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Recommended Books

Celestron Merges Astronomy and Electronics
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The most important part of owning a telescope is simply whether or not you use it. The instruction manual that comes with most scopes does not tell you how or what to observe, and the controller’s guided tour doesn’t account for obstructions, clouds, or personal preferences. The NexStar 6 SE comes with an excellent quick guide to the GoTo hand controller and scope set up, but the manual only tells you the details of the 6SE’s operation. Actually, there are two additional bits of knowledge you need: how to do the observations, and what to observe.

The First Book - A Hacker’s Delight?

The Thompsons’ previously mentioned book, Astronomy Hacks, consists mostly of tips and tricks for observing, especially for any amateur astronomer. It discusses such things as safety and comfort at dark sky observing sessions, how to read star charts, and what type of eyepieces to choose. Though the Thompsons show a predilection for Dobsonians, they also explain how to trick out your car and ‘puter with red filters so as not to reverse your dark adaptation.

Despite the various Web commentary about how the tips aren’t really hacks, or that this book is for Dobsonian owners, neither of these criticisms is at all relevant. The book is well organized by section, such as the chapters “Observing Hacks” and “Accessory Hacks”. In “Observing Hacks”, they describe how to plan an observing session. Here they include such details as figuring out star brightness, the importance of an observing log, and even celestial catalogs. They comment on computer stuff too: they champion an excellent, widely used, free charting program, Cartes du Ciel, at the programmer’s website. How many astronomy books mention how to keep and draw in a notebook? Somewhere, Percival Lowell is smiling...

The Second Book - the How

As far as what to observe, O’Reilly’s newly published book from their Make series, Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders, at O’Reilly is also written by the Thompsons. Though some of the information regarding eyepieces and scopes is repeated and updated from their previous work, most of the book describes what to look at-and why. This book is organized by constellation, but includes clusters, nebulae and galaxies that are visible in the northern hemisphere. For every constellation, the Thompsons illustrate star charts with finder field and 1º circles. They also include tables that describes what might be seen in an urban setting. An introductory section explains DSO (deep sky objects) observing in detail.

In short, this book is a guide of objects to look for, and where to find them, for beginners and advanced observers. Several hundreds of DSOs and multiple stars are described, so the tour could last a year or more. This book is designed to cover the objects required for most list certifications. Completion of this course-the book-would signify that you are an advanced amateur. To my knowledge, no other guide book exists that is so useful for planning and conducting observation sessions.

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  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , December 29, 2007 5:45 PM
    GoTo mounts are for lazy people who don't really understand the essence of observing the sky. It's certainly a fun thing to create if you are an engineer, but if you're considering using one, take my advice and buy a book with pictures of the Messier catalog, it's a lot cheaper. A true amateur astronomer never uses those revolting, despicable, hideous GoTo mounts. Get a real standard equatorial mount. Get a good sky atlas. Get a pair of quality binoculars. Know your sky! That's astronomy...
  • -1 Hide
    originalgadgetguy , December 31, 2007 5:30 PM
    A sensitive topic to be sure. But the point of the article was to encourage those who have an interest in astronomy but never bit the bullet. That is, they don't own a scope because they aren't willing to learn all that needs to be done to find stuff. OK, even lazy. And our readers totally grok computers.

    Many amateurs started by using a GoTo. IMHO, the more astronomers the better. Talking to denizens of LAAS and reading cloudyskies.com, there is little sense of elitism. All amateurs are welcome, even and esp. those with GoTos.

    I didn't have room to talk about the wedges that covert yoke mounts to equatorial mounts, but they exist for many yoke types. That way you can have the best of both worlds.

    Finally, one of the books I recommended does just what you suggest: tries to teach the night sky so you can find stuff without using (or even using) a GoTo. Hope this addresses your comments.

    Doug
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , December 31, 2007 6:40 PM
    I think the guys who say to get a star chart and spend 6 months learning how to find and track things are missing the point and living in the 19th century.

    The fact is that these new generations of scopes make astronomy so much more accessible to people who find astronomy interesting but don't have the time or ability to invest. They also make it simple to introduce new people to astronomy by quickly showing them lots of interesting things.

    Plus, as a computer geek, there is nothing more fun than plugging your telescope into your laptop, hooking up a camera and driving it around from your computer. Do an easy DIY project like adapting a webcam to use with the scope and you have yourself tons of fun *and* you learn the night sky, you just don't waste months of time trying to figure out how to see anything.
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , January 2, 2008 2:23 AM
    I totally agree with smurfdog - you spend more time observing and imaging objects than trying to find them - and most of them are very dim anyways. THe manual method of finding objects is definitely 19th century stuff.
  • 0 Hide
    coreym72 , January 2, 2008 3:21 PM
    Science is ever changing and self-correcting. To memorize the sky from Earth is one thing and to explore the universe is another. Technology makes Astronomy possible for all who are willing to learn and grow. Why not use both to your advantage.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , January 3, 2008 10:19 AM
    Doug,

    I really praise the point of your article. I also love to teach everything I know about the topic to anyone who's interested in the subject, like most amateurs.
    Like you said, there's no to little sense of elitism in those groups. But I also know this: Like all the really rewarding things in life, Astronomy requires persistence and solid interest.
    I decided to comment your article since I disagree on some things you wrote and that contrast may help people who read it, look at the picture from another angle.

    Trying to find Deep Sky Objects or the planets (very easy with little experience and knowledge) in the sky, is where most of the fun is! Having a computer doing it for you is like you own a Porsche and let a chauffeur drive you. The only difference here is that, unlike the chauffeur, the computer has no fun at all!

    I didn't find anything interesting on cloudyskies.com, apparently is just a domain for sale. Did you mean www.cloudynights.com?

    If your interest is solid, you've got nothing to fear, understanding the sky is a lot easier than most people think.

    Diogo.
  • 0 Hide
    originalgadgetguy , January 4, 2008 4:45 PM
    Diogo et al,
    My bad! Yes of course I meant www.cloudynights.com. It's a great site for advice, and mostly cogent tips on purchasing and use.

    I think we can agree that for some, starting with GoTos is a great way of getting into astronomy. Then you can progress to star charts and maps, relying less on the GoTo. I want to encourage people to begin this exciting hobby.

    Amateur astronomers are one of the few science disciplines where amatuers can and do make professional level contributions!

    And even though I understand how the SkyScout works, it is unbelievable to actually use it and watch it ID an object, or have it guide you to some random star in its database...Awesome product. For me, this really helped me better learn the night sky. It's like using a crutch (or a chaffeur) then weaning yourself away from it and driving yourself. Much less pain, and kick butt fun.

    Hope this answers your concerns.
    Clear skies!

    Doug
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , January 25, 2008 12:09 AM
    Doug,

    I am a beginner in the field of astronomy and astrophotography and I would like to purchase some equiptment. Im not exactly sure what types of telescopes and astrophotography equiptment would be best for a beginner and it would be great if you could offer me some advice. I have done a lot of research on telescopes preferably under $500 and CCD cameras along with laptops. If you have any advice that would be great! Thanks.
  • 0 Hide
    enewmen , December 10, 2009 4:19 AM
    It's about 2 years later and I'm really getting into this now.
    To bad I didn't notice article earlier.
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