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Observing Resources for Amateur Astronomers
Part 2: Intermediate Observers
by Richard Rosenberg
In Part 1, we talked about resources for the naked-eye observer. Learning the brightest stars and constellations has hopefully whetted our appetite. Perhaps we want to see some of the interesting non-stellar objects in the sky such as the Messier objects we've heard about. Maybe there's a faint comet that's come into view, or an asteroid, or Uranus or Neptune, or some of the fainter constellations and star patterns.
Such objects are at best barely visible to the naked eye, even from dark skies. It's time to get a binocular or a small telescope!
Warning! If you've just received a scope or binoculars but know very little about what's in the sky, check Part 1, where we discuss resources for the inexperienced observer. Taking things a little slower may make the difference between mastering the night sky and hopeless flailing about.
To help find out what equipment is right for you, a good book is STAR WARE by Philip Harrington (Wiley, $19.95). He describes astronomical instruments (binoculars, telescopes, accessories) -- how they work, how to judge them, and how to use them in the field. Although such a book gets rapidly out-of-date, there is an associated website. Here you can find recent reviews and much else, including a directory of "dark-sky" locations.
The Sky & Telescope on-line articles I mentioned last time are useful at this level as well. In particular, check these out.
As far as guidebooks are concerned, my favorite is BINOCULAR ASTRONOMY by Craig Crossen and Wil Tirion (Willmann-Bell, $24.95). It begins with a wonderful overview of the sky. For each season, a constellation-by-constellation description of binocular objects appears. I particularly enjoy Crossen's mix of observing information, science, and archaeology. Galaxies are covered in a separate chapter. Solar system objects are largely ignored, but a major bonus is an excellent set of sky charts by Tirion (stars to magnitude 6, but with many binocular objects added).
Another binocular-oriented guide is TOURING THE UNIVERSE THROUGH BINOCULARS, by the aforementioned Philip Harrington (Wiley, $34.95). Binocular targets are listed by constellation, with descriptions of the major objects. It's the most inclusive set of such objects I know of. Also mentioned are how to buy and maintain binoculars. There is also a companion atlas CD-ROM for $19.95.
NEW! Yet another book by the prolific Phil Harrington is STAR WATCH (Wiley, $16.95). This is a guidebook to help the binocular or telescopic observer locate the top 150 or so objects visible from our latitude. The most useful part is his set of charts that appear crudely drawn, but indicate star patterns that lead to the desired faint object. I've tried it -- it really works!
A field guide more appropriate to the small-telescope user is NIGHTWATCH by Terence Dickinson (Firefly Books, $29.95). Amid much discussion of the sky and equipment are sky charts for each season. My favorite part is a set of maps showing locations and information of objects in the most interesting regions of the sky.
If you desire a set of star charts along with your guide, there are two good pocket-sized choices. One is the AUDUBON SOCIETY FIELD GUIDE TO THE NIGHT SKY by Mark Chartrand (Audubon Society Field Guide Series, $19.95). Like the other books in the Audubon series, it's a bit on the "glossy" side, containing many photos and "pretty pictures". Each constellation has a map and a description of the major objects within. There are monthly sky maps as well.
However, I prefer PETERSON'S FIELD GUIDE TO THE STARS AND PLANETS by Donald Menzel and Jay Pasachoff (Houghton-Mifflin, $19.95). There are also monthly sky maps, but the heart of the guide is a set of 52 area maps covering the sky to magnitude 7. The book contains much more information than the Audubon Field Guide but is more intimidating for the beginner. In both guides, solar-system objects are briefly discussed.
To help find deep-sky objects with a small telescope, try TURN LEFT AT ORION by Guy Consolmagno and Dan Davis (Cambridge University Press, $24.95). It teaches you how to star-hop to some (about 100) of the more popular deep-sky objects. The Moon and planets are briefly covered as well.
A similar book is THE YEAR-ROUND MESSIER MARATHON FIELD GUIDE by Harvard Pennington (Willmann-Bell, $24.95). For each Messier object, star-hopping, finder, and telescope maps and views are provided. A Messier marathon, by the way, is an attempt to find every Messier object (or at least a whole bunch of them) in a single night, and Pennington succeeds in making the experience less intimidating than one might think.
The yearly ASTRONOMICAL CALENDAR by Guy Ottewell (Universal Workshop, $24.95) provides a complete guide to the year's events. For each month, a sky chart and list of happenings (phases of the Moon, conjunctions, greatest elongations, etc.) appears. This is followed by info for the Sun, Moon, planets, comets expected to return this year, meteor showers -- essentially anything that changes year-to-year. This is a must-have guide for the solar-system observer.
If you want sky charts suitable for an intermediate level, SKY ATLAS 2000.0 by (who else) Wil Tirion (Sky Publishing, $34.95, $69.95 laminated) plots stars complete to magnitude 8.5.
Up to now, I haven't included any resources specifically for our solar system, but this is a good place to mention a few for the Moon. EXPLORING THE MOON THROUGH BINOCULARS AND SMALL TELESCOPES by Ernest H. Cherrington, Jr. (Dover, $15.95) emphasizes the different views of the Moon as it goes through its cycle of phases, with a small chapter for each day.
The ATLAS OF THE MOON by Antonin Rukl (Sky Publishing, $44.95) has set a new standard for lunar atlases. It divides the Moon into 76 sections, each with a detailed map, index and photos. There's substantial information about the Moon's motion, history, and science as well.
THE INCONSTANT MOON provides a guided tour of the Moon at any point in its cycle. There's also a "cyclopedia" of the Moon, an atlas of the Earth-facing side, an index of features, and more. You can even listen to Moon music (e.g., Moonlight Sonata) while surfing.
I could add many more but these will have to do for now. In Part 3, we'll discuss the needs of the advanced observer -- the large telescope user. In Part 4, we'll cover resources that don't fit into any particular level: astronomy magazines, a number of web sites for comets and meteors, "vicarious observing", and keeping track of "what's up".