The Night Sky Observers Guide, Volumes 1-3
Submitted: Friday, 25th March 2011 by Patrick Kavanagh

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The Night Sky Observers Guide - Volume 1 cover

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The Night Sky Observers Guide - Volume 2 cover

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The Night Sky Observers Guide - Volume 3 cover

During the 40 degree plus days of the 2009 VicSouth Desert Star Party, those of us who were camping sought shelter during daylight hours in the air conditioned splendour of the dining hall. There, some of us discovered a three volume treasure for visual observers: the “Night Sky Observer’s Guide”. I can’t recall who was generous enough to leave their copy lying around for all and sundry to pore over, but I am deeply grateful. Quite a number of us, star-hoppers like myself and also those with Argoes Navis (I assume that’s the plural form) quickly resolved to buy copies as soon as we got home. A decision that I have not rued for one moment.

This book, apart from its introduction, is not really a book to be read. It is a book to be used. As it title indicates, it is a guide for astronomical observing – for finding and identifying objects and to aid in the process of observing itself. The book is also very useful for compiling a list of objects to observe and gives a very good idea of what to expect – what to look for that might be spectacular and what to observe that may be challenging or interesting.

Willman-Bell seem to me to publish astronomy books of a very high standard and this set is no exception. Volumes one and two, compiled by George Robert Kepple and Glen W. Sanner were developed from the magazine “Observer’s Guide” edited and produced by Kepple and Sanner from 1987 until 1992. This magazine was written for Northern Hemisphere observers and so Volumes One and Two covered objects viewable from “mid-northern” latitudes. Volume One covers 29 constellations of the northern autumn and winter. Volume Two covers 35 constellations of the northern spring and summer. Southern observers will need both of these volumes as they cover constellations to declinations of – 40 and even further south. Eridanus and Puppis, for example, are covered in these volumes.

The third and later volume covers southern constellations and was compiled by Ian Cooper, Jenni Kay and George Robert Keppel. Its 28 chapters cover 26 constellations as well as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, each of which has its own chapter.  The three volumes are comprised of ninety chapters as Centaurus appears in Volumes 2 and 3 and Serpans Caput and Cauda each get a chapter.


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Figure 1

The 35 page introduction (Figure 1), by Craig Crossens, gives a very good account of the classification of stars, stellar evolution, variable stars, globular clusters, open clusters, stellar streams, nebulae and classification of galaxies. To one with deep knowledge of astronomy, I imagine this would provide little new. To myself, having done some reading over a few years, it provided a very useful summary and introduced quite a bit that I found new and interesting. The introduction is written in a fairly accessible style, but includes little repetition and I found it required a reasonable degree of focus to get the most out of it. I think that for someone of my level, a few readings of the introduction would be very useful.

Chapter One contains useful information about how to get the most out of observing and out of the book itself. If you’re not a highly experienced observer, this section has much good advice and I recommend not skipping over it. From there on, we are into the constellations.


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Figure 2

Each of these chapters starts with an overview of the constellation – the mythology of older constellations, the history of newer ones and some of the observing or scientific highlights (Figure 2.). A small table summarises the showpiece objects of the constellation. There is an overall map for the constellation (Figure 3), a detailed table of variable stars and another for doubles (Figure 4). The authors also include notes on stars of particular interest, either for observing or scientific reasons.

A master finder chart (Figure 5) shows how the constellation is divided by the authors into smaller finder charts (Figure 6) for locating objects listed. I have found these finder charts to be extremely useful. I envisaged using this book to develop lists of objects to observe for a session and then using my Star Atlas 2000 to locate them. Instead, I just take the book out with me to the scope and use the finder charts to star hop and this works very well. Although these charts are small, they are very detailed and accurate. My only quibble is that the font for DSO numbers on the charts is a tad small for my long-sighted eyes and a dim red light.


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Figure 3

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Figure 4

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Figure 5

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Figure 6

For almost all of the objects on the charts, there are detailed observation notes (Figures 5, 6, 7 & 8). The entries with notes for each constellation are in Right Ascension order and as the NGC and most catalogues are similarly organised, it is usually easy to find the entry without even using the index. I delight in discovering objects from the Collinder, Abell, Galactic Planetary Nebula (PNG), Ruprecht, Bochum, Shapley/Lindsay, ESO, Trumpler and many other catalogues scattered throughout the many NGC and IC objects listed, providing a huge range of DSOs to track down and observe. The entry for each object lists alternate designations, relevant classifications, size, magnitude and celestial coordinates. The heading also indicates the finder chart on which the object is found and the figure number if there is a sketch of photograph. Each object is also rated from 1-5 stars – 1 star is very faint, 4 stars bright and interesting and 5 stars is a “showpiece”. I find this system very useful for deciding what to look for depending on whether I’m after something spectacular or more a challenge.

The observation notes from a range of visual observers are of a very high standard. The length of the description depends on the object – small objects with little discernible detail get a short paragraph, larger and more complex objects like NGC 3372 get up to a page or two. Many objects also have notes relevant to observers with different size telescopes. Some have notes for 8-10”, 12-14” and 16’-18” scopes. Brighter and more detailed objects are more likely to have notes for a range of telescopes.


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Figure 7

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Figure 8

Many of the listed objects also have accompanying sketches or photographs. The sketches are of very high standard and both the sketches and photographs give an excellent indication of how the object appears in the eyepiece. For many of the complex fields, the sketches/photos indicate which object is which and make navigating complex galaxy groups and open cluster complexes very easy.

The back of the 3rd volume states that the 3-volume set covers 2,749 double stars, 556 variable stars, 2,878 galaxies, 175 planetary nebulae, 259 bright nebulae, 73 dark nebulae, 1,077 open clusters, 154 globular clusters and 14 miscellaneous objects including quasars, star clouds, supernova remnants and asterisms. An impressive total of 7,935 objects, with 698 photographs, 953 sketches, 609 charts and 197 tables

I find this three volume set to be an extremely useful observing aid. In fact it has become my primary observing reference. I enjoy simply taking the book(s) out to the scope, looking at whatever constellations take my fancy for the night and start browsing the Guide. Sometimes I just go for the 4-5 star rated objects, sometimes I work methodically through finder charts and constellations. Sometimes I use the Guide to find objects that I’m interested in having read observation reports or monthly challenge threads on Ice in Space. The descriptions, sketches and images are very useful for confirming my observations. I also find it very interesting when the authors’ observations differ from my own, or when the description has a different emphasis.

Got Go To? This book is very useful for developing lists for the night’s observing with a Go To scope and I know a number of people who use it very successfully in this way. As the authors point out in the Introduction, the book is also of benefit to those with Go To scopes or digital setting circles for identifying which object is which in a busy field and for confirming the details of the observations.

One limitation of a book like this is that it cannot be as inclusive of DSOs as an atlas like Uranometria and the charts are necessarily smaller and less detailed. However, there are an enormous number of objects in this book and certainly enough to keep a very busy observer going for many years. Another limitation for the use of the book at the telescope is that the pages are not resistant to dew. But having a simple dew hutch on the observing table averts the problem nicely at least in my location.

In summary, I have found this book to be a very valuable – almost indispensable – guide for observing the night sky. It can be used for generating observing lists for sessions as well as, in my experience, a very effective sky atlas. There are some limitations to its use as an atlas by way of font size on charts and dew protection, but I have found these quite manageable. I suspect that it might be a tad overwhelming for beginning star-hoppers, but for those with a modest amount of observing experience I can highly recommend this book as an aid to a very full and enjoyable observing experience.

(I have no financial interest in or relationship with the publishers, authors or distributors of this book)

Review by Patrick Kavanagh (Paddy). Discuss this Review on the IceInSpace Forum
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