Archive for the ‘Getting started’ Category


Stargazer’s bookshelf: Nightwatch

September 30, 2010

NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe
by Terence Dickinson

If ever there was a book to buy before you buy anything else, this is it.

It covers pretty much everything: not just types of telescopes, but what kinds specifically are good for different purposes, and which to consider as good first telescopes. And setting up a telescope, if it’s the day after Christmas and you or a young relative are looking at a new telescope and feeling lost. And not just telescopes, but also binoculars for stargazing, and naked eye observing. And plenty of observing basics, like what makes a good observing site, whether it’s in your driveway or on the other end of an airplane ride, what to take out with you when you observe, and lots of the tips and tricks for seeing more while you’re observing. Also, sections not just on where and how to observe, but also what to observe, from atmospheric phenomena to meteor showers, the sun and moon, planets, comets, and other solar system targets, to deep sky objects like nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies.

This is going to be one of those “and…and…and” reviews because the book does so much. There are seasonal all-sky maps that show the bright stars so you can learn your way around the sky and quickly get your bearings. Better still, there are twenty or so maps of selected regions of the sky showing prominent constellations, bright stars, and the best and brightest deep sky objects. The book was designed to be used in the field–it’s spiral-bound to lay flat in your lap or some other surface, hardbound for durability and to make a smooth and stable platform for the maps, and the maps are clean and uncluttered and easy to read with a red flashlight.

One of my most memorable nights of stargazing was back in the fall of 2007, when I was just getting started. I spent the whole evening in a lawn chair in my back yard, with this book in my lap and my binoculars around my neck, surfing my way through almost the entire sky. If you think “spiral bound” and instantly picture bent wires and torn pages, fear not: the spiral is enclosed in the hard binding and it’s very sturdy, and the paper is thick, glossy, and durable. My copy is still like new despite three years of regular use, both by me and by all the folks to whom I’ve loaned it.

I don’t know when the first edition of Nightwatch came out, but the current edition is the fourth, published in 2006, and it includes tables for planetary positions, meteor showers, and so on through 2018. Even after 2018, I’m sure I’ll keep coming back to this book to look into little nooks and crannies of the hobby that I haven’t explored yet (observing aurorae, perhaps, or building a barn-door tracking mount for astrophotography), and simply for the joy of reading Terence Dickinson’s prose. There are books that are easy to read, and then there are books that are so easy to read that the pages just fly by, and afterward you know a lot more but hardly remember how all the information got into your head. This is one of the latter. It’s also copiously illustrated with full-color photos, so it’s an attractive book to simply flip through.

Nightwatch has a sort of “big brother”, which is The Backyard Astronomers Guide, by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. If Nightwatch is a working lunch, The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide is a seven course meal with brandy and cigars afterward. It covers all the same stuff as Nightwatch and then some, and covers everything in a lot more detail, going into things like what specific brands and models of telescopes the authors prefer (and between them, they’ve used about everything). All the extra material comes at a price, literally and figuratively: The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide is about twice as thick as Nightwatch, weighs about twice as much, and costs about twice as much. It’s too thick to be effectively spiral bound–it has a very high quality sewn binding–and too clunky to take in the field, so it includes no observing charts. On the other hand, it has an extremely useful supplementary website with a blog. If you’re already planning to get a separate star atlas or observing guide, and you want encyclopedic coverage, and you don’t mind paying more, get The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide. But if you’re just getting into amateur astronomy, or if you just got your first telescope and you’re thinking, “Now what?”, and you’re looking for a good all-around introduction to stargazing, get Nightwatch.


  • very broad introduction to amateur astronomy, covers almost everything you really need
  • includes sections on just about every conceivable type of observing
  • all-sky charts and maps of selected regions are very intuitive
  • spiral bound to lay flat in the field, and tough enough to be used that way
  • high production quality, with nice paper and lots of color photos, but plenty of meat as well
  • updated regularly


  • Covers almost everything adequately enough for beginners, but almost everything is covered in more depth somewhere else. That’s not really a con, more like an inevitable trade-off. No book can be a good introduction AND a exhaustively thorough at the same time, not and remain inexpensive and approachable (although The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide comes close, and fails mainly in being the heaviest and most expensive astronomy book on my shelf).
  • Sky maps don’t show many stars, which can make it tough to get to some of the objects. As a field resource, most people who stay in the hobby will outgrow it fairly quickly. But the maps are only a small portion of the book, and the rest of the material will be interesting and useful indefinitely.

Recommended? Heck yes. Enough to make it my first loaner to people who are thinking about getting into astronomy (unless it’s already loaned out, in which case I fall back on The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide), and enough that if anything ever happens to my copy, I’ll replace it in a heartbeat.

If you’re getting started in astronomy, or thinking about getting started in astronomy, and you only get one book, this is the one. The list price is $35, but you can usually get it for $25 or less at Amazon. Here are the product links again:

NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe
The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide


Free Mag 7 Star Charts

April 17, 2010

Okay, this is pretty ridonkulously cool: a nice set of star charts, covering the entire sky to magnitude 7 (a bit more than the average person with maximally dark-adapted eyes could see from a desert island on a new moon night), on 20 pages, printable from your desk, for free.

I found these because I have misplaced–temporarily, I sincerely hope–my Pocket Sky Atlas and I need something to work  with right now. This set looks like a winner. I don’t have a working printer at home so I’m printing these online at Fedex Office and I’ll pick them up tomorrow. Maybe I’ll do a full-on review after I’ve had a chance to test-drive them.

Anyway, if you’re just getting started and you’re ready for the next step after The Evening Sky Map–or if you’re an experienced observer who just can’t turn down a nice set of free charts–snap these up. Here’s that link again.


On faffing about

October 30, 2009
DwarfStar 02 small

My little Mak sporting a big eyepiece and, more importantly, a 6x30 finder.

My good friend, fellow paleontologist and sometime astronomer Mike Taylor sent this a few weeks ago:

By the way, we had a very clear sky a few nights ago, so I got the telescope out and — after an AMAZING amount of faffing about — I saw Jupiter and four moons.  Pretty neat!

To which I replied:

Awesome! No worries on the faffing about. One of the things I need to blog about on 10MA is how long it can take to find something for the first time, and how much you feel like a tool while you’re bumbling around in the dark, but also how much easier things get over time. Part of it is learning to point–it takes me much less time to get the telescope aimed where I want it these days–and part of it is learning to see. There are things that I’ve looked for in the past two years with no success that I found pretty easily this summer, just because I’ve been out looking and gotten my expectations in line with reality.

So, if you’re new or relatively new to this and you are frustrated because it’s hard to find stuff and most stuff is too dim and occasionally you spend half an hour or more just trying to find one stinking thing and still fail, take heart. I’ve been there. A lot. I still end up there occasionally–just last night, in fact. I think every astronomer has been there. It will get better.

What helps?

  • Aperture, for one. As much as I like my small scopes, there’s just no arguing with physics: bigger glass gathers more photon, makes things brighter and therefore easier to recognize.
  • Field of view is good, too. I’ve found some things this fall with my 15×70 binoculars that I never found in my 6″ reflector just because I had a nice big field in which to recognize them. A good low-power eyepiece for a telescope is indispensable.
  • For a telescope, a good finder is very helpful. I upgraded my 6″ scope with a 9×50 RACI (right angle correct image) finder and put its 6×30 RACI finder on my little Mak, and both scopes have benefited tremendously.
  • For anything, a steady mount to put it on so you’re not contending with the shakes. This is not a trivial consideration. For the first year that I owned the little Mak I had it on a cheap camera tripod, and I hated it. Never used it. Seriously. Then I got a nice tripod and a solid, smoothly-moving head and almost overnight that scope went from being my most hated to my most favorite. There is a saying in amateur astronomy that the mount is half the telescope. I think it might even be a little more than half. I’d rather use a merely average scope on a solid mount than a world-class instrument on a shaky mount.

All these things are good. They’re fixable, and you can fix them without breaking the bank. But they’re not really what this post is about. There are people with thousands invested in their equipment who still can’t find anything in the sky, and other folks with homemade scopes cobbled together from odds and ends that can line ’em up and shoot ’em down on the deep sky. The difference is experience, and that comes with time, and only with time.

So how do I find things, in terms of actual step-by-step instructions that you can use?

  1. I start with a map. It might be one of the monthly sky maps in Sky & Telescope or Astronomy, or a planisphere, or a star atlas.
  2. Using the naked eye, I orient the map to the bright stars in the sky and get an idea of roughly where I need to point the telescope.
  3. Usually I don’t try to point the telescope at the object of interest immediately. Instead I start on a nearby bright star so I can get my bearings, and then star hop to my target.
  4. If I’m having a hard time finding the star I want, I pull out some regular binoculars and do a quick scan around the sky. Binoculars are the perfect intermediate between the naked eye and the telescope, even if the telescope has a good finder. My friend with the 16″ telescope uses tripod-mounted binoculars as a kind of superfinder, which goes to show that the longer you do this, the more useful you’re likely to find your binoculars.
  5. Once I know where I want to point the telescope, I crouch behind it or lean over and sight down the tube. Even on the little Mak this is a helpful step.
  6. Hopefully that will put my starting star in the field of the finderscope. Sometimes I end up faffing about even at this stage! Once I’ve got my quarry, I move the scope so that the object is centered in the finderscope.
  7. Hopefully that will put my starting star near the center of the field of the telescope, using whichever eyepiece yields the lowest magnification and the widest field. If it doesn’t, the alignment of the finder needs to be adjusted. A good target for this is Polaris, because unlike the other stars in the sky, it doesn’t move noticeably as the Earth turns.
  8. Using the finderscope and the low-power eyepiece, I star hop to the object of interest. This step is not necessary for bright objects like the moon, bright planets, some double stars, and the brighter deep sky objects, but for everything else–most nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies–it’s crucial. Star hopping involves recognizing simple patterns of stars, like lines, basic shapes, and so on, that will guide you from your starting point to the object of interest. The first time you do any given hop, it’s imperative to have the map in your lap or sitting on a chair or table right next to the scope. More on star-hopping in a future post, but at its heart it’s really just doing this repeatedly.
  9. Once I’ve found the object of interest with the low-power eyepiece, I center it in the field of view and swap out that eyepiece for something yielding more magnification. The optimum magnification for any given object will vary depending on the condition of the sky–how much skyglow from the setting or rising sun, the moon, light pollution; the quality of the seeing (atmospheric turbulence). Frequently I push the magnification until the image starts looking ugly and then back down a step or two. Many objects, especially open clusters, look better at relatively low magnifications. But now we’re off of finding and on to observing, about which much more later.

So if you’re having trouble getting your targets in the eyepiece, don’t give up hope, and don’t give up observing. There’s no shame in taking a break after a failed search and treating yourself to something pretty and easy, like Jupiter or one of your favorite DSOs. I did so just last night.

Don’t forget to step away from the instrument from time to time, lean back, and try to absorb it all with the ole Mark 1 eyeball. Your nose may be bloody but you’re in the game. You’re out under the stars, and you’re finding your way around the universe. There’s a lot of it to learn. Give it time.


In the footsteps of Galileo redux

August 18, 2009


Hoo boy. So all of three days ago I started this blog with a post entitled, “In the footsteps of  Galileo”, about Galileo’s  achievements, IYA 2009, and starting out in astronomy (image above from Wikipedia).

All of three minutes ago I discovered that the Astronomical League has an IYA 2009 project called, “In the footsteps of Galileo”, with instructions for replicating Galileo’s discoveries for those starting out in astronomy. It’s a cool project, and all it takes is a pair of binoculars and some patience (or fortitude; the Pleiades [#4 on the list] rise about midnight right now and aren’t what you’d call “well placed” until 2 or 3 AM).

The duplicated title is a coincidence–Google lists almost 3000 hits for the exact phrase “in the footsteps of Galileo”–but a fortunate one, because the “Footsteps of Galileo” project hits some of the best stuff I was planning on covering on this blog anyway. In particular, I’ve got some posts lined up on how to take the binoculars you probably already have and make the most of them for stargazing. Stay tuned for more–or, if you’re chomping at the bit, download the “Footsteps of Galileo” observing guide, dig the binoculars out of the closet, and get going (don’t forget Stellarium if you need a little help finding things).

If you’re  looking for something just a little more challenging, the Astronomical League’s Galileo Club includes 12 projects for small telescopes or serious binoculars. You probably will need something with higher magnification (15x-20x) than your average birding binos for those, but even a very small telescope should be adequate. Like, er, this one (shown below), which people have been having a lot of fun with despite, or perhaps because of, its $20 price tag.


Both AL projects are also listed on the right under Observing Lists. “In the Footsteps of Galileo” appears as “5 binocular targets for beginning stargazers”, and the Galileo Club appears as “12 objects for binoculars and small telescopes”.

Have fun!


Getting started for free

August 15, 2009

In the future I will add some more step-by-step how tos on things like recognizing constellations, tracking the phases of the moon, and finding planets and deep sky objects. But I can’t stand, even for a day, having a blog that is supposedly about helping people find their way the sky around that doesn’t actually help them find their way around the sky.

So if you’re chomping at the bit to get going, or you’re just looking for some free astronomy resources, here goes.

Detail of a free star chart from S&T

Detail of a free star chart from S&T

Sky & Telescope has a great 10-page guide called “Getting Started in Astronomy”. It has maps of the night sky and the moon and instructions on how to use them with the naked eye or with binoculars. If you’ve never picked out a constellation on your own and don’t know Aldebaran from Altair, this is Step Zero. There are lots more goodies in S&T‘s Stargazing Basics.

In my humble opinion one of the best free astronomy tools, and the one I use the most, is the free planetarium program Stellarium. You can see what the night sky looks like from any point on the planet, from the deep past to the far future, with optional constellation overlays from cultures around the globe. I use it to see when the moon will be high enough to clear the trees in front of my driveway, to find out what deep sky objects (DSOs) will be overhead at convenient observing times, and to identify things that I’ve stumbled across when I’m just plinking around with binoculars or a telescope.

Stellarium will show you moon phases, but if you really want to see the surface of the moon close up, you can’t do better than the Virtual Moon Atlas (at least without spending any money, and maybe not even then). Includes instructions on how to simulate the view of a spacecraft orbiting the moon, which, if you’re a space nut like me, is going to be irresistible.

If you want to track satellites or spot the International Space Station–which is frequently visible to the naked eye in the early evening!–head on over to Heavens Above for finder charts and instructions on where to look.

For going deeper or just seeing what’s up tonight and for the rest of the week, Almanako is a great resource. It’s more information-dense than most of the rest of these sites, so don’t get flustered if you can’t make sense of it all on your first visit. Things will shake out in time, and the sky isn’t going anywhere.

This is a very, very short list of the free astronomy resources available on the ‘net. If I was so inclined, I could stay busy at this blog doing nothing more than finding and linking to all the good stuff out there. But, as alluded to in the blog title, we all have far too much other stuff to be getting on with. These are the ones I found the most useful when I was getting started, and I use most of them to this day. Even if these particular tools don’t strike your fancy, hopefully they will help you get started on your journey farther up and farther in.