Sample Pages from a handful of guides

Atlas Guides
Verbal Guides & Lists

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All amateur astronomers own some kind of guide, or a set of guides, in order to navigate and learn their way around the stars in the skies. Many fondly remember the guide they checked out from their school or municipal libraries when they were youngsters. These got the ball rolling. Maybe they found a copy of Sky and Telescope or a copy of an astronomy magazine in their native language to help them along. Christmas and birthday requests were made by these young students of the skies. They wanted to own a trusted guide; and to have one they could write notes in.

They were introduced to a variety of observing instruments; binoculars and telescopes, that they, one day, hoped they would have the opportunity to observe through or to own. They used the family binoculars and explored the wondrous recesses of constellations that they had newly learned. There is one thing plainly evident whenever you visit a local astronomy club or participate in astronomy news groups and bulletin boards, is that the love for the stars, planets and any other kind of wonders in the universe, is contageous, often at early ages, and this love never goes away or is exhausted.

Coupled with the observer's devoted interest, is a desire to observe through better and better equipment. From one generation to the next, the technology has made marked improvements, optical manufacture and quality has become more reliable and, in many areas, equipment costs are more affordable than ever. The thirty dollar telescope I started with, as a young teenager, is far outclassed by today's telescopes of comparable value, when inflation is taken into account.

But at the core of every exploration of the skies, is consultation with published guides to the celestial sphere. And these, too, have improved in accuracy and depth.

This page highlights guides that could prove useful to all amateur astronomers, young and old, experienced and inexperienced. This list is not an exhaustive comparison. It is offered to provide a sneak-peek into their pages, to allow others to see what kinds of information are graphically represented. The order is provided by the date of publication; from oldest to newest. Non-atlas types of guides follow. I've tried to scan the same region of the sky, a portion of the boundary region between Sagittarius and Scutum. Children's texts have been omitted from this list, although there are many good ones available. Astronomy is, alas, a science. It is entertaining, but it is about careful observational skills, a willingness to extend the imagination and to grow intellectually to find one's place in the cosmos.

Let's see what's out there!

Olcott (1954) Field Book of the Skies - A Putnam Nature Field Book

This is the guide that I discovered in my junior high school library, I borrowed it and renewed it repeatedly. Olcott's short but sweet descriptions of the celestial views were just enough. They didn't tell you everything, but they made the desire to explore grow. I ultimately purchased this book in 1971 from a university bookstore during my highschool years. Its cover price (hardback) was $5.00. It is now out of print and a bit of a collector's item, with well-worn copies selling for $12, and tip-top condition, 1st editions, fetching $200 or more.

The graphics were simple, and several pages were devoted to each constellation. One graphic displayed objects that would be of interest to those observing with unaided eyes or with field glasses (for years I wondered what field glasses were! An old term for binoculars.). A follow-on graphic would provide a simple figure for finding objects with telescopes. Olcott generally presumed most would be using telescopes with 3" (80mm) apertures, which were rather expensive instruments for the mid-1950's.

There are 22 stars and 8 non-stellar objects plotted here. This looks to be a hand-drawn, engineering-style, diagram, very likely based on scope-side sketches by Olcott, himself. The Greek letter--Bayer--designation is given for the brightest stars and the Struve catalog number is given for dim double and multiple stars (with ∑ prefixes). These double stars are indicated by open (non-filled) circles. Magnitudes are provided as single digit values next to each star. Messier catalog numbers are given with prefix "M" and New General Catalog (NGC) numbers for non-stellar objects lack any prefix (e.g., 6822 in the upper left), A standard practice for practically all atlases.

Olcott's book also offers some nice, pithy, historical anecdotes which are not found in more recent guides. Olcott's text offers many quotes from earlier authors, one sees that he has heavily relied on the older, non-graphical guide, written by T. W. Webb in the late 19th Century (6th edition came out in 1917), called Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes.

Howard (1967) The Telescope Handbook and Star Atlas - Crowell Publishing

I remember discovering this book in the reference section of my home-town library. It lacked circulation, so after reading Sky and Telescope, I often consulted with this atlas to confirm and make some notes regarding what might be interesting to observe over the next few weeks. I ultimately bought the book when it entered overstock marketing. Even though it is out of print, it is easily availble, with prices starting around $4 for well-read copies, running up to $40 for clean copies.

The atlas portion had onion-skin overlays that gave (in blue) the non-stellar objects. The example below was made with two scans, layered in Photoshop to reproduce the kind of image one sees with the overlay in place.

The border text is clearly drawn by hand, as is the main stellar and constellation information. The Greek lettering looks to be hand-drawn, but star and constellation names look professional typeset. The blue overlay text is also typeset. Considerably more detail is seen here, compared to Olcott's diagram, with many more NGC objects identified. Magnitudes are represented by the relative diameters of the stars. Double and multiple stars are represented by a star with a horizontal line passing through it and no Struve numbers are found. Open clusters are rings of dots; galaxies by ellipses; globular clusters with a solid dot surrounded by a ring of dots, and other nebulae by open circles.

Ridpath & Tirion (1984-2001) Stars & Planets - Princeton Field Guides

Personally, I failed to purchase much in the way of guidebooks produced in the late 1970's and into the 1980's. One, which I no longer possess, but thoroughly enjoyed through those years, was by Donald Menzel, A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, part of the Peterson Field Guide series published by Houghton Mifflin. It had a set of simple, yet useful, full-sky charts, but what set it apart was a complete set of photos of the skies, published in black and white, with the positive, dark sky version on one page, and the negative, black-stars on a white background, complete with notations, on the facing page. It basically had stars recorded to perhaps magnitude 7 or 8.

In 1984, followed by a reprint in 2001, Ridpath's Princeton Field Guide set a new standard for small and portable field guides. The later editions are in full color and feature some very nice astrophotography. The full-sky views found in this volume are reminscent of Menzel's guide. The star maps are constellation based, professionally produced with white stars on a blue background, which works very well under red lighting. Non stellar objects and constellation stick-figures are in yellow. The scale of the maps vary since it is a function of the width of the constellation being depicted.

Towards the back of the book are several year's worth of easy to follow maps helping observers to locate the main planets. My edition, from 2001 has already run-out of these maps for the present time. These maps are of interest since they depict the back and forth (prograde and retrograde) motions of the planets as seen from Earth. These maps stimulate the brain to understand why the motions occur the way they do.

Arnold, Doherty & Moore (1994) The Photographic Atlas of the Stars - Institute of Physics Press (UK)

Perhaps one of the best books on the market, today, featuring Menzel's style of photographic portrayals of the heavens, is this one. Again, it follows a similar model with a negative image (black stars on a white background, complete with notations) that faces a color version of the same photo. It is easy to trace patterns in the skies with a simple turn of one's head.

I refer to this atlas as my "cloudy night" atlas because it is almost as enjoyable to stare at, as it is viewing the stars through binoculars on a clear night. The images are crystal clear and amazing detail is seen within. The book is about twice as long as it is tall, making it a suitable candidate for the coffee table.

The notations on the black and white copy seem a little gross, in size, to me. The use of Hevetica 12 or 14 point type face is a bit big. A smaller font size (8 or 9) coupled with a sharper sans-serif font would have lent itself for additional detailed notations and perhaps a sharper esthetic presentation. Nonetheless, the annotations point out the main features. Each page covers a fair portion of the sky. Many pages cover several constelltions.

This book is particularly helpful in gaining an understanding of the constellation's relative positions. Its easy to learn the shapes of constellation from most guide books. But few of them help the observer to gain an understanding of how they relate to one another in the sky. For example, we all know pointer stars in the big dipper that help the observer locate Polaris, the North Star. But there are dozens of other pointers that skywatchers can use in order to link the constellations and to aid in navigating one's way across the celestial sphere.

Please forgive the slightly mis-aligned pair of samples offered here. The color photo of this rich area of the milky way is stunning, as are most photos found in this work. The printing quality is sufficient that one can actually use a magnifying glass to pick-out additional detail. The vast sweeps of sky are breathtaking, as if viewing from locales that are free of light pollution.

The authors used 35mm Nikon SLR film cameras (an F3HP and an F4S) with a 35mm focal length lens attached. The camera was mounted to a German equatorial drive system that allows for the tracking of the stars to accommodate Earth rotation during the necessary long (approximately 10minute) exposures. The imgaes were recorded on Kodak Ektachrome, ISO400, color transparency (slide) film. The photographs were taken at a time just before the introduction of sophisticated digital SLRs.

In general, the color images represent stars to magnitude 8 to 10 exceptionally well. This is equivalent to what can be seen through 7X50 binoculars. The book serves as a very useful overview of what celestial sites can be looked for on one's next observing session.

Pasachoff (2000) Stars and Planets - Peterson Field Guides - Houghton-Mifflin

The Menzel edition of the Peterson field guide series was totally revised when Jay Pasachoff undertook to newly author it. The layout and presentation of the material is considerably more inviting than Menzel's editions as jam-packed and fact-filled as those were. The new edition covers, in nearly 600 pages and in a compact format, practically all topics found in larger and heavier college texts. This shouldn't be a great surprise since Pasachoff has authored a series of college level texts.

Included are north and south facing full-sky maps and a series of 52 atlas charts. These were all produced by the masterful stellar cartographer, Wil Tirion. The full-sky charts are printed white on blue which works well under a red light. The colorful 4x5 inch charts set this field guide apart from most others. It performs like a compact version of the Sky 2000 Atlas.

In the example shown here we see friendly type faces being used for annotations and colors to represent spectral colors of the stars themselves. Double and multiple stars are represented with a horizontal line passing through the star which, nowadays, is the standard way to depict them. Variable stars are shown with concentric diameters in order to represent the amount of variability. Galaxies and nebula are shown following cartographic standardized forms.

In this compact format and at this scale, these charts set a standard of quality that is not easily exceeded.

Moore (2005) Guide to Stars and Planets - Firefly

Patrick Moore was invited to produce yet another small-format general guide. Although there are in-print, books like the Peterson and Princeton guides, astronomy has, as a science, been making remarkable progress in terms of understanding and breadth of knowledge. As soon as a guide is published it is already out of date.

Moore himself pens in its very short preface that "this book is strictly for newcomers." It very well fills the need for a colorful survey of the hobby of astronomy. It is aimed, perhaps at a younger audience. John Murray's maps of the moon are very nice, given the scale of them.

If the diagram at right appears somewhat familiar, it should come as no surprise that it is the result of more cartographic work by Wil Tirion. The maps here seem very closely related to those published in the Princeton guide. It makes one wonder if Wil Tirion has developed a bit of a monopoly on stellar cartography.

Sinnott (2006) Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas - Firefly

In 2006, Sky Publishing introduced a very detailed, compact and highly useful scope-side atlas of the skies. The 80 maps are ordered by right ascension (RA), thus maps pages, for particular seasons, are located near to one another.

Stars to magnitude 7.6 are shown which is what is visible through a 7x30 finder scope. Double and multiple stars are shown whose companions are magnitude 10.5 or brighter. Galaxies and nebula have limiting magnitudes between 10 and 12. Basically, the charts represnt what can be seen on a typical good-seeing night through a 3 or 4 inch telescope at about 100X power.

An italic sans serif font was used to denote non-stellar objects with a font size that is large enough to be easily seen under low-light or red-light conditions. This book is clearly aimed for usage in the field.


Which is the best book for beginners? Which is my favorite? As we've seen some have strengths over others. Some are older, and perhaps more limited in their present-day usefulness. I own all of these texts and have no desire to part with any of them. For a younger beginner, I might favor Moore's Firefly contribution as it seems most accessible. For an adult beginner, with some science background, I would likely recommend the Peterson guide.

Non-Atlas Guides

These books might contain occassional charts, but their emphasis is on offering verbal descriptions or lists of sights to be searched for and observed.

Webb (1917 & 1962-reprint) Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes - most recently published by Dover Press but now out of print

General Comments: Both Olcott and Burnham make references to comments made by a very active amateur astronomer of the 19th Century, T. W. Webb. It is an exhaustive collection of observations, largely focused on double stars, variable stars, stars with significant color casts and non-stellar objects. Webb utilizes an elaborate abbreviation system which takes a little getting used to. For its day and for many decades following, the book set the standard for guides to the stars. There are a handful of diagrams and a few plates. Particularly helpful was the 1962 decision, by Dover, to have Margaret Mayall provide J2000 coordinates for all objects listed in the book. Her more up-to-date coordinates appear in an appendix. Very helpful for locating magnitude 6 & 7 double stars. To this date, there may not be a more complete published listing of double stars.

An Example - Sagittarius: Webb complains that the constellation lies too low for his latitude but he does his best to list 19 double stars and 34 stars of note. There is a nice black and white photo of the Milky Way in the region of Sagittarius (taken by the Mt Wilson/Palomar Observatories) and a photo of the Trifid Nebula.

The copy I have of the book is a used copy, complete with considerable notations by the previous owner. Copies can be easily found in used bookstores.

Burnham (1966 & 1978-reprint) Celestial Handbook - 3 volumes, Dover reprint

General Comments: An absolutely "must have" set of volumes for all serious amateur astronomers. This had to be an all consuming labor of love for Robert Burnham. The detail of information is incredible and it is amazing that the whole thing was hand typed and every borderline box was hand drawn. The downside of this master collection of data is that much of it is largely out of date. The coordinates are all given in a 1950 coordinate frame and stellar distances, by today's post-Hipparchos Mission standards, are all suspect in their accuracy. But the observational notes, the history of other's observations and the general enthusiastic tone is what sets this work apart from all others.

An Example - Sagittarius: Burnham offers nearly 100 pages on this constellation. He lists 106 double stars, 118 variable stars and 59 star clusters, nebula and galaxies, all just for Sagittarius. He devotes nearly 16 pages to describe 13 stars of particular note; more than 9 pages on M8, the Lagoon Nebula and a whopping 61 pages to other non-stellar objects, incuding a fascinating section on the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. Most amateur observers I've talked to all agree that Burnham's book is a must have in everyone's personal library.

Kepple & Sanner (1998 & 2002) The Night Sky Observer's Guide - 2 volumes, Willmann-Bell

General Comments: Another absolute "must have" set of two volumes for serious amateur astronomers. There is a volume for Autumn and Winter constellations, with volume 2 serving to present the Spring and Summer Constellations. Both serve as a terrific, up-to-date supplement to Webb and Burnham's books. Drawings and photos of practically every non-stellar object, are invaluable, except that the detailed views lack an overlying grid. The text is presented in two-column format. The written overviews are generally pretty good, mixing a little history with facts learned from more recent studies. There are typos, however, and it is a good thing to have extra sources to draw from to flush them out. I've not seen an errata sheet, but one would be helpful. Perhaps the authors are planning on revising the book in a second edition.

An Example - Sagittarius: The section on Sagittarius extends for 22 pages, complete with a constellation chart and 7 sub-region charts which provide detailed locations and supplement the descriptions. They list 57 double stars, 9 variables, they give short descriptions for 5 stars deemed "interesting," and 52 short descriptions for non-stellar objects, all found in Sagittarius. The finder charts are a bit on the small side; finder charts spanning two columns would have allowed for more room for annotations and would have been considerably more valuable.

Inglis (2001) Field Guide to the Deep Sky Objects - Springer Verlag

General Comments: This book is rather troublesome. It is not particularly well written and all the information contained within can be gleaned from other sources (and likely was). I don't really blame Dr. Inglis for the lack of quality as much as I blame the lack of editorial fortitude offered by Springer. From the preface page to the index, there is a conceptual difficulty present in this book. It exhibits a lack of focus, is filled with countless examples of language problems and poorly structured sentences, and belies a lack of actual observing experience by the little attention paid to detail as evident in the texts of Webb, Burnham and the contributors to Kepple & Sanner's book.

A preface is normally about how a book came to be and gives the reader a sense of the author's intent. But Inglis uses the preface as a personal forum, name-dropping many of his friends through needless acknowledgements and, basically, he descibes how he came to be. This tendency towards self-centeredness sadly pervades the whole preface, going as far as acknowledging his favorite ambient composer. None of the books listed above lapse into such inanities.

We finally learn Inglis' intent for the book in Chapter 1: "to provide an introduction to the thousands upon thousands of objects within reach of the amateaur astronomer" and "to help develop a lifelong interest in what is without a doubt the most beautiful, exciting and thought-provoking field of science."

First off, since there are "thousands upon thousands of objects," then why is the book only 324 pages long? Why aren't all of the Messier objects listed in the book? Why are only 23 of the nearly 7900 New General Catalog objects listed? Why does the author renig on this promise by offering "only a representative few of the hundreds [of star clusters] available to the amateur astronomer?" [page 115]

Secondly, does the author honestly believe that the many pages of lists of objects (most of which refer the reader to yet another page) is going to lend itself for the development of a lifelong interest in astronomy? Scientists often exist on the edge of the normalized bell curve and they must learn to taylor their language and mental organization to be inviting for those well under the bell curve. The aformentioned self-centeredness grows into arrogance by assuming that the book's audience thinks the same way as the author.

Its a tough book to use and read. The rather unclear text suffers greatly and renders the book to be bereft of any significant utility. Lets look at an example.

M44: A perennial favorite late-winter, early-spring object, is the open cluster, M44. Inglis' description of M44 refers to Burnham 584 and describes it as a "nice triple star," but his very detailed accompanying diagram of M44 fails to identify it (I've drawn it in red). Detailed diagrams of open clusters are extremely valuable and only five other open cluster diagrams are provided in the book. When a detailed chart provides an overlay graticule, it is helpful to have the grid labeled.

Summary: To be honest, I have to chastize myself for having kept this book on my shelves as long as I have. Everytime I consult it, I hope that it will redeem itself in some way, but I have never found this to be a very helpful volume.

Only rank beginners might find difficulty using books arranged by constellation or by sky region. Is it really that more helpful to have books arranged by object types and month of the year? The previously mentioned texts above are perfectly sufficient. Webb and Burnham's enthusiam is far more mainstream and contageous, and Kepple and Sanner bring all the latest information together in modern coordinate frames and through detailed graphics.

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Last Modified: April 26, 2008