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Star Atlases
by Bob Bond

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 in the Sky Publishing 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 Willmann-Bell 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 follows.

Books referenced above:

Nightwatch : An Equinox Guide to Viewing the Universe
Terence Dickinson
Spiral Edition
Paperback, 162 pages
Published by Firefly Books

Bright Star Atlas
Wil Tirion
9.00" by 10.00"
32 pages, softbound
Published by Willmann-Bell, Inc.

Sky Atlas 2000
Wil Tirion
Published by Sky Publishing, Inc.

Uranometria 2000.0
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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