book reviews

Star Charts and Astronomical Observing Handbooks

Norton's Star Atlas and Reference Handbook, 20th ed.
Ian Ridpath, ed.
Dutton, 2004


T he star positions in this classic work have been updated to the 2000 epoch. The first half contains general information about astronomy, and the second half is star charts and tables. Only objects visible to the naked eye (magnitude 6.5 or brighter) are shown. The charts, 17 in all, are actually diagrams plotted in black, white, and green. The tables show the positions of "interesting" objects such as double stars and variables. Beginners will find that this book is of marginal use for learning basic stuff like the constellations, while the 6.5 limit will disappoint professionals. However, if you're an intermediate observer, and you can find every object listed in this book, you will be doing well.

The Cambridge Star Atlas, 3rd ed.
Wil Tirion
Cambridge University Press, 2001, 9×12 inches


E ven though this one shows almost exactly the same stars (down to 6.5) as Norton's, the maps are beautifully drawn, and they're color-coded in a way that makes it easy to find objects: galaxies are red, stars (9500 in all) black, nebulae green, clusters yellow, and the Milky Way blue. For stars, the size of the dot indicates the magnitude. The first half of the book shows the constellations as white stars on a blue background for each month in the northern and southern hemispheres. These aren't quite as beautiful, but are still useful.

Sky Atlas 2000.0, 2nd ed.
Wil Tirion and Roger W. Sinnott
Sky Publishing, 1998


T his intermediate-level star atlas includes 81,312 stars down to magnitude 8.5. I recommend the “Deluxe” version, which uses the same color code as The Cambridge Star Atlas. It's also spiral-bound. The cheaper “Field” version has black stars on a white background. The Desk version and the book Star Maps for Beginners, on the other hand, use white stars on a black background. These should be avoided, because white dots on a dark background are a lot harder to see than black dots or colored dots on a white background. While the spiral binding in the Deluxe version of Sky Atlas is nice, the color coding is, in my opinion, essential. Note that this book is maps only--unlike other books, there are no tables indicating R.A. & declination, and no indication of spectrum or type. The 33 fold-out maps are 16×22 inches. With charts like these, who needs to go outside?

Uranometria 2000.0, 2nd ed.
Deep Sky Atlas
Tirion, Rappaport, and Remaklus
Willmann-Bell, 2001


I finally had a chance to look at a copy of Uranometria, the famous two-volume set of star charts that has 30,000 DSOs (including all the NGCs and 25,895 galaxies) and 280,035 stars down to magnitude 9.75. This magnificent work consists of 220 charts on 12×9 inch pages. Not every map takes up the entire page--to remove distortion, some are only 7×9 inches. In some other star atlases, the constellations are so distorted that it's hard to find anything. Those little planispheres, for example, have so much distortion they're almost worthless. Not so in Uranometria. Great care has been taken to portray the star patterns in the correct geometrical shape. This is especially important if you use geometric patterns instead of those new-fangled computers to find objects. I can testify that the shapes are very close to the shapes in the real sky.

The smaller page size sometimes cuts off large objects in the middle, and unlike Sky Atlas 2000.0, there is no color. All the maps are black dots on a white background, and the dots are smaller, which makes them appear less cluttered despite showing 3.4 times as many stars. The scale is also about twice that in Sky Atlas 2000.0--about 1.85 cm/degree. The 26 close-up maps, such as the one of the North America Nebula, show stars down to magnitude 11. In a few regions, such as around Polaris, the close-up in Sky Atlas 2000.0 actually has more detail. But for almost everything else, Uranometria is the best one out there. For example, the galaxies in Stephan's Quintet are drawn in detail here, while in Sky Atlas 2000.0 all you get is a small red oval with a label that says "7331." The famous Red Rectangle is plotted in Uranometria, but completely missing in Sky Atlas 2000. This book is a lot cheaper than some of the computer atlases out there, and paper still blows away a computer screen for presenting large quantities of information. Get a copy before it goes out of print.

The Cambridge Photographic Star Atlas
Mellinger and Stoyan
Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011


M ellinger and Stoyan traveled the globe to take 3000 wide-field photographs of the entire night sky using only a 50-mm lens and an STL-11000 CCD camera. They combined the images into a giant 7.8 GB image file and put it on the Internet. This amazing effort, widely reported in the press, also resulted in this book.

To make the book, they flattened the contrast and combined the images into 82 photographs. The photos of stars are incredible. However, the contrast range for print media is fairly low, and some of the brighter non-stellar objects, like M42 and Andromeda, are "blown out" or overexposed. M13 comes out as a large white dot. The Veil Nebula is barely visible. Because the background is so dark and the contrast so compressed, the stars appear different from what you would see looking at the sky in your backyard. In a polluted suburban site, you might only see 10 to 100 stars. In this book, almost 5,000,000 stars are visible. In fact, some pages consist entirely of large numbers of undifferentiated white dots, all about the same size, on a black background.

This might not impress casual readers expecting colorful Hubble-style pictures. As a map, the scale is smaller than a normal star atlas. But for nebula hunters, it's a gold mine. Unlike ordinary star atlases, which show all the nebulae as if they're equally bright, this one shows whether a given target is really visible, what it really looks like, and what the stars around it really look like. You will learn on page 32, for example, that the emission nebula Sh2 126 in Lacerta would be a tough target indeed. The book is less useful for galaxies, which mostly appear as slightly elongated white dots.

Deep-Sky Companions: The Messier Objects
Stephen James O'Meara
Cambridge University Press, 1998


T his book has high-quality white-on-black background photographs of each of the 110 Messier Objects and helpful notes on their appearance. Each object gets one to three pages. Some objects are also accompanied by the author's hand-drawn sketches. In some cases, the sketch shows too narrow a field, and a star chart would be necessary to find the object. This is one of the few books of this genre that is actually readable. Each object starts on a different page (more or less). The layout is visually appealing, and there is even a useful index. The author's ability to see patterns in the stars where none exist is remarkable. I'd like to get my hands on some of this guy's shrooms.

Burnham's Celestial Handbook
Robert Burnham, Jr
Dover, 1978, 2138 pages in three volumes


T he constellations haven't changed much since this 2100-page reference book was published in 1978, and the typewriter-style Courier typeface, while not exactly professional looking, is still perfectly readable. These three volumes represent the life's work of the author, listing over 7000 heavenly objects in the form of tables, and good quality gray-scale astrophotographs. The most important get a highly readable if occasionally long-winded narrative about their appearance and history. It's way too advanced for a kid, but the 24 pages for each constellation (on average) should be required reading for anyone seriously interested in the subject. This inexpensive Dover paperback reprint is of excellent quality.

(Disclaimer: I have not yet finished reading this book.)

Observing Handbook and Catalogue of Deep-Sky Objects
Christian B. Luginbuhl and Brian A. Skiff
Cambridge University Press, 1989


U sing their own non-standard nomenclature, Luginbuhl and Skiff accompany this list of deep-sky objects (clusters, nebulae and galaxies) with hand-drawn diagrams, poor quality astrophotographs, and crude maps in which North is pointed every which way. The objects are listed in the constellation they appear in. Stars are, for the most part, ignored. What this book lacks in visual appeal, findability and readability, it makes up for by providing verbal descriptions of over 2000 objects. Each object gets 5 or 6 lines of notes on its general shape and any distinguishing features. These will be invaluable in confirming the sighting of a deep-sky object. The book ends with a 56-page table listing the objects and their position, type, and size. The made-up names, while confusing, are not wholly arbitrary. For example, they describe a nebula called "gn 6587", which is their term for NGC-6587 in Cygnus. Andromeda is only referred to as "eg 224" and Messier 31. There is no index. The writing style is professional: just facts, no chit-chat. If the authors had included a diagram of each object and used conventional notation, this could have been the best book on the subject.

(Disclaimer: I did not read this book in its entirety.)

3-D Atlas of Stars and Galaxies
Monkhouse and Cox
Springer, 2000


F orget Avatar. This book is about real 3D objects in real space, and without the facile moralizing of the movie. It contains 42 large-format three-dimensional maps of the stars, divided into three sections: 8 maps of nearby stars (less than 25 parsecs), where the size of the dot depends on the distance; 18 maps of bright stars (up to 20 kpc), where the dot size represents magnitude, and galaxy maps (up to 1.3 Gly), where the size of the ellipse mainly indicates whether or not it's Andromeda. Only the middle section bears any resemblance to the real night sky. The first section is useless, and is probably designed for readers who have trouble seeing the 3D effect.

In this book, the stars and galaxies are plotted as red or green dots and ellipses on a brown background. A pair of red/green 3D glasses is included. The red-green system has limitations: in order to work, only half as many stars can be shown as on a regular map. Even so, there are many ambiguities where the same dots line up in two possible ways. For nearby objects, the parallax is too large for the reader to focus.

You should note that these are maps, not astrophotographs, but they're calculated from data collected by the ESA's Hipparcos astrometric satellite, which measured the positions of 120,000 stars to an accuracy of one milliarcsecond. On the page facing each map is a conventional map of the same region with the stars and constellations labeled.

This is the only book I know of that shows you the true spatial configuration of the stars. If you've got good three-dimensional processing ability, decent binocular vision, and a tolerance for going cross-eyed, you will wonder how you ever lived without the information in this book. Best of all, it's smurf-free. However, I must admit it's more entertaining than educational.

Stars and Planets
The Most Complete Guide to the Stars, Planets, Galaxies, and the Solar System
Ian Ridpath and Wil Tirion
Princeton University Press, 4th ed, 2007


A lphabetical list of the 88 constellations, drawn as white stars on a blue background, in a 5×7 inch field guide. Has lots of information about the important stars in each constellation and its history. Numerous high-quality color photographs. Very handy if you're not sure what the heck you saw ... but is this little paperback really “the most complete”? Maybe not, but I found myself using this book a lot, especially when I was first starting out.

Galaxies and How to Observe Them
Steinicke and Jakiel
Springer, 2007


W hat's there to say about observing that's unique to galaxies? Not much. But this book has lots of high-quality photos of galaxies, and some multi-page tables with useful descriptions that will help visual observers who love galaxies to find 'em. The book is in three sections: facts about galaxies, technical aspects of observing, and lists of what to look for. No information about scopes or cameras.

Turn Left at Orion
Consolmagno and Davis

(no rating)

I ntroductory book to give to kids or teenagers along with their first telescope. Uses very simple language. Detailed directions on how to find one hundred of the most popular objects in the sky. The objects are listed in order of their season: winter, spring, summer, and autumn. Although too simple for adults, kids will learn a lot without being overwhelmed.

(Disclaimer: I only leafed through this one.)

See also Astronomy and Astrophysics Books
See also Amateur Astronomy Books