Observing Resources for Amateur Astronomers – Part 1: Beginning Observers

Part 1: Beginning Observers
by Richard Rosenberg

As amateur astronomers living in the New York City area, we have to confront miserable observing conditions.  Many of us give up and become “armchair” astronomers.  Others have persevered and become active observers, but would like family members or friends to share their interest.  The good news is there’s a lot out there to introduce us to the heavens, or to get us to the next level.

In this article, I mention several books, magazines, charts, websites and anything else useful to the beginning observer.  Essentially, naked-eye astronomy from the city is covered — bright stars, major constellations, and planets.  Subsequent articles will address the intermediate and advanced observer.

Let me stress first of all that nothing can benefit the beginner more than contact with more experienced observers.  The Amateur Astronomers Association of New York hosts observing sessions each month in the city.  These are open to all, and members are enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge of the sky.  Please come.

Many people who buy or receive a telescope are lost when they try to find objects in the sky.  First of all, what are the interesting objects, other than the Moon and planets?  Where can I find them?  How do get them in the field of view of my scope?  It really doesn’t take too long to get straightened out  if you find the right guides, but where are they?  Too many beginning amateur astronomers give up — their scope languishes in a closet.

If you’re in this position, even if you have a telescope or binoculars, but have little knowledge of the sky, take a little time learning how to see the sky with the naked eye.  It should only take a month or two before you know what you need to use that scope.  Here are a few resources I highly recommend to get a newcomer up to speed.

Sky & Telescope

For general advice, SKY & TELESCOPE magazine’s website has several excellent articles offering a nice introduction to stargazing in the areas of Astronomy Basics, Visual Observing, Telescopes & Binoculars, and Astrophotography/CCD Imaging.  I strongly advise anyone looking for binoculars or a telescope to read this material before proceeding.  Also on the site is an interactive sky map — by adjusting the date and time, you can familiarize yourself to the motions of the stars.

Sky Calendar

A personal favorite of mine, the SKY CALENDAR produced by Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University (East Lansing, MI 48824; $11 per year.  It is hard to imagine an easier introduction to observing.  On a calendar-style page for each month appear daily diagrams showing the movements of the moon and planets as they pass bright stars.  Even if the only thing you can recognize is the Moon, if you go outside or just look out the window, you will learn several planets and stars after a few days. Because bright objects are involved, it works even for the city.  On the reverse side of the calendar page is an all-sky map showing the brightest stars and planets.  Occasionally, an entry will show something more adventurous — perhaps a fainter planet, an asteroid, or star cluster that can be easily found near the Moon or a bright planet (usually using binoculars).  I have the Sky Calendar to thank for my first views of Uranus, Neptune, the asteroid Vesta and the Beehive Cluster.

Observing Guides

There are many observing guides for beginners. I have chosen a few with a variety of techniques to improve the chance of finding a method you’ll take to (publisher and list price in parentheses).

THE STARS:  A NEW WAY TO SEE THEM by H. A. Rey (Houghton-Mifflin, $11.95) represents constellations in a “non-standard” way, so that they “look more like” what they are supposed to represent. The sky is broken into 17 regions, and introduces the constellations in each region, using mnemonic techniques (for example, “Carnivore’s Corner”).  This is followed by all-sky maps for each month (with and without constellation lines, like those in Night Sky magazine).  “Heavier” material appears in the last part of the book — movements of the stars, coordinate systems, etc.  Very accessible to beginners.

A WALK THROUGH THE HEAVENS by Milton Heifetz and Wil Tirion (Cambridge University Press, $12) is another introductory guide using geometry.  Area maps show how to find constellations from the brightest stars using straight lines, triangles, etc.

THE STAR GUIDE by Steven Beyer (Little, Brown, $12.95) has a unique method to introduce readers to the sky.  It contains entries for 105 stars and 39 constellations, organized by calendar date (when they first rise in the east around 9 PM).  Each new entry is related to previous ones.  A clever way to learn the sky one star at a time.  Since bright stars are featured, it’s a good technique for city observing.

365 STARRY NIGHTS by Chet Raymo (Simon & Schuster, $16) contains a half-page mini-essay and diagram for each day of the year. It’s more about the joy of observing than a guidebook.  If you find your enthusiasm flagging, this is a book that can rekindle your love of the sky.

TO KNOW THE STARS by Guy Ottewell (Astronomical Workshop, $8) is oriented for children but works well for any beginner.  For each month, we have a sky map and description of notable stars and constellations.  Fine explanations of how stars move.  Ottewell’s strength is in geometric visualization, and we’ll have more of him in the next article.

THE MONTHLY STAR GUIDE by Ian Ridpath and Wil Tirion (Cambridge University Press, $16.95) is a more classical guide.  Its strength is the accompanying maps of Wil Tirion.  Uncluttered monthly maps (to magnitude 5) and descriptions of the night sky.  A handful of individual constellation maps to mag. 6 appear.

Sky Charts

Speaking of Wil Tirion, you can’t go wrong with any of his atlases.  The BRIGHT STAR ATLAS by Wil Tirion and Brian Skiff (Willmann-Bell, $10.95) features ten area maps (mag. 6.5) each with an index, as well as seasonal maps.  A more extended version is the CAMBRIDGE STAR ATLAS by Wil Tirion (Cambridge University Press, $25) has monthly maps to mag. 5 for both northern and southern hemispheres.  Superb area maps (mag. 6) cover the entire sky, with an index to interesting objects

From the SKY MAPS website you can obtain a quality star map for the current month for free.  There’s also an excellent monthly sky guide on the site.  Tune in on the first of each month.

You may prefer a PLANISPHERE to a star map.  This is a simple device to produce a map of the sky.  You set the date and time, and a view of the sky appears within a cut-out window.  See for example, the Sky & Telescope store (click on “Planispheres” under “Atlases, Maps & Globes”).

Radio/TV Shows, Websites and Tapes

STAR DATE is a radio show with its own website.  The daily radio show (about 2 1/2 minutes) covers some astronomy/space science topic oriented toward (but not exclusively for) beginners and young people.  The show’s text appears on the website, but much else as well — including a stargazing tip-of-the-day and reference introductory material on observing (planets, constellations, stars, galaxies, etc).

SPACEWATCH : There’s some interesting stuff on the space.com website.  Spacewatch is now a weekly article on what’s up by Joe Rao. You can hunt around for other articles on skywatching, and there’s a cute constellation game that will even test experts.

Although it doesn’t directly relate to observing, ASTRONOMY PICTURE OF THE DAY is a terrific website.  The daily picture can be anything from a release from the Hubble Telescope to a shot of Mars from a spacecraft to an amateur’s photo of a new comet.  A caption explains what’s going on.  The best part is the links contained in the caption.  This is a great place to discover new websites.

STAR GAZER is a 5-minute weekly TV show for beginners, broadcast as filler on a number of PBS stations (though I no longer know of any in the New York area).  Jack Horkheimer discusses something happening in the current night sky, with an appropriate sky chart projected on the background.  Sometimes, time sequences are used to illustrate movement in the sky very effectively.  Jack is also on the web here.

Finally, TAPES OF THE NIGHT SKY ($29.95) is produced by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.  Two cassette tapes (four sides) describe the sky around 9 PM for each season.  Each side is about 25 minutes long.  Terrific for a star party or just for yourself.  Better for the suburbs — for the city much of what is described will not be visible.

By no means is this list exhaustive.  Many worthy books and websites have been left out.

In Part 2 I’ll discuss how to help make the jump to binocular and small-telescope observing.