The Reference Desk

last updated 25 June 2006

The point of a good reference is to help you find what it is you're looking for. Of course, there are lots of reference sources, and it's pretty unlikely that just one will do the whole job. More likely, you'll need a few. That may sound like a gouge, but I don't think it is. Depending on what you're looking at the sky through—possibly just air—you'll need something different. You may also need a reference to decide what to look through, and whether you're willing to pay for it. After all, air is free.

This page contains a list of interesting reference sources, all available on paper. I won't get into the wide array of books covering the science of astronomy; there are simply too many, and I wouldn't ever be done writing capsule reviews. I have also collected a few interesting reports from other people on-line, which have no other homes at the moment:

My Own Personal FAQ (MOPFAQ)

Tony Flanders's Cheap Scope Review
Jay Reynolds Freeman's Review of the Stargazer Steve Sgr-3

Jay's Herschel 400: Brighter Than You Think
Ptolemy's Almagest Star Catalogue
A List of Star Names

Other On-Line Links

General Purpose Guides

Nightwatch, by Terence Dickinson. This catchall book is a beginner's guide to everything related to amateur astronomy, from what equipment to get, to how to use it, to what to use it on. It was last revised in 1998, so some of the equipment recommendations are starting to get dated, but the rest of the book will serve beginners well. For those readers who are cosmologically inclined, Nightwatch introduces the universe in 11 easy steps, while those interested in capturing the night sky with recent digital cameras may find the chapter on astrophotography interesting. The book is printed on dew-resistant paper, so that you can take it out with you right into the field. Street price about $20 U.S.

The Backyard Astronomer's Guide, by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. A sort of sequel to Nightwatch, BAG came out in a revised second edition in 2002, with a revised street price of $50 U.S. Even at that price, however, it is a very good deal, covering all the major areas of amateur astronomy in considerably more detail than its prequel. Given its reasonably recent publication, it has even more up-to-date information on telescope models than Nightwatch does, and although some of the specific model names may be gone, the general comments still apply pretty well. This volume contains a good explanation of how to use all the major telescope types, including a pictorial and textual explanation of how to maneuver a German equatorial mount past the meridian. I've also reviewed this book in greater detail. Highly recommended.

Equipment Guides

Star Ware, by Phil Harrington. This book covers almost every area conceivable about practical astronomy, but focuses on the equipment. Most recently revised in 2002 with a third edition, Star Ware gives personal but informed opinions about the starworthiness of a wide variety of telescopes and binoculars, and provides tips about purchasing from dealers and mail-order outfits. Unlike many other guides, it names names—except for one vendor who apparently annoyed Harrington so much that he left their name out of his book entirely. (The vendor in question anagrams to POSITIVE SCRUTINY, if you're interested.) One of the best chapters is on home-brew projects. Each of the three editions has covered a different set of ten projects, so there's a point in getting (or at least reading) each of them. Street price about $12 U.S.

Observing Guides

Monthly Sky Guide, by Wil Tirion and Ian Ridpath. This venerable book, soon to be out in its seventh edition, is a great book to hand to a beginner with a moderately small-sized scope. It's beautifully produced and not quite as imposing as Turn Left at Orion. The centerpiece of the book is a series of twelve full-sky maps, one for each month. Each map is accompanied by a few pages of special material on two or three constellations that are well-placed that month, including star maps that go down to the unaided-eye limit (the sixth magnitude). Street price about $10 U.S.

Turn Left at Orion, by Guy Consolmagno and Dan Davis. This widely used observing guide was most recently updated in a third edition in 2000, but its appeal is timeless. It is a selection of some 100 objects chosen especially for small telescopes—meaning those about 4 inches in aperture or smaller. Of course, nothing says you can't observe them in larger telescopes—these are just the ones that show up well in small ones. The authors make a few odd typographical choices (including using a hard-to-read outline font for some of the labels), but on the whole, it's a great inspiration for observations. I have a more detailed review of this book here. Street price about $15 U.S.

Sky Atlases

Bright Star Atlas, by Wil Tirion. A good beginner's star atlas, this slim booklet shows about 9,000 stars to magnitude 6.5. Its twelve pages are in a standard 8-1/2-by-11 format, covering the entire sky. It's most useful for finding your way around the sky, and for pointing a telescope by the unaided eye. I haven't used it under the sky yet, but at less than $10 U.S., you can hardly go wrong.

The Cambridge Star Atlas, by Wil Tirion. This atlas contains all the stars from the Bright Star Atlas, and then some, for about 9,500 stars to magintude 6.5. Like its smaller brother, it's useful for pointing a telescope using the unaided eye but may present problems in star-poor regions for binoculars or finderscopes. This book also contains a high-level lunar map (it fits entirely on two pages), and some introductory text on how the Moon and the stars "work." This extra material adds to the cost, but you can still obtain the CSA for a reasonable $15 to $20 U.S. Last updated in 2001, in a third edition.

The Collins Atlas of the Night Sky, by Storm Dunlop, Wil Tirion, and Antonin Rükl. This new player in the field of sky atlases is a wonderful compendium of several individual atlases. It combines the Cambridge Star Atlas, Rükl's well-regarded lunar atlas, and Ridpath and Tirion's contellation rundown from their book Stars and Planets between one pair of covers. The central set of constellation maps is especially useful, covering the entire sky to magnitude 7.5, and some selected areas even deeper. I have a review of this book here. At a street price of $20 U.S., a wonderful deal.

Sky Atlas 2000.0, by Wil Tirion. The premier 8th-magnitude star atlas, this book contains over 85,000 stars to magnitude 8.5. Unlike the atlases above, it comes not in an 8-1/2-by-11 format, but in a series of 24 charts, each 17-by-24. The oversized charts allow Tirion to fit in additional detail when compared to shallower charts, while still displaying entire constellations. Recommended for binoculars and finderscopes. Comes in a variety of formats, in prices ranging from $30 to $70 U.S., and a specially laminated version for $120.

Uranometria 2000.0, by Wil Tirion and Murray Cragin. When the original version of this atlas came out in the 1980s, it was the prize atlas of advanced observers, but it was dogged by a number of irregularities that hampered its usefulness. Chief among these was its unusual arrangement of pages: Within each page, the north was up and east was left, as is standard on atlases published for the northern hemisphere, but when you opened up the atlas to two adjoining pages, the eastern page was on the right, and the western page was on the left! This made navigation across the pair of pages distracting, to say the least. That problem and others have been fixed in the revised version, released in 2001 in a second edition. This substantial atlas contains over 200,000 stars down to magnitude 10, and is sufficient for navigating through the eyepiece, though it may be better used through a larger finderscope. It comes in two volumes, with a combined street price of about $100 U.S.; a guide book, recommended, can be purchased for an additional $60.

The Herald-Bobroff Astro Atlas, by David Herald and Peter Bobroff. This unusual atlas has a different approach to presenting the night sky than any other atlas I've looked at. Part of the atlas is standard: It has a series of three charts (rather than the usual two), covering the entire sky to successively deeper magnitudes. From there on, it diverges, showing selected but large areas of the sky to even deeper magnitudes, until the very deepest maps show stars down to the 14th magnitude! In addition, highly specialized symbols indicate details of the many celestial objects, such as the morphology of galaxies (that is, their shape and structure), the spectral classes of stars, and the color characteristics of nebulae. It may take some time to get used to the many dense symbols utilized by the HBA, but once you do, it's a tremendous source of information at a glance. At a cost of just $80 U.S., it's certainly worth your consideration.

Millennium Star Atlas, by Roger Sinnott and Michael Perryman. The flagship of the printed atlases, this large work covers about a million stars down to magnitude 11.5, and is definitely intended for navigating through the eyepiece, although use with a larger finderscope is certainly effective with this atlas, too. This atlas has a number of unusual features, such as the arrowed indicators of large proper motions. One can actually figure out where a star on the atlas will be 100 years from now, if it changes its position significantly in the sky. Its hardback edition, about $250 U.S., is hard to find, but the atlas came out in early 2006 in a softcover version, which can be bought for $150.

Copyright (c) 1998–2006 Brian Tung