Notes from Under Sky

The Collins Atlas of the Night Sky

In which I review this book

Collins Atlas of the Night Sky, by Storm Dunlop
Illustrated by Wil Tirion and Antonín Rükl
Street price: about $20 U.S.
ISBN 10:0-00-717223-0 (U.S.), 13:978-0-00-717223-8 (elsewhere)
224 pp, hardcover, HarperCollins (2005)

I'll preface this quick look by saying that I just added an entry to My Own Personal FAQ just a while ago on astronomy books for beginners. After a quick glance at the Collins Atlas of the Night Sky, the latest entry into a crowded field, I might just have to go right back and revise that entry.

Dunlop and Tirion have collaborated before, on the Firefly Deluxe Planisphere, a thick and large planisphere with rich detail and lots of information that puts David Levy's large planisphere to shame, for only twice the price. Rükl is known for his spectacular lunar atlas, recently reintroduced by Sky Publishing after a decade-long slumber in the out-of-print stacks. Make no mistake about it, these are some heavyweights in the uranography department.

Much of this information can be obtained elsewhere. The book contains four main sections: an unaided-eye star atlas, a constellation guide, a lunar atlas, and a solar system observing guide. The star atlas is essentially drawn from the Cambridge Star Atlas, down to the same object list format. Twenty maps cover the entire night sky to a scale of about 3 degrees per centimeter, with stars to magnitude 6.5. Hundreds of deep sky objects are plotted and listed. To my initial puzzlement, I didn't find a map key, as there is in the Cambridge. I found it, after some searching, at the other end of the book, just before the index.

The constellation guide, in turn, is quite reminiscent of the same section in Ian Ridpath and Tirion's Stars and Planets. The difference is that the Ridpath and Tirion book measures just 5-by-7, and each of the constellations is constrained to fit on a single page of that book. Here, each page is 9-by-12, and the constellation maps are given a generous scale of about 2 degrees per centimeter. Stars are plotted down to magnitude 7.5, so that the stellar density remains about the same in both the star atlas and the constellation guide maps. As in the Ridpath and Tirion book, each constellation is accompanied by an annotated list of several objects of particular interest within.

Rükl's lunar atlas is drawn—hand-drawn, in fact—substantially from his well-known standalone Moon book, although the descriptions of each sector are given here in a more narrative style, rather than the spare, feature-by-feature description given in his own book. This makes it more suitable as an introduction to the Moon, though perhaps less so as a reference source for the experienced lunatic. Also, the scale is smaller than in his own atlas, with the Moon being divided into just 16 sectors, in a 4-by-4 square. A pair of map keys is given on each page of the atlas, with north up in both keys, but mirror-reversed from each other, to suit those observing with and without star diagonals.

The last and slightest section covers solar system observing. A few pages on celestial mechanics are followed desultorily by specific advice on observing Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, and somewhat scantier tips for Uranus and Neptune. Mercury and Venus are mentioned only for the sake of locating and detecting them, and Pluto seems not to be indicated at all. In some sense, I understand this, because you really need a large telescope to find and identify Pluto, particularly if you're a beginner and therefore the target for this book. Still, I think it would have been neat to spend four pages doing a strip map of stars in the neighborhood of Pluto down to the fifteenth magnitude, and to indicate its path for the next five years. After all, the section concludes with strip maps for the other main planets, as well as hourglass diagrams for representative latitudes. Of the four parts of this book, this one was the least satisfying.

I don't want to give the impression that this book is just a Greatest Hits album for these folks. The presentation has been updated, and new features added. Detail maps are geared more for the observer, rather than the armchair astronomer. Instead of giving us the slow creep of the celestial pole around Polaris, for example, we get the much more useful map of comparison stars for Mira, the pulsating variable in Cetus the Whale, or a map of the area around the galactic center.

Beginners will still need books like Terence Dickinson's Nightwatch, to help guide them toward the right purchases and, perhaps, to inspire a love for the night sky. Once they have the bug and the tools, though, it's hard to beat this new text as a self-contained guide to the night sky for the novice. Definitely recommended.

Copyright (c) 2005 Brian Tung