Observing Resources for Amateur Astronomers

by Richard Rosenberg

Part 1: Beginning Observers #

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.

Part 2: Intermediate Observers #

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.

Equipment #

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.

Guidebooks #

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.

Almanac #

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.

Sky Charts #

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.

Moon Guides #

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”.

Part 3: Advanced Observers #

Here we discuss materials useful for the advanced observer, by which we mean a large telescope user (8-inches or more). No longer satisfied with the “top 40” well-known objects, the advanced observer hunts out the “faint fuzzies” — those clusters, nebulae, and galaxies at the limit of vision.
Many resources mentioned previously are still quite useful here. I mention especially Guy Ottewell’s yearly ASTRONOMICAL CALENDAR, Phil Harrington’s STAR WARE and his web site, and some of the more advanced guides and atlases that appeared in the previous article.

This is a good place to mention a resource I’ve neglected up to now — newsgroups on the web. These are collections of individuals with a common interest who send e-mails to each other. YAHOO! GROUPS has hundreds of astronomy-related newsgroups.  These groups may be made of general observers, owners of particular scopes, people who like to sketch astronomical objects at the eyepiece.  You’ll probably find a group of interest.

Guidebooks #

A list of books for the advanced observer must begin with BURNHAM’S CELESTIAL HANDBOOK by Robert Burnham, Jr. (3 volumes, Dover; $19.95 each). Organized in alphabetical order by constellation, a large number of deep-sky objects are listed by category (double stars, variable stars, clusters, nebulae, galaxies). What makes the book famous is its often-expansive commentary on objects of special interest to the author.

Another book I enjoy is STAR-HOPPING, by Robert Garfinkle (Cambridge University Press; $32.99). After general observing tips and a description of how to star-hop at an advanced level, 1 – 3 tours are described for each month. These are very extensive and objects vary from bright stars to obscure deep-sky objects. This book is to observing what the “Hubble Deep Field” is to astrophotography — an area of the sky is examined in minute detail.

The SKY WATCHER’S HANDBOOK (James Muirden, editor; W. H. Freeman; $35), covers all aspects of observing at an advanced level.  Planets, meteors, comets, deep-sky objects, novae/supernovae, photography, photometry and astrometry are covered.

Star Charts #

An atlas to suit the advanced observer is URANOMETRIA 2000 (2 volumes, plus a field guide; Willmann-Bell; $49.95 each volume; $59.95 for the field guide), which displays stars to magnitude 9.5 and over 30,000 deep-sky objects.  The field guide serves as an extensive index.

Even more complete is the MILLENNIUM STAR ATLAS (3 volumes; Sky Publishing; now $149.95 in softcover) with stars to magnitude 11 and up-to-date star positions and magnitudes taken from the Hipparcos satellite.  There are over 10,000 deep-sky objects displayed.

Websites #

THE NGC-IC PROJECT is a wonderful web site for info on the New General Catalogue and Index Catalogue. These are compendiums of deep-sky objects somewhat fainter than the Messier objects. The original catalogues are on-line in their entirety.  Or enter an item (say NGC 1234) and get a photo (if available), its coordinates, magnitude, description and so forth. Check out the best set of advanced astronomy links I know of.

CapellaSoft (the maker of SkyTools software) maintains the SKYHOUND website. Updated monthly, there is an Observer’s Page, describing the faint fuzzies best seen this month, currently-visible comets, and there’s a feature article, as well as links to other “heavy-duty” observer web pages.  (More resources on comets will be found in Part 4.)

The HAWAIIAN ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY web site has a lot of great stuff for anyone interested in astronomy. For the advanced observer in particular, there is an on-line DeepSky Atlas. For nearly every constellation, you have maps suitable for both the naked-eye and a large-telescope.  The latter maps are complete to magnitude 10, with deep-sky objects to magnitude 12.  In addition, there are photos, descriptions, and finder charts for selected objects.

Regrettably, one area of observing I have not covered is astrophotography, as I have little knowledge in this area. Perhaps someone better suited than I can provide information in a subsequent article.  Look here for Sky & Telescope articles on the subject.

In the final installment, we’ll cover some miscellaneous areas — reference works, astronomy magazines, virtual “observing” on your computer, and how to keep track of what’s up.

Part 4: Magazines and Miscellany #

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.

Magazines #

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.

Websites #

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. 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.

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 [email protected].