Observing Resources for Amateur Astronomers – Part 4: Magazines and Miscellany

Part 4: Magazines and Miscellany
by Richard Rosenberg
Our previous three installments were organized by level — beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Here we cover resources that don’t fit into a single category, plus a few books and websites I just couldn’t resist adding.
Let’s begin with astronomy magazines. As many of you know, there are two magazines that dominate the astronomy market, SKY & TELESCOPE and ASTRONOMY. In many ways, the two are similar — they seem to have converged towards each other over the years. S & T, once stodgy and near research-level in content, has become more “user-friendly”, with more photos and graphics. On the other hand, Astronomy has added gravitas.
The similarity extends to format. Both have current science and space news followed by mainly technical articles in the front of the magazine. The middle portion is devoted to the current month’s sky events, with a centerfold sky map. In the back are observing articles and photos.
So what’s the difference between them? It’s difficult to generalize, but I find science reporting in S & T more detailed and analytical. But Astronomy will come out of nowhere with a mind-blowing cosmology article.
S & T seems to have more for the intermediate observer, with a nice monthly column for small scope observers and a few other appropriate articles each month. I find Astronomy articles tend to be either elementary or advanced, with little in between.
S & T also has more do-it-yourself articles on telescope construction, astrophotography and using CCDs.
Which one to get? I subscribe to and enjoy both. Check them out at the library or the magazine rack at your bookstore. You may see astronomy magazines from overseas, which will make you feel grateful we have these two.
The HEAVENS ABOVE website may introduce you to an area of astronomy you hadn’t thought of — observing artificial satellites. A number of satellites, notably the Space Station and the Space Shuttle (when it’s up) are easily visible, if you know when and where to look. That’s where Heavens Above comes in. You give it your location at it will give you what you need. The site will also alert you to Iridium flares. These occur when an Iridium satellite catches the Sun’s rays and reflects them back to exactly the point on earth where you are. They last a few seconds and are really bright!
Gary Kronk has a wonderful site at cometography.com.  Everything you wanted to know about comets is here, including a list and charts of currently visible comets.
WEEKLY INFORMATION ABOUT BRIGHT COMETS provides what it says for currently visible comets down to magnitude 17!  Positions and  magnitude estimates are supplied for the start and end of the current week, along with finder charts, and (if available) photos.
The INTERNATIONAL OCCULTATION TIMING ASSOCIATION (IOTA) specializes in observing and timing occultations, events when a solar system body such as the Moon or an asteroid passes in front of a star.  Occultations, especially when the Moon blocks the light of a bright star (or even a planet), can be exciting to look at, but they have a scientific purpose as well.  They can give information as to the size of Moon or asteroid doing the occulting.  The website gives timings (beginning and end) of upcoming occultations for cities along the occultation path.
One of my favorite sites is SPACE WEATHER (www.spaceweather.com). Earth’s environment is covered, from solar flares (and their resulting auroras), to comets, meteor showers and near-earth asteroids. Satellites in space studying the Sun provide near-instantaneous viewing of solar features, including sunspots. People from around the world send in anything from photos of auroras to movies of asteroid flybys.
Other sites that help you keep aware of “what’s up” include the SKY AT A GLANCE weekly page from Sky & Telescope’s website, the SKY CALENDAR from Abrams Planetarium and Guy Ottewell’s ASTRONOMICAL CALENDAR. These have all been mentioned previously.
Planning some observing but not sure of the weather?  The best weather forecast for astronomers I know of is supplied by the CLEAR SKY CHART.  There are hundreds for forecasts, including one near your observing site.  With surprising accuracy, it will tell you the forecasted hour-by-hour the cloudiness, transparency and seeing conditions.  Just remember — this is the weather we’re talking about; no one’s perfect.
The REAL SKY CD-ROM (Astronomical Society of the Pacific; $250) is like Space Weather — a virtual observing experience.  Photographs from the famous Palomar Sky Survey and the Siding Springs Observatory cover the entire sky. These have been digitized and put on a CD so that you can scroll your way around the heavens.
Planetarium Programs
NEW!  There are many programs available to download from the internet that enable you to display the heavens at a particular date and time.  Of these, I use Patrick Chevalley’s CARTES DU CIEL, which can be downloaded for Windows for free. It has all the features you need to produce accurate sky charts.  I use Cartes du Ciel for the AAA website.
Finally, I want to include a few terrific references.
I have already mentioned Guy Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar, describing sky events taking place in the current year. For information about the sky that doesn’t change from year to year, Ottewell’s ASTRONOMICAL COMPANION (Astronomical Workshop; $18) serves wonderfully. Check out a star’s pronunciation, get an overview of astronomy from Ottewell’s unique geometric perspective, or follow a stepwise progression of charts from Earth’s neighborhood to the edge of the universe.
THE NINE PLANETS has just about everything you’d want from a website devoted to the solar system. There’s hard science, photos, history, etc., for planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and so forth. The site is updated regularly.
The MESSIER DEEP-SKY CATALOG performs a similar service for the objects in Charles Messier’s famous catalog. Each object has its own web page, with description, photos, chart and research information. You can run through the items in numerical order, or by type (e.g., galaxy or nebula). Actually, there are many other deep-sky objects here besides the Messier objects.
I have recently found the ultimate astronomy coffee-table book:  UNIVERSE:  THE DEFINITIVE VISUAL GUIDE, Martin Rees, editor (DK Publishers, $50).  This has anything an observer would want for a cloudy night (it’s too large to take in the field).  Besides telling the story of the history of astronomy, explaining the menagerie of celestial objects constituting modern astronomy and hundreds of awesome photographs, observers will enjoy the all-sky charts for each month (both northern and southern hemispheres), plus charts and photographs for every constellation (all 88).
I hope you have found these articles helpful. Please take advantage of one of the best resources of all — the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York! Come to an observing session (no equipment necessary — just show up) and meet a group of people who will be happy to show the universe to you. If you have any questions or suggestions of your own, please contact me at richard.rosenberg@verizon.net.