Sunday, February 15, 2009


Finding My Way

“You can’t find the homes of the stars without a map.” The “stars” that Hollywood and Vine street-hawker is talking about are, of course, those humans who dare compare themselves to heavenly fire, not those we are concerned with (well, Unk did like Miss Renée Zellweger in New in Town recently. A lot. Hubba-hubba. But that’s another story). It is nevertheless true, however, that you can’t find the stars—or galaxies or star clusters or nebulae—without a map of their “homes.” I’ve made passing references to my experiences with star atlases over a few recent blogs, but here is where we get serious about picking a set of charts to show you the way to the places all your faves live.

These days, of course, there’s also the question, “Why would you want a print star atlas when computer planetarium programs go a dozen times deeper than any book?” There are a cupla reasons. It is true no printed atlas can compete with something like TheSky or Megastar in object (star and DSO) counts or in capabilities like the ability to change the appearance of a chart by zooming, flipping/inverting the field, adding or subtracting stars; or in groovy-cool modern stuff like controlling a go-to telescope. All things being equal, a laptop computer running a planetarium program blows any book outa the water. As I am wont to say, howsomeever, all things are not always equal.

Who still wants a star atlas? Some folks just don’t want a computer on the observing field. Even people who get along well with the little beasts may want a break from ‘em if they spend all day slaving over a hot keyboard at work. Also, a laptop is one more thing to pack in the vehicle, and it multiplies the things you’ll haveta to throw in the back of the pickemup truck beyond just itself and its case. To use a laptop at the scope for long, you can forget its built-in battery. One might go a couple of hours. No, you’ll need at least a jumpstart battery just for the PC, and, if like Unk’s, your computer has a power-hungry processor, you’ll probably want a big and heavy deep cycle marine battery. If possible, you’ll need to buy a DC power brick for your laptop so you can plug the thing directly into a cigarette lighter receptacle. If you don’t have/can’t find a DC – DC converter for your machine, you’ll need an AC/DC “inverter” to plug it into. And a computer table of some kind. You’ll probably also want some sort of enclosure to put the laptop in to protect it from dew and protect other observers’ night vision from the PC’s always-too-bright display. Don’t forget a piece of red Rubylith or a Sightsaver for added night vision protection. You get the picture.

But why do you need an atlas of any kind, print or electronic if you use a go-to telescope? If you are just going to visit objects on a pre-planned list, or are prepared to let the go-to scope’s HC show you what it thinks is “tonight’s best,” you probably don’t. Me? I like to orient myself in the sky rather than just stare at numbers on a hand control. Where exactly am I? Which objects are in the neighborhood that I might find interesting? Go-to or not, for me a graphic representation of the sky, whether paper or silicon, is a must.

Even if you don’t want to lug a consarned laptop computer onto the field, why go Luddite with print atlases? Why not just make hardcopy charts with a printer and take them outside? That can work...B-U-T…what if you don’t print a chart for everything it turns out you want to look at? Even if you’ve got a brace of PC prints (if you’ve got an inkjet printer, you’d better protect ‘em from dew somehow, or Canes Venatici will soon look like something that came out of the wrong end of Aunt Lulu’s poodle-dog) you will probably want to supplement them with a, yeah, printed star atlas for the times when you want to stray from your pre-planned itinerary.

Oh, and last, but far from least, some of us just like books. Yeah, I often (but not always) lug my Toshiba out, but chances are I pulled an atlas off the shelf that afternoon, and gave the area of the sky I thought I might visit a good scan with it. And once in a while I want to forget about TheSky or Skytools 3, good as they may be, and carry my book with me because I want to. I like the feel of books, even the smell of books. And, like Miss Dorothy, I love maps. I will never, ever get over that no matter what they do with the computers.

If I’ve convinced you there’s still a place for an old-fashioned star atlas in your gear-box, the question becomes “which one?” Despite competition from computers, it appears there are actually more print atlases on offer now than ever. The following is not an all inclusive list. These are the atlases I’ve used and loved over the years, both to plan my deep sky sojourns and to actually find objects the old folks’ way.

First rule. Avoid Norton’s. Am I bein’ too hard on both the classic work and Ian Ridpath’s current reworking of the moldy oldie? I know it sounds like I’m all the time singling Norton’s out for a spanking, but I’m really not. Norton’s has its uses; it’s a lovely work perfect for scanning the sky with binoculars. But. Magnitude 6 atlases, atlases that only go as deep as the stars you can see with the naked eye from a good site, just don’t get it for use with a scope. Too few stars, and that makes it very difficult to star-hop to deep sky objects. The average 50mm finderscope will show far more sparklers than poor ol’ Arthur Norton has on hand. But it’s not just Norton’s, old or new. This lack of utility is shared by all the other works in this magnitude category, including the beautiful (charts by master celestial cartographer Wil Tirion) Cambridge Star Atlas, The Phillips Color Star Atlas, Edmund’s Mag 6 Star Atlas, and certainly those that don’t go even that deep—like the Edmund Mag 5 Star Atlas. Newbies: forget all these. They will only frustrate you and make you hate star hopping.

Skalnate Pleso

I recognized Norton’s “not enough stars” was a problem after just a few outings with him. What did I do? Gassed up the lawnmower, started saving my paltry allowance, and began regularly checking mama’s living room couch for spare change. The goal? The purchase of the first really useful atlas aimed at amateur astronomers, Antonin Bečvář’s Skalnate Pleso Atlas of the Heavens (1958). Bečvář, a Czech astronomer who was instrumental in founding the Skalnate Pleso Observatory, released a set of sky maps that finally showed us how the thing ort to be done. In addition to their generous size (12-inches by 18-inches), they went way deeper than what we were accustomed to: down to magnitude 7.75 with plenty of deep sky objects. If the Bečvář atlas had/has a major defect, it was mainly that it was plotted for Epoch 1950.0, which was getting a mite outa date by the end of the 60s. Want a Skalnate Pleso? It’s long out of print, but fairly easily available used, usually for 50 bucks or less. Don’t know why you would, though, since there’s something similar that’s clearly More Better Gooder.

Sky Atlas 2000

One other thing Skalnate Pleso did was pave the way for Wil Tirion’s Sky Atlas 2000. I reckon everybody knows about this one; it’s the working amateur’s (at least the star-hopping amateur’s) bread and butter. Tirion’s masterwork is very similar to the Bečvář atlas, and is more of an improvement than a revolution. What sort of improvement? First off, as the name implies, it is plotted for Epoch 2000, something that was way cool when it came out in 1981 (a second edition was published in 2000). And if Skalnate Pleso was, we thought at the time, real deep, this one was deeper: The current edition goes down to mag 8.5 (from the new(er) Hipparcos star catalog rather than the old SAO). The DSO count stands at 2700, which may not sound like many when compared to somethin’ like Megastar, but which is, in truth, plenty enough to keep the average amateur busy for a lifetime.

Like Skalnate Pleso, SA2000 is available both as unbound charts and as a larger bound (Deluxe) edition. Not only that, though; the (spiral bound to lay flat) Deluxe Edition is in color, and the loose charts are available either in “Desk” (white sky, black stars) or “Field” (vicey-versa) variants. While Skalnate Pleso was accompanied by a Catalogue volume listing containing DSO data for plotted objects, Sky Atlas 2000 took this to the next level with Roger Sinnott and Robert Strong’s Sky Atlas 2000 Companion, which includes basic data and chart numbers for Sky Atlas 2000’s DSOs, but also incorporates expanded descriptions for the more “popular” objects. Is Sky Atlas 2000 beginning to show its age? Not for me it ain’t. When I want a large scale print atlas, Sky Atlas 2000 Deluxe is often what I grab.

Uranometria 2000

When Uranometria 2000 was published in 1987, I near ‘bout freaked out. I had heard of its coming but really didn’t think Mr. Tirion (assisted by Barry Rappaport and George Lovi) could do better than SA2000. But he did—in a way, anyhow. Certainly this one is much deeper. Its two volumes, one for the Northern Hemisphere and one for the Southern, boast 473 large scale charts that cover the sky down to magnitude 9.5 (300,000 stars) and feature 10,000 deep sky objects. Whoa! I was pumped.

Reality, as it often does, turned out not to quite match my expectations. Yes, Uranometria was a fantastic resource. No denying that. But it also turned out to be substantially harder to use than good old SA2000. Through no fault of its own. When you go this deep with a print atlas it is inevitable there is gonna be a lot of page flippin’ involved as you navigate the sky across 473 charts. That is helped somewhat by the atlas’ “catalog” volume, Uranometria 2000 Deep Sky Field Guide, which includes chart numbers, data, and descriptions for the book’s DSOs…but…e’en so. Like many Uranometria fans, I find myself using the atlas in conjunction with Sky Atlas 2000 to give “zoomed-in” views of areas of interest, rather than letting the book stand on its own. But that is OK; this atlas (revised in 2001) is still, good, useful, and a landmark work.


Back in 1994 or thereabouts, your old Uncle, who was still a confirmed star hopper at the time, began hearing about a star atlas of a new type. Seemed a couple of bubbas down Australia way, David Herald and Peter Bobroff, were preparing to publish an atlas that went deep, way deep. As deep as mag 14, the buzz said. And in a different way. Rather than being a multi-volume opus, HB would contain all the sky, north and south in one large 16.5 x 12-inch volume. I got in line to buy, and could hardly wait.

When Herald-Bobroff arrived, it was both more and less than I had hoped/expected. First thing you should know about this book, which has earned a somewhat legendary reputation among younger amateurs, is that it is deeper than Sky Atlas 2000, but really a only little bit deeper over the whole sky. HB’s new paradigm is that it is composed of a series of charts, 214 of ‘em, A – F. The A – C charts do indeed cover the whole sky, but “only” down to magnitude 9. The “deeper”? You’ve got 42 “D” series charts that include the Polar Regions, the Magellanic clouds (natch), rich regions of the Milky Way, the Pleiades area, Orion, and areas crowded with galaxies. How deep? To magnitude 10 (deeper for some areas). “E” is 14 pages covering Virgo, the Magellanic clouds, and Carina and takes you to magnitude 11 or deeper depending on the particular chart. Finally, “F” goes to magnitude 14 and covers the central region of the Large Magellanic cloud.

No, the HB does not go quite as deep across the entire sky as Uranometria 2000, but nearly so, and deeper in the areas you care about. Which is not to say there are not some downchecks. The charts, even the A – C charts, are a little small and busy-looking even given the large page size. This is not helped by one of the atlas’ innovations. Stars have their spectral types indicated by small symbols. If a star is a double, it’s marked as such, and there is an indicator for position angle. Variables are also identified by symbols. In other words, lots of information, but it’s hard to read under red light, and tends to clutter the charts even more than the “high magnitude” values alone would. Finally and surprisingly, nebulae are not indicated by isophotes (“outlines”) but by squares and diamonds. I don’t believe that does much to damage the atlas’ functionality, but it does make it less attractive than the Tirion atlases.

Nevertheless, if you take a look at Unk’s atlas collection, you’ll find Herald-Bobroff is the most worn, dew soaked, and dog eared (the desk edition SA2000 is second). This is just an effective tool for finding stuff. It goes quite deep but, due to its “series” charts, you don’t have to fool with companion volumes or other books. Looking for the Crescent Nebula in “closeup”? The “C” chart indicates the area’s coverage in a “D” chart and the number of that chart. The large page dimensions of Herald-Bobroff means that when you have to flip pages, you have fewer pages to flip. Equipped with an 80mm finder, a Telrad, and the Herald-Bobroff there warn’t nuttin’ I couldn’t hop to.

Production values on HB are outstanding. The pages are reasonably heavy-duty, and are slick and dew resistant. The cover is a gloss-coated heavy stock. Suffice to say mine has survived fifteen years of constant Gulf Coast dew baths. The only Read Bad Thing? This atlas tends to go in and out of print. The original is, of course, long sold out. Lymax, the “CAT Cooler” folks, brought it back for a last bow in a slightly downsized version (11x16-inches), but that is now gone too. Used? Don’t bet on it. If a Herald-Bobroff owner lets one go, which is not common, expect to pay way more than the 80 dineros Lymax was asking for the Second Edition. The good news? I have heard Lymax might do anudder print run. Couldn’t hurt to email ‘em and express yore interest, kats ‘n kittens.

Millennium Star Atlas

Roger Sinnott’s and Michael Perryman’s magnum opus is just about the last stop on the road to “more stars/more DSOs”. At least for a book you can buy in a store. How’s that? Its 1548 charts go as deep as magnitude 11 for a total of one million stars from the ESA’s Hipparcos mission/catalog. DSOs included number a whoppin’ (for a book) 10,000. Surely everybody will want this one? That’s what I thought. Till I got my hands on a copy.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a wonderful work; one fully up there with the classic Tirion atlases. And yet…and yet… This is where a book begins to overreach. At least a book that’s intended to be used at the telescope. Even with the companion volume to help you find stuff, maneuvering through three fat volumes filled with thinnish paper (that don’t much like dew) in search of NGC Umptysquat ain’t always a pleasure. It is my opinion that it as at this point that you are better off with a laptop if you need “this deep” and “this many.” On the other hand, I find the Millennium a joy to use indoors at a desk under white light. Bottom line? My Physics Department at the university has a copy I can use. I rarely do. Which doesn’t mean it might not be for you. Alas, at this time the hardback version is unavailable. You can get a paperback, which is not cheap at about 190 pieces of eight (almost the fare for TheSky 6 Professional). My guess? If you want one, you’d better bite the bullet. Might not be in print forever.

Pocket Sky Atlas

Is Herald-Bobroff my most used atlas today? Nope. ‘Tain’t SA2000 neither. These days, I tend to use print atlases under two circumstances: First, as a supplement to my go-to scope’s HC. As I said earlier, it’s nice to know what’s in the neighborhood of the object you just went to, to have a graphical representation of the sky available for those nights when you leave the laptop home. The other time a book is my preference is when I feel like getting back to my star-hoppin’ roots, usually with my StarBlast. Seems ludicrous to set up a computer or drag out three volumes of Millennium when I’m “just” hopping with 4-inch Little Sister. The atlas that goes along with me at both these times and which works best for me under these particular circumstances is a new one (relatively speakin’) from Skypub…err… “New Track Media,” Sky and Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas.

Why is it “pocket”? Because this is a little book, 6 x 9-inches. What? A pocket Norton’s or sumpin’ like that? Not hardly, Skeezix. It’s small, but it packs a punch: 80 charts with 30, 000 stars down to magnitude 7.6. 1500 deep sky marvels. Somehow, don’t ask me how, Roger Sinnott managed to keep these charts remarkably legible despite their small size, even for us in the middle-aged-blind-as-a-bat crowd. They are also beautiful. Each of the 80 (spiral bound, huzzah!) is in the dark-stars-on-white-sky format most of us find easiest to read under a red light. Even cooler? They are in color. With the constellation stick-figure lines drawn-in (I took a pencil and laboriously drew ‘em for SA2000 and Herald-Bobroff).

The Bummers are only a few. Yes, the charts are remarkably clear for their size, but, also, yes, they are tiny compared to the other popular atlases, and will never be quite as easy to read as, say, Sky Atlas 2000 Deluxe. What else? It’s hard to find much to criticize. I wish the “Guide to Constellations,” which gives the chart numbers for each star-pattern, had been printed on the inside front cover instead of buried on page 12, but other than that, not much. No, Pocket won’t replace a full-sized atlas for folks constantly star hopping with medium-large scopes, but for many of us this is truthfully all we need these days. Best 20 bucks I ever spent on a freakin’ print atlas.

The Tri Atlas Project

Want an atlas? Singing that ol’ tune, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” (too common of late)? Have I got a deal for you. Or rather José R. Torres does. This prolific amateur (he’s the author of the CNebulaX program) is giving away a purty awesome atlas for free. His TriAtlas is not only one hell of a lot cheaper than Millennium, it’s also deeper. It is composed, like Herald-Bobroff, of series of charts, but, unlike HB, each series covers the entire sky. “A” is 25 charts to magnitude 9. “B” takes you to 11 in 107 maps, and “C” is all the way to an amazing magnitude 12.6 over 521 charts (!). The look of the thing? Similar to Herald-Bobroff in many ways. Maybe better. Less cluttered in places, and the author uses isophotes for the more prominent nebulae. All in all, a tremendous accomplishment.

So why in the hail ain’t everybody squeaking about TriAtlas? First, to get it, you gotta download it. The files (and there are many) range up in size to 50 megabytes and beyond. That’s not the problem it used to be, but even in this day and age quite a few boys ‘n grrls are still making do with the dial-up AOL. The biggest stumbling block, however, is that you gotta print the thing out. Oh, you could display these .pdfs on a laptop, but then why not just use TheSky? Currently, the atlas is available in A4 format with 8.5x11 in development. That might work. Laser ‘em off and get ‘em bound together. I printed one of the A4 C charts on my inkjet and it did not look bad at all. But my thanking is that if you could somehow blow ‘em up to something the size of HB’s pages, man would you have something special (and big and heavy)…mebbe print ‘em on a flat-bed plotter. Hey, there’s a great big plotter where Unk works. Hmmm…
So, them’s my favorites. And they will probably remain my faves at this late stage of the game (print-atlas-wise…Unk appears to have a few years left in him). I’d be interested to know which ones y’all like though, muchachos. Why am I wrong, and which Real Good Ones did I leave out?

Rod,agree wholeheartedly about the Pocket Sky Atlas, it's my most used too. Printing and inkjets? Have you tried waterproof paper? It was originally intended for walkers to print maps, but is equally useful for damp astronomers.
Yep, count me as a Pocket Sky Atlas user too. It fits with the rest of my "grab'n'go" kit. I find it all I need.
Renee Zellweger? Uhuh. Charlize Theron. Mmmm. LOL
I own SA2000.0, the Millennium, and Pocket Star Atlas. The pocket is definitely my favorite, especially since it has all the Herschel 400 objects (SA2000.0 doesn't have all of them!).
Don't forget the AAVSO atlas that comes in a box!
As always, a great blog, Rod. I also use SA2000, Uranometria and Pocket Sky Atlas. Like you, I like to have something convenient for quick sky orientation so I have a nice rectangle fold-out table and use DeepMap 600 as a "table cloth." My laptop is on a small table next to this and whatever books (yeh, love 'me) I put on my table can be shuffled around so that the area of the sky I need is visible. Depending on how much deeper I need to go, I can then grab PSA, SA2000 or Uranometria.
Hey Uncle Rod, speaking of laptops has anyone tried running xephem or skymap on an Asus EE (the one running ubuntu?) I haven't broken down and bought one yet, but it seems an interesting idea.
Agreed about PSA - but I still find Norton's the most useful bound atlas because it is so easy to use at the scope. My old copy has charts that lay flat, I can hold the book with one hand in any position, and I find there are plenty of stars for hopping around. It's main drawback is small print. Between PSA and Norton I hardly ever use SA2000 and I own all three editions.

Wow...Mark...waterproof paper. Hadn't thought of something like that. I will definitely investigate that. Thanks.
Hi Brian:

The AAVSO Atlas...? I know about it, but haven't seen a least not in a long while. Maybe you'd consider doing a review of that for the Spring Issue of my SkyWatch newsletter?
Terry, it's not quite an atlas, I reckon, but I have used Deepmap one heck of a lot...specially with the ETX125.
I have tried XEphem...not my cup of tea. As for the ASUS and other PCs of that type...just make sure it supports the video mode required to run the programs you want.
One of my complaints about the new (Ridpath) Norton's? It no longer lies flat. :-(
The charts are better! I use it for a quick reference - again because of the vast amounts of sky covered - and to be sure, it was my first treasured atlas. I now have three copies - before, after, and Ridpath. After is a 1973 new edition that used acid glue on the chart bindings, and they have now turned orange (ugh) also the cover is completely faded - before is 1964, very thin and flat, and my scope atlas. Ridpath often sees the reading room :)

Excellent review. I use xeroxes of the old S-P Atlas of the Heavens, supplemented by blow-ups of selected Triatlas C charts. Your idea of blowing up the Triatlas on big paper is exactly what I've been thinking.
My vote goes to the S&T Pocket Star Atlas, backed by finder charts printed from MegaStar. I place the printed charts in plastic page protectors ,and then in a binder I do this for crowded areas of the sky, such as the Coma cluster or the Sagitarius-Scorpius area. My other vote goes to Catherine Zeta Jones.
no, there is nothing "better or gooder" than becvar's atlas coeli. it is a beautiful work by a very heroic astronomer/meteorologist who risked his life to establish and maintain the skalnate pleso observatory in what is now solvakia.

after being its director from 1943 to 1950, he was "retired," (translate, "fired"), when the ussr took over slovakia.

becvar and his wife returned to his birthplace home just northeast of prague, and together, they produced atlas australius, atlas borealis, and atlas eclipticus.

when he died in january 1965, he and his wife were working on atlas galacticus which remains unfinished.

having an atlas coeli is a privilege, nowadays afforded to very few. i have one and i treasure it. it is a work of art done by a man so dedicated that he overcame incredible odds in order to be able to produce it.

if you can get an atlas coeli, snatch it up! most nowadays are going for $200 and more.

becvar was an amazing and unusual man. research him by google, and you will know why. to have in your hands a work he created is a treasure.
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