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The Night Sky Observer’s Guide

Posted by Ed Moreno   07/13/2005 12:00AM

The Night Sky Observer’s Guide
Having owned and used my three volume copy of the Burnham’s Celestial Handbook until the binding started to fail, I was usually quick to recommend this set of books as my first choice for observers. I gave my set to a beginning observer that was returning to Italy after finishing a business assignment in the states, however I knew that I still needed a good reference book for researching potential observing targets and as a field aid to the maps and charts that I usually bring out for a session.

I saw the two volume set of The Night Sky Observer’s Guide at my local telescope store, and a studied perusal suggested that these books would be a good choice as replacement for the Burnham’s set.

First, let me contrast the differences. The Burnham’s books are indeed a superb work. They are really much more of a reference work, including lore, the root of names, astronomy history, and several chapters on the nature of various stellar and non-stellar objects. The guide also good tables with a very cryptic set of keys and icons to help you determine what an object should appear like in the eyepiece.

The Night Sky Observer’s Guide is far more focused on OBSERVING.

Volume 1 starts with a description of the books goals, and the information you will need to understand how to fully exploit the material it contains. The rest of Volume 1 is devoted to the constellations of the Winter and Spring skies.

Volume 2 contains the Summer and Autumn constellations, and concludes by providing pictures of some of the people that contributed the enormous amount of ACTUAL OBSERVATIONS THROUGH VARIOUS SIZE TELESCOPES! And THIS, my friends, is what makes these volumes really interesting. The very heart of the value proposition of these books is that it contains descriptions of thousands of objects, and for most of these it gives a nice description of how the object might appear in a small refractor, a medium size reflector, and a large dob. Now not every object has a description for every size telescope, but most include descriptions for at least mid and large size telescopes.

Almost all of the more interesting objects also include at least an eyepiece drawing, which is always accompanied by a note that credits the observer and gives the size of telescope that was used, or a photograph with similar information and exposure.

Now I have often been asked by someone what they might be able to expect to see with a telescope of so many inches of aperture, and of course this is a VERY difficult question to answer. There are just too many variables. But this body of work does a VERY good idea of describing what other observers HAVE seen, and what you might expect to see.

Each constellation chapter begins with about a 3/4 page chart of the constellation. It includes constellation boundaries for that constellation, RA and DEC lines, the constellation connector lines, bright stars down to around mag 6 or so (I don’t remember exactly..), and DSOs. Brighter stars often include common names, and usually include things like Greek alphabet designations. The charts are not really comprehensive and can’t totally replace a regular observing chart, but at the same time, they are useful enough to perform basic star-hopping. I have often located objects using nothing but these charts and a Telrad finder. Throughout each constellation chapter, there are also “Mini-Charts” that explore specific regions of each constellation. Again, this is useful for star-hopping or just to get a quick read about where the object is located.

Next, there is a less than one page constellation description. It includes basic info on the constellation such as size and information like pronunciation for the names, and sometimes a bit of history on the name. The description will also often include a mention of some of the showcase objects contained in the boundaries.

Following the description, each chapter next includes two tables. The first is a Variable Star table, and the second is a double-star table. Now I am not into Variables at all, so I can’t comment on their utility, but I use the double-star tables all the time. Now oddly, (or not, because while I like double-star observing, I am not really a double-star observer!) the most common reference is the Struve catalog number. Well, for me, the only problem with this is that NONE of my Go-To telescopes include Struve catalogs, so I am forced to rely on manually inputting the coordinates, and the tables do indeed supply the RA and DEC coordinates. In addition, they provide the magnitude of the components, separation, position angle, and in many cases, if the double is a color contrast double, the table includes the most reported colors for the components. Now as I said, I don’t actually consider myself to be a die-hard double star observer, but on many summer nights when there is a slight haze and my normal DSO targets are obscured, I will usually take advantage of the stable seeing that often accompanies the haze to dabble in doubles. These lists have made it easy because they allow me to work an entire constellation and have the important info right at my fingertips. I have found and split some really rewarding doubles, and the tables in these books were my guide.

After the tables, the observer reports begin. They also start with variables and doubles.
For each entry, there is a heading which includes basic info like brightness, separation of the primary/secondary, and position angle. In many cases, there is a reference to the Mini-Chart mentioned earlier to aid in locating the object (handy for Dob users), and in many cases, it will contain a reference to a figure, which could be a picture or an eyepiece perspective drawing. There are hundreds upon hundreds of eyepiece drawings, and I find them to be some of the most valuable parts of this book. I use these drawings to both set an expectation of what I will see, and often, when trying to locate really challenging objects, I can use them to accurately position the eyepiece to center the object or determine its extent.

Following the heading, there will be entries of reports on how the object will appear in various size scopes. For example, there might be an entry for 4” to 6” refractors, 8” to 10” reflector, and 14” to 18” reflector. The scope sizes vary sometimes, but this is due to the fact that the descriptions are based on ACTUAL reported descriptions by real observers.

The deep sky descriptions follow much the same format, with a heading that includes similar info such as size, brightness, number of stars for clusters, and a 5 star rating that indicates how satisfying this object is to view. DSOs are usually identified by NGC number, but other listings such as Abel clusters and such do appear. In addition, if the object has an alternate catalog listing such as Messier number, this is also usually noted (Always true with M numbers, but not always with some of the more obscure designations).

Regarding the 5 star rating, I have come to use this as one of the most important filters to select viewing targets. If an object has two stars or less, under my magnitude 3 and 4 sky conditions, that object will not be satisfactory for my 11” SCT. It will be too dim or invisible. Now remember, this is me. Your actual results may vary, but chances are you would still be able to use this 5 star rating in much the same manner. 3 Star objects are usually viewable in my 11”, but often are just at the lower edge of suitability for my 6” refractor. 4 and 5 Star objects are visible in just about any telescope even under magnitude 4 skies.

Now when I was younger, I would never have considered writing in a “Reference” book, but in the last couple of year of having owned these books, I do find myself jotting very terse notes in them. Often these notes are not much more than a date, the aperture and magnification use, and maybe a single word (Beautiful!)… These books are becoming increasingly populated with these little notes, which to me indicate that the books ARE being used, and they ARE helping me locate many new targets for viewing.

I own plenty of books on astronomy. These include several small atlases and observing guides. I also own several charting programs and sky charts. Of all these materials, the Deep Sky Observer’s Guide is my favorite and most used observing aid. For some, I would even recommend them OVER some of the more popular Deep Sky charts, because the books contain ample charts suitable for star-hopping with, and they contain thousands of actual observer comments that by themselves are worth the price of the set.

In the end, I give this 2 volume set my highest recommendation. These books are worth the price, and my bet is that they will be used more than a lot of other things you could spend the money on.

My regards,
Ed Moreno

Click here for more about this subject. -Ed.