright Star Atlas
9.00" by 10.00"
32 pages, softbound
Published by Willmann-Bell, Inc.
Sky Atlas 2000
Published by Sky Publishing, Inc.
Tirion, Rappaport, Lovi
published by Willman-Bell
Volume 1, The Northern
Hemisphere to -6°, 9.00" by
12.00", 312 pages, hardbound, 4
Lbs. 4 Ozs. ship wt., $39.95
Volume 2, The Southern
Hemisphere to +6°, 9.00" by
12.00", 283 pages, hardbound, 4
Lbs. ship wt., $39.95
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