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Books for Observing with a Scope

    The Universe: a device devised for the perpetual astonishment of astronomers.
                                                                                                       -  Sir Arthur C. Clarke

There are a number of good books written for amateur astronomers.  (Many of the good books on amateur astronomy are written by people living in Britian or Canada. The reason I mention this is, if they can do world-class amateur astronomy working in a climate with that much cloudiness, the rest of us don’t have room to complain about our climate...) A few I recommend are shown below. One thing you should be aware of, is that the book publishing industry is changing from the genteel business of years past, to one motivated almost completely by profit. Books without huge sales are taken off the market quickly. Since astronomy books have a rather limited potential audience, you will find that even great astronomy books are going out of print very quickly, sometimes in less than two years.  Be advised that if you find an astronomy book you really want you will need to purchase it as soon as you have the opportunity.  It may show up in the used-book market but in a vigorous spirit of capitalism at its worst, some used-book sellers are starting to gouge astronomy customers; I’m seeing books recently out-of-print subsequently selling for twice the original retail price, for a copy that isn’t even in excellent condition.

An Initial Set of General Observing Books:

The Guide to Amateur Astronomy, by Jack Newton and Philip Teece, Cambridge University Press, 1988

Field Guide to the Night Sky, National Audobon Society, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998

The Star Guide by Robin Kerrod, Macmillan, 1993

Norton’s Star Atlas and Reference Handbook, by Arthur Philip Norton and Ian Ridpath, Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1998

The first book above is an introduction to observing and highlights some of the best night-sky objects for you to begin with. Should you be uncertain as to Jack Newton’s qualifications as an experienced observer, note that he has accomplished a feat amateur astronomers usually only dream about - in 2000 he discovered a supernova (before robotic scopes were set up to do this without human participation). 

The Audobon Guide is a general book on the night sky and also is packed with useful observing information. I find I use it quite often, especially to relate common names of stars to their official numbers. It is a more general book on the sky whereas Newton’s book is more oriented to observing with a scope - they complement rather than compete with each other.  It is intentionally designed to be a [thick] pocket book, and this subject is so large [no pun intended] that its star maps don’t have much detail, so you still need a full-size star map book like Kerrod’s or Norton’s.   But it is very portable and I have found over time that I like it more and more.

At some point you will need a set of star maps that provide a general guide to the constellations, since the objects listed in the above books are listed by constellation and you need a guide or map to that frame of reference. One general sky book is Kerrod’s The Star Guide, which includes a decent (but not great) planisphere. It has a lot of good information in the text, although the star charts themselves are less detailed than they could be.  It is a compromise leaning towards readability for beginners, but the best beginner’s compromise I’ve seen.

A more detailed collection of sky maps is Norton’s Star Atlas. This is a new update of a classic star atlas that many of us grew up with and came to love. But Norton’s only shows stars to magnitude 6.5 - the limit of naked-eye visibility.  Eventually, when you find yourself trying to find an elusive object (from Pluto to Quasar 3C 273, perhaps the only Quasar visible in an 8” scope but a magnitude 13 object nonetheless) you’ll want to get a substantial atlas such as Wil Tirion’s Sky Atlas 2000, which is published in a number of (increasingly expensive) versions from black&white to color, in plain paper or laminated, and/or unbound or spiral-bound, from Sky & Telescope Publishing. (Note that a “Companion” book is also available, that discusses each of the deep-sky objects plotted on the Atlas.)  Personally I use Norton’s to get me in the neighborhood but mostly Sky Atlas 2000 as I expanded my range of observing objects.

Anyway, as an initial set of three books I recommend Newton’s, the Audobon Guide as a reference, and either Kerrod’s or Norton’s atlas. Kerrod’s text has more information but Norton’s charts have greater detail.

Another good introductory book is Observing the Constellations by John Sanford, Simon & Schuster/Fireside, 1989. Stanford’s individual discussions of each constellation include tables of multiple stars and deep sky objects. I like this book a lot and although it is out of print it can sometimes be found by and others.  (I didn’t include it with the others above or below, simply because being out of print it is somewhat hard to find.) This book complements Mike Inglis’ book (described below) - both provide interesting details about deep sky objects and actually their details “alternate”. That is, they don’t in general provide details on the same objects, so these books are both worth having (assuming you love books as much as I do). However, I should note that in my experience Stanford is a bit optimistic about the detail that can be seen in deep-sky objects with an 8” scope.

Specific Observing Books:

The Messier Objects, by Stephen James O’Meara, Sky Publishing Corporation, 1998

Field Guide to the Deep Sky Objects, by Mike Inglis, Springer, 2001

Deep Sky Observing – The Astronomical Tourist, by Steven R. Coe, Springer, 2000

Celestial Harvest, by James Mullaney, Dover, 2002

The Night Sky Observer’s Guide, by George Kepple & Glen Sanner, Willmann- Bell, 2002

As you gain some experience with your scope you will want to observe a broader range of objects. As a next step past the initial observing books I recommend one or more of the four shown above. I particularly recommend O’Meara’s book on the Messier Objects - the Messier objects are among the greatest sights available in a telescope, and O’Meara’s enthusiasm, experience and advice are compelling and a joy to read. 

I bought Inglis’ book after reading the review of it in the November, 2001 issue of Sky & Telescope.  It is a terrific collection of deep sky objects that is primarily oriented to 8” scopes rather than “light buckets”. It includes fascinating descriptions of the current scientific understanding of objects, which for me makes observing them more fun. I like it a lot and my only criticism is that for some odd reason Inglis decided not to include the name of the constellation for most objects he discusses (he does include the RA and Dec for each). Of course GoTo scopes allow you to enter the Messier or NGC number directly, but for stars you need to know the constellation, to figure out the keypad input number for a particular star. You may find that not having the constellation referenced in the tables in the book, is a bit frustrating when you’re preparing an observing list for a given evening.

Steve Coe writes a column on observing for Amateur Astronomy magazine. His book has two parts - a collection of excellent advice on observing deep-sky objects, and a tour of interesting deep-sky objects in various categories (galaxies, nebulae, clusters).  Even though I have a reasonable amount of experience as an observer I gained a lot from his advice. On the other hand, his tour of deep-sky objects is somewhat more oriented to scopes larger than the 8” diameter or smaller scopes that most of us use - he uses a 13” Newtonian (although at least he’s within the range of affordable scopes - most of the authors in Amateur Astronomy use Dobs larger than that). His great observing advice alone is worth the price of the book and his notes on specific objects are gravy.

Most books that discuss deep-sky objects tend to concentrate on star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies, and don’t pay a lot of attention to interesting stars. James Mullaney is the former Curator of the Buhl Planetarium in Pittsburgh and the first Director of the DuPont Planetarium at USC-Aiken, as well as a former editor at both Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines and a staff astronomer at the University of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory.  Celestial Harvest is his compendium of favorite observing objects and he includes discussions of beautiful single and double stars much more than most other observing books.  (The reason I mentioned his background in detail, is that his tendency to include a lot of stars as well as deep-sky objects is worth noting by amateur astronomers <grin>.) This book includes comments made on each object by other famous observers (often going back to some of the earliest astronomers) which helps you to study an object more closely - many experienced observers have noted that you can see more in a scope when you know what you’re looking for. He also includes notes on the historical significance of an object where applicable. I like his book a lot.

Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, written in the late 1970’s, had for many years been the classic deep-sky observing reference guide. However, the astronomical theory discussed in it has become very dated in the ensuing decades (e.g. Burnham’s presents the concept of a black hole as a new and somewhat dubious theory). It is worth having as a reference book since its observational descriptions and photographs of deep sky objects are still valid, but the popularity of GoTo scopes starting in the 1990s stimulated a need for the production of more modern observing reference books. George Kepple and Glen Sanner felt that by the 1990’s larger affordable scopes had become commonplace, allowing views of objects that Burnham’s doesn’t cover very well. So they produced The Night Sky Observer’s Guide which is a two-volume set: Volume 1 covers the Autumn and Winter constellations while Volume 2 covers Spring and Summer. It is probably the most detailed and extensive pair of reference books on observing objects available, containing some 900 pages of object descriptions as well as an excellent introduction that clearly summarizes the current scientific understanding of each class of objects, from stars to nebulae and galaxies. The majority of the objects described require scopes with apertures larger than 8” or so, but it is true that such scopes are becoming more and more affordable. It has become a modern classic.

A book that has recently been published is The Practical Astronomer’s Deep-Sky Companion, by Jess K. Gilmour, Springer, 2003.  This book moves through most of the constellations visible in the northern hemisphere (Gilmour is a Canadian amateur astronomer) and for each, presents about a dozen (more or less, depending on the constellation) deep-sky objects to observe.  His choice of objects is difficult to categorize - they range from bright, easily observed Messier objects to a few difficult faint objects requiring very dark skies and probably more than 8” of aperture. His introduction to the book implies that he wanted to provide a compilation of those objects most worth spending the time to photograph. What makes this book a good one for beginning scope users is that each object is accompanied by a small (2” x 1.25”) but outstanding astrophotograph (over 800 total), so observers have a good idea of what the object is supposed to look like even if their scope or viewing conditions can’t produce that view. Oddly, the book doesn’t state whose photographs are used but if they are Gilmour’s, then he is quite an accomplished astrophotographer. I recommend this book highly, with the caveat that a beginner really needs to pay attention to the listed magnitude of each object so as to avoid becoming frustrated if it can’t be seen very well or at all, and a second caveat that the printing process of reproducing 841 color photographs does make this book somewhat expensive ($45 US) although not over-priced for what you get.

Exploring the Moon Through Binoculars and Small  Telescopes, by Ernest H. Cherrington, Jr., Dover Publications, 1984, is an excellent introduction to observing our closest astronomical neighbor. The Moon dominates the sky for much of each month, so at some point you will find that you want to learn more about what it has to offer. (Also see the Sky Chart Software page for a free software application that displays charts of lunar features on your computer, and the Lunar 100 observing list on the Visual Observing with SCTs page.)

Some Further Recommendations:


Astronomer’s Stars, by Patrick Moore, W. W. Norton & Co, 1987

 Deep Sky Wonders, by Walter Scott Houston & Stephen James O’Meara, Sky Publishing Corp., 1998

The Data Book of Astronomy, by Patrick Moore, Institute of Physics Publishing, 2000


A somewhat different kind of book, and one I highly recommend, is Sir Patrick Moore’s Astronomer’s Stars.  Moore devotes each of 17 chapters to a specific star whose properties led astronomers to a deeper understanding of the universe. He discusses the history of the scientific discovery as well as the science, in a very readable and enjoyable way. You’ll have fun reading the book and after you have, you will have a better appreciation of many of the stars you observe with your scope. (This book is out of print but Amazon .com found me a copy fairly quickly through their out-of-print contacts.)  This book and Inglis’ book on deep sky objects mentioned above, are important reading to gain a technical background on the objects you can observe, without wading through an advanced astronomy textbook full of mathematical equations (not that mathematics is a bad thing <grin>).

Walter Scott Houston wrote a column called “Deep Sky Wonders” for Sky & Telescope from 1946 until his demise in 1993.  For a half a century this monthly column inspired amateur observers to look for deep sky objects and challenged them to stretch their observing skills - he was beloved by all serious amateur astronomers in the last half of the 20th century.  In 1998, Sky & Telescope commissioned Stephen James O’Meara, who is himself one of the best amateur observers alive today (despite the fact that he embraces the Caldwell Objects list) to compile the highlights of Houston’s columns into a book for amateur astronomers. The result, Deep Sky Wonders, condenses Houston’s columns into a set of deep-sky observing discussions for each month of the year.  It is a wonderful collection and I highly recommend it.

The Data Book of Astronomy was also written by Sir Patrick Moore, one of the most respected amateur astronomy authors and one of the most highly regarded amateur observers (although it was Patrick Moore who in 1995 proposed the Caldwell List of “important” observing objects omitted by Messier and that list is generally silly.)  This book compiles data on the planets, stars, and deep-sky objects with explanations of relevant current astronomy theory in each case.  It contains a wealth of information and includes a good list of stars, double stars, variable stars, and deep sky objects for each constellation. It is an excellent reference book in which I found very few errors, a remarkable feat considering the wealth of information presented.

Books of Celestial Photographs:


Atlas of Deep Sky Splendors, by Hans
Vehrenberg, Sky Publishing Corp, 1988

The Great Atlas of the Stars, by Serge Brunier and Akira Fujii, Firefly Books, 2001


Vehrenberg’s book covers the Messier objects as well as other deep-sky objects, and provides a lot of astronomical science background on deep-sky objects .  It doesn’t have as much detail as Inglis’ Guide but it is illustrated with some of the original schmidt camera photographs taken of deep-sky objects - Vehrenberg was a pioneer of modern astrophotography and his images are absolutely beautiful.

Brunier’s book is intended to be a beginner’s guide to observing objects in each of various constellations. It doesn’t work very well for that purpose - each of his constellation descriptions only contains three to six objects and Brunier’s selection of objects is often quirky - he seems to be obsessed with stars that will explode at some time in the distant future.  However, Brunier’s selections are placed as transparent overlays that lay atop celestial photographs taken by the great Japanese astrophotographer Akira Fujii, and Fujii’s astrophotographs are the reason to purchase this book. Fujii has two observatories, one in the Japanese Alps and one in Australia, and you will rarely seen such incredibly beautiful photographs of the night sky.  Buy this book, ignore Brunier’s text, and sit back and marvel at Fujii’s photographs.  If they don’t motivate you to get your scope out, nothing will and you chose the wrong hobby.

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