Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category


Cheap Scope Review: the Celestron FirstScope

October 11, 2011

Update: This post seems to get a lot of traffic, especially around the holidays. If you’re looking for good gifts for amateur astronomers, including telescopes and binoculars that won’t break the bank, you may also be interested in my astronomical wish list for beginning stargazers.

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My fascination with small, cheap scopes is probably obvious by now. Don’t get me wrong, I love my 10″ reflector, and if someone said I could only have one scope for the rest of my life, that would be it. But there is still something about wee little scopes that tugs at my heartstrings. I want to try out every one I come across, and see what it can show me. Partly this is an internal, personal fascination with small telescopes, probably akin to the fascination that some people have for very small trains or very small dogs. But it also has a social component. I do a fair amount of sidewalk astronomy, showing the moon and various other things to passersby, and I like to be able to recommend inexpensive telescopes to people. So I’ve been on a quest not only to find the perfect small scope for myself (a quest that is complete…for now), but also the perfect small scope to recommend to other people.

You might think those would be the same thing, but they’re not. If there is a posh end of the little tiny scope market, the SV50 is it. It’s a nice instrument–very sharp optics, within in the limitations of a 50mm f/4 optical train, a smooth focuser, and a rugged build. All this comes at a price. It was a price I was happy to pay, to get a scope that fit my peculiar requirements (being able to be stuffed into the bottom third of my backpack for long airplane flights to dark skies in other hemispheres), but for most people the SV50 is build quality overkill and optical underkill. For the same $150, you can get a 3 or even 4 inch scope on a solid mount, and those larger scopes are still nice enough to be all the scope that some people will ever need.

A few years ago the conventional wisdom–which can still be found in quite a few places out in the wilds of teh intarwebz–was that first-time scope buyers should avoid anything under $300. Then the recommended cutoff fell to $200. Then some manufacturers started building very well received scopes for $150, like the Orion StarBlast 4.5 (which is now up to $200, although you can get the tube alone for $150).

It’s not that there weren’t scopes available for less. Depending on your tolerance for plastic and frustration, the low-end department store scopes grade into toys that go all the way down to about a buck. But these were not in any sense “good” telescopes, and between bad optics and shaky mounts, standard department store telescopes have probably driven thousands of potential stargazers away from one of the most rewarding hobbies. For a long time, the minimum buy-in for a new telescope that actually worked as advertised was between $100 and $150.

That changed, bigtime, during 2009, the International Year of Astronomy. First there was the GalileoScope, which originally sold for $15 but nevertheless managed to attract plenty of good reviews and a strong following online. Galileoscopes are still available, although now that IYA2009 is over, the economy of scale isn’t working as well and the price has gone up to $50.

In the same year, Celestron released the FirstScope, a 3-inch reflecting telescope on a one-armed tabletop mount. The FirstScope was an official product of IYA2009 and was heavily promoted and ended up in a lot of places, including electronics stores and even department stores. It originally sold for $50, but the price has periodically been lower. As of this writing they are $45 with free shipping, but I have seen them as low as $36 online and people report finding them in Fry’s and other electronics stores for as little as $25. The box includes the assembled scope, two eyepieces, and a single sheet of instructions. As far as I know, it’s the most inexpensive, reasonably capable, complete telescope ever brought to the market. So naturally I was curious about it, and the combination of a temporary sale and an Amazon gift card put one in my hands for a while last year.

Let’s start with first impressions. This is a sharp-looking scope, right out of the box. It includes dust covers for the end of the tube and the focuser, and the two eyepieces come with plastic caps, and in general it has the same fit and finish of other mass-produced scopes. The tube is printed in spiraling script with the names of famous astronomers from the past, which I think is not only commemorative but also educational, in that people are supposed to read the tube, see names they don’t recognize, and go learn about them. The tension on the altitude axis is easily adjustable with a big knob that turns against a Teflon bearing surface. The mount turns easily on its base, and the base has three big rubber feet widely spaced for stability. No finder is included, but there are a couple of pre-drilled holes with screws for mounting one.

As usual with “tabletop” scopes, observing with the FirstScope may require some ingenuity if you don’t have an actual table handy. It’s small enough and the useful magnifications are low enough–more on this in a second–that you could just hold it by hand or cradle it in your lap. I used to prop mine on the trunk of the car, back when I still had a car with a trunk. The base is a big plus here–the three rubber feet give solid footing with no rocking, even on uneven surfaces, and the mount is small enough and strong enough that vibration isn’t a factor. The altitude and azimuth motions are also very smooth, so once you get something in the eyepiece, it’s generally pretty easy to keep track of it.

So far, so good; most cheap scopes are so wobbly and shaky that finding targets and then tracking them is an exercise in almost terminal frustration. Mechanically, the FirstScope is as smooth, steady, and convenient as any scope I’ve ever used, and that’s an unbelievable achievement in a bargain-basement scope.

Back to the ease of tracking things at the eyepiece: there’s the rub. How do you get the scope pointed at things, so that you can see them in the eyepiece? With most scopes, you point the tube in the rough direction of your target, look in the finder scope, center the target, and then go to the eyepiece. Without a finder, you’re down a step: all you can do is point the scope in roughly the right direction and hope for the best when you look in the eyepiece. With the moon this is almost foolproof; with anything else it can be surprisingly tricky. Admittedly, with the low power eyepiece the scope has a huge field of view, which makes acquiring objects somewhat easier, but I still found that observing anything other than the moon usually involved at least a little faffing about.

Once on target, how are the views? Here’s where you have to steel yourself to some unavoidable facts of optics and economics. First the optics: it’s dead easy to make a mirror whose surface is a segment of a sphere, all you have to do is rub two flat round pieces of glass together with abrasive in between and that’s the shape that emerges naturally. The problem is that a spherical surface doesn’t bring all of the parallel rays of light that fall on it to the same focal point. The shape that does is a parabola, which is not that hard to generate but still takes some extra figuring from the basic spherical shape.

Now the economics come in: for Celestron to produce FirstScopes at their target price point and still stay in business, they could not afford to parabolize the primary mirrors. That wouldn’t be a big deal if the focal ratio were longer. When the cone of light from the primary mirror to the focal plane is long and skinny, the rays converge well enough that past a certain point spherical mirrors perform just as well as parabolic mirrors. The Orion XT4.5 has a spherical mirror and most reviewers have been very complimentary about how sharp the views are. But the XT4.5 operates at f/8, meaning the light cone is eight times as long as wide (or to put it in more technical terms, the focal length is eight times the diameter of primary mirror). The FirstScope operates at f/4, which means a pretty steep light cone. Even parabolic f/4 systems are hard on eyepieces: it’s difficult to gather up that steeply angled light and turn it into a pleasing image. Without some kind of complex and expensive corrective lens, objects in the center of the field will be sharp but those toward the edge of the field take on interesting, compressed shapes, sort of like a photo taken with a fish-eye lens. With an f/4 spherical mirror, the visible aberrations are worse, and even objects in the center of the field may not be truly sharp.

This is in fact exactly what I found. I could see plenty of craters on the moon, but the views were fuzzy rather than razor-sharp. Jupiter would go from being an elongate smear on one side of focus to an elongate smear on the other side, but in between it never really settled down into a nice circle. The best I could get was a modestly flaring egg shape, although the moons on either side were easy to see. Stars went from being vertically elongated dashes to horizontally elongated ones without ever becoming nice round little points of light. And that was in the center of the field. Toward the edge, the stars became commas, parentheses, and seagulls.

Not only were the eyepiece views pretty underwhelming in terms of quality, they were also small. Economics again: a decent, well-corrected eyepiece with a comfortable apparent field, like a generic Plossl, costs about as much as the entire FirstScope package. The included eyepieces are a 20mm Huygenian yielding 15x and a 4mm Ramsden giving 75x. The Huygenian has a tiny field of view, like looking through a soda straw, but the views are at the sharp end of what this scope is capable of. The 4mm Ramsden has a wider apparent field, not as good as a Plossl but not entirely claustrophobic, but unfortunately 75x is really pushing what this scope can do. Orion packages their almost identical FunScope with 20mm and 10mm eyepieces giving 15x and 30x, and I think those are much more reasonable magnifications for this type of scope. Happily, the focuser accepts standard 1.25″ eyepieces so if you can use other eyepieces, and frankly almost any other eyepieces are going to be better than what comes in the box.

Regardless of what eyepiece you use, focus gets critical at fast focal ratios, because the steep angle of the incoming light means that the focal plane is extremely shallow. With a long light cone, the eyepiece travels through the comparatively long region where the light rays are almost imperceptibly out of line on either side of perfect focus, which means that you can adjust focus very precisely with reasonably big turns to the focuser wheels. With a steep light cone, even minute turns of the focuser can throw you from out of focus on one side to out of focus on the other. Sometimes the distance between visibly out of focus in both directions is less than the spacing between the teeth on a rack-and-pinion focuser, so the perceptible ratcheting of the focuser can throw you past focus. I also found this to be the case; the focuser had an almost imperceptible amount of slack which was greater in one direction than the other, so I had to deliberately overshoot the focus in the “bad” direction and then try to sneak up on it from the “good” one. If I went even a hair too far, I couldn’t simply reverse into focus, but had to go way past in the wrong direction so I could start sneaking up again.

Needless to say, this kind of monkeying around gets old pretty fast. It might have been worth it for reasonably sharp views, but not for a fuzzy moon or egg-shaped planets. I used my FirstScope off and on, halfheartedly, for a few months, and then passed it on to someone who was happy to get it.


  • Extremely light and portable
  • Solid mount with good motions
  • Good fit-n-finish, comparable to what you’d get on much more expensive telescopes
  • Visually attractive, commemoration of prominent historical astronomers is a nice touch
  • Usable right out of the box
  • Dirt cheap


  • Almost zero instructions (in the box; more are available online, but for what telescope is that not true?)
  • No included finder
  • Included eyepieces are usable, but barely
  • No provision for primary mirror collimation
  • Very limited magnification potential
  • Underwhelming image quality

It may seem mean to bring up these cons on a complete telescope that costs about as much as a cheap eyepiece. After all, fixing any one of them–adding a finder, or better eyepieces, or an adjustable mirror cell, or parabolizing the mirror–would drive up the cost, and then this scope wouldn’t be filling the same niche anymore. In fact, the telescope ecosystem includes a whole array of small reflectors that improve on the FirstScope in some way, so you can see what the upgrades cost. For $60, the Orion FunScope is virtually a clone of the FirstScope, but it adds a red dot finder, better eyepieces, and a socket in the base of the mount so the whole thing can be put up on a tripod. For $100, the SkyScanner 100 adds (in addition to the RDF, better eyepieces, and base socket) a parabolic mirror with twice the light-gathering area (but still no collimation), or the SpaceProbe 3 Alt-az adds (with RDF and better eyepieces) a full-size tripod, a collimatable primary mirror cell, and a longer focal length for more magnification and sharper images. And things go on up from there.

Still, somebody has to be at the bottom of the price ladder. Considering that it costs almost nothing, the FirstScope is actually a remarkable success. It is certainly not useless. It will show a lot of stuff, and I think it is much more likely to pull first-time telescope users farther into astronomy instead of driving them away like most department-store scopes–although the pull may soon be to a bigger or better scope.

Should you get one? Although I’m sympathetic to the design philosophy of the FirstScope, I’m going to recommend against. Here’s the deal: the Orion FunScope currently costs a full third more, but that full third is still only $15. Most people who can afford $45 for a telescope can afford $60, and the addition of the red dot finder alone (which sells for about $36 as a stand-alone item!) is worth the extra layout, in terms of the convenience it will bring to using the scope.

But honestly, I wouldn’t stop there. The FirstScope and FunScope are fine for getting your feet wet, or for having a well built (if optically wanting) small scope to play with, but I have serious doubts about how long they will hold most people’s attention. In my opinion, the next rung up ($100) is where the “keepers” start. What I mean by that is that the SkyScanner 100 and SpaceProbe 3 have good enough optics to be useful for a lifetime, and recently received very favorable reviews in Sky & Telescope. Even if you already have or someday move on to bigger scopes, they’d be worth keeping around as quick-look, grab-n-go, and travel scopes. Bottom line, if I got marooned on a desert island with a FirstScope, I’d grudgingly make the best of it, but if I got marooned with a SpaceProbe 3 I could probably keep myself happily occupied for the duration.

So what’s the final word? I think most people, even casual observers or kids, will be better served with a slightly more capable–but inevitably somewhat more expensive–scope. Nevertheless, I am glad that the FirstScope exists. It serves an extremely useful purpose: providing a rock-bottom entry-level scope that actually works.


Reading PDFs on the Kindle

November 29, 2010

About three weeks ago Vicki and I traded Kindles, as combination late anniversary/early Christmas presents. She’d gotten hooked on e-books using the free Kindle app on her Droid smartphone, and wanted to get something dedicated.

I’d been skeptical about e-readers for a long time. I’m a book guy; the second-best job I ever had was working in a used book store. I like curling up with books. I doubted that an another Damned Machine (the usual appellation for the electronic devices in my life) could offer the same cuddliness.

Well, I’m a believer now. The Kindle is lighter than hardbacks and even lighter than some paperbacks (I’m lookin’ at you, swollen fantasy epics), and a lot easier to read one-handed than either one. I topped up the charge when I got it, and it’s still at about a quarter of a tank three weeks later, so the promised month of battery life looks legit. I’ve taken it to the park and read in full sunlight, and it looked even better.

It is such a nice piece of kit that I have actually found myself reading more than I did before. At first I wondered if this was just infatuation with the new toy. But it’s been three weeks and I’m not only still reading more, period, but also more kinds of things. Right now on the Kindle I have:

  • about a dozen of my favorite essays, copied from the web into Word docs and sent to my Kindle wirelessly (and freely) using its dedicated e-mail address;
  • about 30 short stories, most of which I haven’t read, courtesy of and Cory Doctorow (also free);
  • a whole shedload of classic literature from the Kindle store, from the Bible to the Origin of Species (yes, I value them both) to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to the first five novels in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series (also free);
  • and a handful of paid-for novels that I really desired.

The Kindle is so small that my default now is to just take it wherever I go, and then if the mood strikes, I have a whole range of things on hand to choose from. I don’t have to decide in advance whether to take a book along, or which book to take; to a first approximation, whatever I might want to read, I have with me just about all the time.

One thing I haven’t put much of on the Kindle yet is PDFs. As a scientist I both produce (a little) and consume (a LOT) of scientific literature, and almost all of it these days is in the form of PDFs. Unfortunately the Kindle is not going to replace the PDF vault on my hard drive, or even a good fraction of it. I have something like 20 gigs of paleontology papers in PDF form on my laptop, and the Kindle has about 3 gigs of user-available space, so if I want to take it all with me I’m going to have to wait a couple of hardware generations (at least). Taking it all with me is attractive because I never know when I’m going to be in a museum basement, looking at the vertebrae of some weird dinosaur, and have a sudden and quite desperate need for a paper on Apatosaurus or Dicraeosaurus or whatnot.

For this very reason, my friend, colleague, and frequent commenter Mike Taylor asked me to test-drive a PDF on my Kindle. Thanks to some dumb rules at Amazon, he has a shedload of credit that is useless at, and a Kindle would be a convenient and possibly useful way to dump some of it. So I loaded up the 2007 paper in which he and Darren Naish described the new dinosaur Xenoposeidon, and took it for a spin. The rest of this post is basically copied and pasted from what I reported back to Mike.

It works surprisingly well. Just opening the PDF gives one entire page per screen. At that scale I have no problem making out the text, but it’s too small to be comfortable. The screen is 6″ on the diagonal, so that’s no surprise, and I don’t regard it as being either a pro or a con. The device is what it is.

Adjacent to the space bar is a button with two capital As, one larger than the other, that controls page size, contrast, and screen rotation (for PDFs; with Kindle format docs you can also choose among 3 typesets, 3 line spacings, more or fewer words per line [independent of font size], and text-to-speech [wherein the device will read to you if you have headphones on]). Page size options include fit-to-screen (the default), 150%, 200%, 300%, and actual size. Going to 150% lets me get a bit over half a page on the screen at once, so I can see a whole page with four clicks in portrait view, or just two, I’d reckon, in landscape view.  I set it to ‘actual size’ which turns out not to be far off of 150% and had a good close look at the specimen photos. Resolution was fine. I noticed some pixellation so I opened up the PDF to compare, and the pixellation I noticed on the Kindle is just what’s present in the PDF, and nothing worse. The one downcheck here is that the Kindle screen background is not white but a very subdued gray. I imagine that this is deliberate, to prevent eyestrain during marathon reading sessions, but it does noticeably decrease the contrast range for photographs.

Final analysis: (1) using the clicker button to navigate around on a zoomed in page is slightly less invisible than using a mouse, but only slightly, and I’ve only done the former for about 30 seconds so the device might disappear more from my notice with longer use; and (2) the contrast range is reduced which sucks some of the life (and information) out of illustrations.

Other than that, based on my exhaustive 5-minute trial, the Kindle makes an acceptable PDF reader. You couldn’t tote your entire collection, but you could load it up with a gig or two of stuff you’d most likely need on any given trip.

Getting back to books–and to the stated purpose of this blog–the Kindle is kind of a dead end, astronomically speaking. Few astro books are available, and astronomy is a very visual thing but most Kindle versions (of everything) have the illustrations stripped out. There are a couple of compilations of star maps but these terrible reviews. I did find a handful of older astro books–as in, 19th and early 20th century–but I haven’t had the inclination to check them out yet. If anything good turns up, I’ll let you know.


Guess what? The SkyWatcher 130N-EQ2 is still a pretty good deal

October 2, 2010

As I blogged a few months ago, at the end of this past spring Amazon put a couple of SkyWatcher scopes on closeout, for seriously ridiculous prices. At one point the refractor was going for just $36 shipped, and not surprisingly they sold out of those, apparently permanently. The 5″ reflector, the 130N-EQ2, was going for $100. Amazon still has those, but if you click on the old link, you get taken to a page where they are selling for an unbelievable $399. This is unbelievable because the list price of the scope and its clones is only $269. They’re good scopes, no doubt, but hardly collector’s items, and I just can’t fathom the 30% markup.

ANYWAY, once the scopes on that page went up to darn near $400, interest in them quickly dwindled. But as luck would have it, the 130N-EQ2 is still available on Amazon at a discounted price. This page has them for $150, which is great, but with $44.58 in shipping, which kinda stinks. On the other hand, you still end up with a decent 5″ scope for under $200, which is pretty darned good. Probably the closest thing out there in terms of price and features is the equatorially-mounted version of Orion’s popular StarBlast 4.5, which goes for $219 + $10 shipping.

So how do the two compare? The StarBlast 4.5 has a parabolic primary mirror, whereas the 130N-EQ2 has a spherical mirror, but the StarBlast has a very fast focal ratio of f/4 compared to the SkyWatcher’s more forgiving f/6.9. The spherical mirror of the SkyWatcher means that spherical aberration becomes limiting at high magnification–say, anything over about 200x. On the other hand, StarBlast’s very fast focal ratio means that it will suffer from another aberration, which is coma. In short, the stars toward the edge of the field start to smear out into seagulls instead of nice little points of light. It bothers some people more than others, but the bottom line is that most users (including me) find the StarBlast maxing out between 150x and 200x, whereas in my experience the 130N can be pushed a little higher, to just past 200x, before the image starts to get ugly. So IMHO, the mirrors are pretty much a wash, with the 130N perhaps having a slight advantage.

The 130N-EQ2 has a beefier mount, an EQ2 vs the StarBlast’s EQ1, but it also weighs about three times as much so the heavier mount makes sense. The StarBlast comes with two of Orion’s Expanse series widefield eyepieces, which I and most others consider a step up from the Plossls that come with the 130N. Nothing against Plossls, they’re good, solid workhorse eyepieces, but the wider apparent field of view of the Expanses gets addicting pretty quickly. Both scopes have the same red-dot finder.

On balance, the two scopes look pretty similar on paper, and I think both are good choices for a starter scope or a grab-n-go or travel scope. But of the two, I’d still go with the 130N-EQ2. The slower focal ratio means that collimating (aligning) the mirrors is not quite as tricky as with the StarBlast, and the longer focal length makes it easier to power up on planets and other targets that cry out for high magnification. And the little bit of extra aperture doesn’t hurt–a 130mm scope gathers about 30% more light than a 114mm scope, which will mean the difference between seeing something and not seeing it if you really push the scope to its limit. And it’s about $35 cheaper, at least right at the moment. On the flip side, the StarBlast is quite a bit shorter, quite a bit lighter, and has a wider field of view. So if you’re considering either one, think about what qualities you value most.

Why is all of this on my mind? Last night I  was hanging out with my buddy Andy Farke, and we noticed that after a day of scattered thunderstorms, the sky was remarkably dark and clear. He got out his 130N and 15×70 binoculars and we spent a very pleasant hour just cruising around the sky. We hit just a handful of showpiece objects–the Andromeda galaxy, the Double Cluster, the Pleiades, Jupiter, and the moon–but we spent some time lingering over each one. It has been months since I’ve had observed with a 130N, and I’d forgotten what a good performer it is. Everything we looked at looked darn good. Atmospheric turbulence kept us from pushing the magnification very far, but at 72x Jupiter was showing a lot of detail, with several visible cloud belts in moments of steady seeing. The moon looked downright fantastic–it’s late enough in its cycle to not be overwhelmingly bright, and we spent some time cruising over western features that we don’t often see catching the setting sun (setting on the moon, that is).

One of the guys with us lamented not getting a 130N when they were a hundred bucks, now that they had gone up to four hundred, and that reminded me that these fine scopes can still be had for about half of that. I told him so, and now I’m telling you.

Finally, if you’ve already got a mount, OPT has a 5″ parabolic reflector on clearance for just $70 plus shipping (UPS, you pick the mode and speed). It’s just the optical tube, no eyepieces and nothing to put it on, but if you’ve got a mount and tripod, it would make a great grab-n-go or widefield scope.

That’s all for now. I’m off to the desert tonight for some serious stargazing, so hopefully I’ll have more to report soon. Clear skies!


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


Target of opportunity: Universe from DK Books

August 31, 2009

Universe the definitive visual guide

Hey, I’ve noticed that Borders is kind of a big chain, and that if a book is on the bargain rack at my local store it will probably also be on the bargain rack in Oklahoma City, Poughkeepsie, and Macon. So check this out: Universe: The Definitive Visual Guide, from Dorling Kindersley, is available in hardback on the bargain rack at Borders for $9.99.

The book does a pretty respectable job of fulfilling its titular promise. If you’re only familiar with DK books as skinny offerings aimed at children, prepare to be blown away. This bad boy is 512 pages long and weighs about as much as my favorite telescope (no, really). I’d list all the things it covers but we’d all be old before I was half through. There is a 111-page “Introduction” that covers everything from atoms to the birth and death of the universe, sky motions, ancient astronomy, space exploration–basically all the stuff about how we know what we know. The meat of the book is the 210-page “Guide to the Universe” that runs through the solar system, deep sky objects within the Milky Way, galaxies, and so on out to superclusters of galaxies and the large-scale structure of, what else, the universe (clue’s in the title). The book concludes with a 160-page section on “The Night Sky”, with constellation diagrams and seasonal star charts; this section alone is the equal or superior of many stand alone sky guides that cost two or three times as much as this whole volume.

DK also nailed the “visual” part of their Ultimate Visual Guide. Every single page is covered in so many color pictures that you hardly know what to look at first. Most publishers would have screwed this up, and either used a bunch of stale recycled clip art or so crowded the pages with photos that there was no room left for content. Not so here: Universe is jam-packed with both photos and text and much of it is fresh and all of it is absorbing.

Astronomy books are a lot like dinosaur books: after a while you only pick them up to check out the art and see if there’s even 10% that isn’t already familiar. Yes, Saturn’s rings are surprisingly thin and globular clusters are full of old stars; what else is new? But I have learned a ton just in the two or three days I’ve had Universe, about everything from Renaissance astronomers to sunquakes to lesser-known features of Mars to the orbit of halo stars around the core of the Milky Way.

Really, seriously, if you’ve got ten bucks and you are at all interested in astronomy, even a little bit, go buy this book. I have a two-foot shelf of astronomy books and I’d have a hard time pointing to one that does any of the things that Universe does as beautifully and as well, and I am confident in saying that there is no book that does all of them so well. Get it while it’s cheap!


Space Toys: Ultimate Saturn V Rocket

August 29, 2009

London's moon rocket 01

My son, London, is nuts about space. Although some of my friends don’t believe it, I haven’t pushed him toward this at all. The truth is that he loves everything that goes–cars, trucks, boats, submarines, trains, airplanes, and, yes, rockets. His interests wax and wane and change focus over time. When he was younger, he was absolutely crazy about Thomas the Tank Engine (you can see some Thomas paraphernalia in the background in the above photo). Now it’s rockets, especially moon rockets and the space shuttle.

We started giving London an allowance a few months ago. We were out running errands and he saw a little toy airplane and asked if he could buy it. I started to say, “You’ll have to save your money”, but then I realized that I couldn’t very well advise him to save up if he didn’t have any money to save. Since then, we have been amazed at his ability to delay gratification–he regularly saves up his allowance for a month at a time to get bigger, better toys.

London's moon rocket 02

The Saturn V moon rocket shown here is one of those things he saved up for. I first discovered it on Amazon a few months ago, when it was selling for $40. I put it on the wish list and figured I might get it for London’s fifth birthday, which is coming up in November. But a couple of weeks ago I got a notice in my inbox that it was marked down to $23, so I pounced. London had already saved up quite a war chest for a little Matchbox airport set, but he decided to put that off and spend his savings on the Saturn V.

London's moon rocket 03

I’ll be honest: I don’t have a whole lot of objectivity when it comes to this thing. I think it’s the coolest toy ever. Here’s why: it’s accurately reconstructed in 1/144 scale, and every single thing comes apart, just like in real life, so you can reenact an entire moon mission in about ten minutes–and London has been doing just that, all day.

London's moon rocket 04

Here the first and second stages have separated from the third stage.

London's moon rocket 05

The command and service modules separate from the third stage…

London's moon rocket 06

…which opens up to reveal the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM)…

London's moon rocket 08

…which the command module docks to.

London's moon rocket 09

Near the moon, two astronauts go into the LEM and take it down for a landing. The third astronaut stays in orbit in the command module.

London's moon rocket 10

The lander on the moon. Possibly my favorite thing about this whole kit is that the legs on the LEM fold up to fit in the third stage cargo fairing, and fold out to land.

London's moon rocket 11

At the end of the lunar excursion, the descent stage of the LEM acts as a launch pad for the ascent stage, which takes the two moonwalkers back up to their ride home.

London's moon rocket 12

The ascent stage docks to the command module in lunar orbit, and the three astronauts are reunited. The lunar ascent stage is discarded and crashes into the moon.

London's moon rocket 13

Nearing Earth, the astronauts jettison the service module, and command module reenters the atmosphere and splashes down in the ocean.

London's moon rocket 14

A successful mission for the three intrepid explorers!

London's moon rocket 15

London has been fascinated with all the steps of a moon mission ever since he found this two-page spread in one of his space books.  Now he work through a whole mission by himself…almost. The first and second stages stick together pretty tightly, so every 10 or 15 minutes I have heard, “Daddy! The rocket is up high enough for the first stage to come off!”

On top of everything else, the first stage has a speaker that plays a countdown, ignition, and liftoff sequence, and the first stage shakes for ten or fifteen seconds. It runs on AA batteries, and the battery hatch is hidden on top of the first stage, under the realistically sculpted top of the hydrogen tank. It comes with a 16-pg book that goes through all of the components and the steps of an actual moon mission, just as depicted above.

About the only con on this thing is that the spring-loaded doors on the third stage cargo fairing don’t hold the service module very tightly. So if you just grab the rocket by the first stage, pick it up, and turn it sideways, the command and service  modules fall out. I just have London pick up the rocket with one hand on the first stage, to lift, and one hand on the service module and cargo fairing to hold the top end together.

If I didn’t have a boy to get this for, I’d be getting one for myself. The MSRP is $50, and it’s a total steal at $23. At that price, I’m tempted to buy another one just to have it. If you don’t need one for yourself, you probably know a youngster who would be gaga over it. Here’s that link again.