Star Charts for Beginners
Hello and welcome to the Beginners Guide to Star Charts. My name is Hugh Stevens and I have been a member of TAS since the mid 90's. We will cover Star Charts in this particular segment. When I joined TAS many years ago, I wish I had someone who could advise me on a great variety of subjects. Fortunately I was able to ask the right people the right questions.
So for those of you who are reading this - congratulations on choosing to research the topic. Because we all don't want to have to part with our hard earned greenbacks, I'll suggest completely free star chart software, and a couple of really good beginners books with charts, toping this article off with one of the grand daddy sky charts of them all in my meager opinion. I try my best to do this with a minimum of words, after-all us Cajuns are known for TALK! So I'll do my best to keep the writing simple with no buzzwords and not ramble on.
Background – Many moons ago (yes, poor pun intended), you had to purchase a star or sky chart to be able to make sense of the heavens. With the advent of the internet and some very generous folks, this is no longer the situation. There are some very good free online star charts available for use. Since we all like free stuff, I'll start with those and then move to the star charts for modestly priced beginners to the “MAC” daddy star chart of them all.
Skymaps.com - As a first star chart I recommend the star charts at www.skymaps.com. This is an ultra-handy website packed with free and low priced star chart recommendations. The site touts itself as 'Free sky maps each month' and with a printer you can download a sky chart for your location and time of year. I am still astounded at all the information on this excellent website.
CloudyNights.com – . – another set of great star charts to magnitude 7, about what the average eye can see when way out in the country side. You will need adobe acrobat for the '.pdf' files. These can be printed and placed inside plastic sheets and into a 3 hole binder for use outside at night. The plastic keeps the dew off of the star chart pages.
Cartes du Ciel – . A really great guy by the name of Patrick Chevalley came up with a slogan I can really relate too - “I'd rather see amateurs spend their money for a new eyepiece than for astronomy software” With that in mind he wrote the excellent and free star chart named appropriately Cartes du Ciel. It is now in Version 3 and can be used on Linux, MAC OS X and Windows. Version 3 has a number of integrated features that makes for a more robust product, including telescope control using a laptop.
Stellarium Planetarium Software - If you like 3D views, and who doesn't, you'll love this free star chart program that works on Linux, MAC OS X and Windows. You just plug in your location, and Voila', you can get an image of what your sky will look like for the location and time of night! I was pok'in around the program when I noticed something pop up that read 'press ctrl+G and fly to that planet' Next thing I know is that I'm on Mars standing above the Mars Rover and looking towards the Sun and solar system with all Planets shown in their orbits – my jaw dropped at the same time I let out in Cajun 'we'll look'ie there!'. Folks you have to see it to believe it!
Skywatching ™ - – In my crawfish eating opinion no comprehensive listing would be complete without a mention of Skywatching found on Space.com. This whole website is a very well done compendium of space facts and latest astronomy news. The Skywatching portion is entirely devoted to just that – anything happening in the night sky. Want to know about when Mars will come closest to earth again? How about the upcoming meteor shower – sure 'nough - Skywatching has it all at the click of a button!
Pop will be proud, ole' Junior wants to get a book? Alright! You've decided to pony up the cash and get a star chart! Which star chart? Hmmm – better think on that one for awhile. While the free computer stuff I mentioned above, except for the a’fore mentioned Skymaps, can be brought outside with you, it's pretty handy to have a star chart you can carry. I'm going to start with the simplest option and move to the more expensive models with an idea of where I got it, it's usefulness, and about how much I paid.
Planispheres, about $10 – Many eons ago the Greeks, while pondering the sky came up with a device that made it much easier to visualize the constellations. You see they were fascinated with spheres. Ever hear of Archimedes? Well this has brought us to the modern Planisphere. It's a device so simple, even this old cajun boy could figure it out nickety split!. All it requires is for you to know the month and which hemisphere you live in and how far above the equator you are. You see you have to get one for your general latitude. Don't get one for say Texas and send it too cousin Ian in Australia unless you really want to get em' messed up really good!
The Planisphere consists of two disks that rotate on a common pivot. Rotate to your month and it will approximate the night sky showing all constellations viewable for that time of year. I personally like the ones that glow in the dark, been crazy for stuff like that- oh yeah, rambling. OK – time to move on. By the way- there’s a really good one on skymaps.com that you can buy.
Astronomy - The Definitive Guide by Robert Burnham, Alan Dyer and Jeff Kanipe ™. About $6 at the used book store. These heavy weights of the Astronomy persuasion wrote an excellent, easy to use and handy guide. It starts off simple, and as you read on, it gets more detailed. The end of the book is filled with images indicating which constellation the image resides in. My version is small, a plus when carrying a lot of stuff into a field. It uses plain language and describes the sun, moon, stars and how to navigate the night sky in easy to understand terms. Highly recommended.
Binocular Highlights: 99 Celestial Sights for Binocular Users by Gary Seronik $15 used - $25 new. It astounds me to this day what can be seen with a simple pair of binoculars pointed at the heavens. I have seen whole galaxies – 12th magnitude, meaning really dark – in a pair of binoculars, but when the scope was swung around to that celestial location, alas it evaporated like steam – nothing to see. This is an excellent starter to learn the constellations. Take it from a life long sky gazer, you’ll get REAL brownie points if you can identify that constellation no one else seems to remember, and even more if you can tell people what’s within it! You will dominate at Star Parties that specialize in finding the most objects in the shortest time.
Turn left at Orion - 3rd edition by Brother Guy J. Consolmagno and Dan M. Davis. $18 used, $28 new. With the 4th edition around the corner, maybe the 3rd edition in print will flood the shelves at local used bookstores. This is an excellent book for beginners. It is easy to use and a lot of fun. It rates various types of telescopes and provides handy tips on how to operate the sort of telescope you purchase. With numerous ‘views’ illustrating everything from the constellation in the sky to it’s view in the finder scope and power needed to see it, this is a great book for the beginner.
The Nature Company Guides by Time Life Books ™, Backyard Astronomy or Skywatching. About $10 - $20 dollars at the used book store. These outstanding beginners books are a must for anyone who becomes interested in astronomy. The 'Backyard' and 'Skywatching' are written by the same very knowledgeable folks. The 'Backyard' version takes into account large metropolitan areas which have substantial night pollution. This limits everyone’s ability to see constellations. With this in mind they limit the amount of viewable objects to match a cities night sky. A lot of the material is re-used in Skywatching, and a careful look at both really stretches this persons ability to spot differences. One of the most valuable sections is 'Star Hoping' that describes how to navigate the night sky using ones own hand. These books are also very good at helping people determine just what equipment they will need for what type of viewing. For instance charts have 'unaided eye', 'binoculars', 'telescope' and in some instances will tell you the size of the telescope needed to view the object. I can't emphasize how handy I have found these books.
This section is a short write-up of sky charts for advanced users. The Nature Company Guides by Time Life Books ™, 'Advanced SkyWatching'. Just that, takes sky watching to another level. Expounds on a lot of astronomical phenomena and instructs a person how to go about cataloging their observations.
Uranometria 2000 by Tirion, Rappaport and Remaklus - $50 or $60 new – depending on volume, $160 new for the set of three. This 3 volume set is touted by some as the definitive set of charts. Volume 1 is the Northern Hemisphere, Volume 2 is the Southern Hemisphere, with Volume 3 constituting Deep Sky Objects. Personally I haven’t seen these books, however those in the know rave on them. If you are serious about life long observing then this set is for you.
Author – Hugh Stevens (tasquasar at yhaoo.com); Version 2 - updated 1/20/2011.
Clear Skies and welcome to TAS!