Sunday, February 07, 2016


Do You Like Jumbo Shrimp?

You'll need a big pocket...
Ain’t that one of those oxymorons? Jumbo shrimp? “Shrimp” means inherently small, and small is often good. Well, it is sometimes good. I come from the Gulf Coast where peeling and eating and frying shrimp is a way of life, and you can give me the big ones, the JUMBO SHRIMP, anytime, oxymoron or not.

Nevertheless, sometimes small can be beautiful. Take for example Roger W. Sinnott’s Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas. It is small, yeah, but it’s beautiful both in execution and concept. I have or have access to almost any mainline print star atlas produced over the last fifty years, all the way from Becvar’s Skalnate Pleso to the recent (and humongous) Millennium Star Atlas,  but what do I use? When I use a print atlas these days, I use Pocket. Period. It’s small and handy and I find it satisfies my requirements well.

Like many of you who grew up in the amateur astronomy of the 1960s, my star atlas story begins with Norton’s Star Atlas. Today, looking at that old dog-eared, note-encrusted, loved to death volume, I wonder how I ever found anything with it. It only went down to magnitude 6, and while it did show the Messier objects, which was really enough for me in the beginning, it was not easy to find even them with it. Get into DSO-rich areas where there weren’t a lot of stars shown, like the Realm of the Nebulae between the “arms” of Virgo, and you were freaking lost. Not only were there few stars plotted, the scale was small.

My humble 4.25-inch Newtonian kept turning up little fuzzballs in this area (and in Coma, too), which I presumed were galaxies, but I didn’t have a prayer of figuring out which galaxies they were with the aid of the book. Oh, and did I mention the Norton’s I mowed ten lawns to get one summer, the 15th Edition, still used antique Herschel designations for many of the beyond-the-Messier deep sky objects? Not that I was chasing non-Messiers in 1965, mind you.

I actually found my share of Messiers with the help of Mr. Norton, but eventually I was ready to push beyond the bounds of the Ms, and his book, much as I loved it, was outgrown. A magnitude 6 star atlas doesn't go deep enough to give it staying power even for 4-inch telescope users, which is why I discourage novices from buying the new Norton's or other mag sixers today. What would my next atlas be, then?  If you were an amateur in those seemingly benighted times, the answer was simple, Antonín Bečvář’s Skalnate Pleso Atlas of the Heavens (1948).

If I were to dig out my Skalnate Pleso (SP) and show it to you, Jane and Joe Modern Amateur, you’d find it familiar and friendly and you’d opine, “Looks a lot like Sky Atlas 2000.” It does and, like SA2000, even today it’s pretty good. Stars down to magnitude 7.75, well over a thousand DSOs, and large format 23” x 15” pages. During its life it was available in several editions including loose pages (like the SA2000 Desk/Field Editions), and a bound color version. Naturally, I chose the cheapest one and as soon as I had the pennies saved I became the proud owner of the loose-leaf white-stars-on-black-sky Skalnate Pleso.

I used SP for years, and really could have used it longer than I did save for one thing. Yes, it was plotted for Epoch 1950.0, but for someone navigating with finder scope and Telrad that didn’t make much difference. Sure, the comets I plotted with Epoch 2000 coordinates would be “off,” but I’d be searching for them at low power or with binoculars anyway, so, again, no biggie. What finally put me off Skalnate Pleso? Its black sky.

One evening in 1989, I was out with my telescope in the driveway of my then home looking for—whatever. Some fuzzy I hoped would be visible from my near-downtown digs. As I went from eyepiece to atlas, I began to realize something was wrong. I was having an awful hard time reading Skalnate Pleso. Ran inside and got Norton’s:  much better. The problem, I determined, was the black sky – white stars format. The white sky and black stars of Norton’s was easier to read with eyes that were—no doubt about it—going south slightly in advance of middle-age.

That was what prompted me to buy the atlas I still use on occasion, Wil Tirion’s Sky Atlas 2000. There’s more to SA2000 than just its year 2000 epoch. While it looks a lot like Skalnate Pleso at first glance, it’s the work of master celestial cartographer Wil Tirion and brings several improvements. Its stars go down to magnitude 8.5, and it has almost twice the deep sky objects as old SP. Best of all for my fading eyes, the SA2000 "Desk" Edition's white-sky made its charts much easier to decipher. While its pages were a little smaller than those of SP, they were still large enough, 18" x 13", to make them wonderfully legible. Even with young, sharp eyes, bigger is better when trying to make out tiny DSO symbols under dim red light. 

I pressed on with SA2000 from 1989 until near the end of the 1990s. The first change I made as the 1990s ran out was a simple upgrade. My unbound Desk Edition was getting awfully ratty. The pages weren’t very dew resistant and one of the cats had sharpened his claw on several of the charts while they were damp, and the binder clips I used to hold the pages together had rusted and stained some of the maps. So I upgraded to the Deluxe Edition, which was and is not only bound, but features color pages that are a little larger and go slightly deeper.

Even as I made that change, though, time was running out for me and printed charts. I messed around with the "premium" atlases that were popular during amateur astronomy's modest boom of the 1990s. Uranometria. Herald-Bobroff. Millennium. I liked them all, but mainly as collectors items, not for use at the telescope. For that, I now preferred computer charting programs running on a laptop--Megastar and Deep Space 3D and later TheSky and SkyTools.

So, I was done with print atlases, or thought I was, until I ran across a new and seemingly modest one, Mr. Sinnott’s Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas. What was that? It was a small if not really pocket sized book, 6” x 9”, containing 80 charts which recorded nearly 30,000 stars down to magnitude 7.6 and 1500 deep sky objects. It was, in fact, a lot like my old SP in depth, just squeezed down into this small spiral-bound volume. Would I use such a thing? I doubted it, but it was just so darned cute I bought a copy anyway.

Big difference...
Surprise! I found Pocket amazingly useful. Like on those sub-par nights when I had the yen to haul a telescope out to the club dark site but didn’t want to mess with a computer for a mere half-hour of sucker hole cruising. Or those after-work evenings in the backyard when I wanted to keep it simple with a Dobsonian and no computers or batteries, but still wanted to see a lot.

Pocket Sky Atlas allowed me to see a lot. The pages were extremely legible given their small size, the paper was heavy enough to resist even my dew, and it was spiral bound so it lay flat (an atlas that doesn’t lie flat, the modern Norton’s for example, belongs in the trash can). Its selection of objects was excellent. I’d guess many of us could go a lifetime without running out of fuzzies to ogle with the help of Pocket.

Was there anything I didn’t like about Pocket Sky Atlas? Not really. At first the chart layout, in strips of right ascension rather than declination, seemed strange to me, but I got used to that and even came to like it. Yes, the pages were small, but not disastrously so, and there were close-ups of the congested areas like the Realm of the Nebulae that were a help. Even though I had to squint my eyes once in a while, the atlas’ smallness brought a big benefit. While it wouldn’t go in my pocket, Pocket would go in the tackle box that served as my accessory case. I put it in there, assuring that I’d always have a capable star atlas with me even in the face of hard drive crashes.

In its own way, Pocket Sky Atlas was perfection, so I was somewhat nonplussed to hear S&T was preparing to release a new and different Pocket in a larger 8” x 11” format. Beyond the Jumbo Shrimp promised by its title, Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition, what would change? Would it be like the New and Different Marvel comics? Utterly different re-workings of the familiar to the tune of a female God of Thunder? Or would it be SLIGHTLY new and different? The latter it seemed from what I was told, though according to Mr. Sinnott (on the S&T webpage for “Jumbo”) there would be at least one major advance beyond resizing and fine-tuning:

For this new edition, we welcomed the chance to add more close-up charts of high-interest star fields. Along with the original four (Pleiades, Orion's Sword, Virgo Galaxy Cluster, and Large Magellanic Cloud), we now depict attractive regions in Monoceros, Cygnus, Sagittarius, and Scorpius, plus galaxy-rich fields in Ursa Major and Leo. These charts, a new preface, and a slightly reorganized text give the new book 136 pages, compared to the original 124.

While other than those new close-up charts and its larger size, there is a lot about Jumbo that is the same as in the original, it is a new book with a new look, and I was surprised at just how different it looked when it arrived on my doorstep the other day. First thing was the cover. In addition to a different color scheme, it was not a (heavy card-stock) paperback like the old one; it was now a hardcover with a glossy (dew repelling) finish. That was cool, I thought, but it would not be cool if the book did not lie flat. Looking at the front, it was not clear whether it was still spiral bound, but flipping it over revealed it was, thank God.

Beautiful downtown Virgo...
Thumbing through the new Pocket, what impressed me most was not the larger size of its maps per se, but their look. How good they looked. Yes, what’s on the pages was mostly the same as before, but blowing it up to 8” x 11” just made the maps look better, prettier, more impressive.

How about Jumbo’s paper stock? It was the same as far as I could tell. Glossy enough to repel dew, but not so glossy as to make it difficult to write notes on pages. I write in my star atlases? You’re darned tootin’ I do. That is one of the benefits of print charts, and especially those with a white sky like Pocket and Jumbo. Not only is it convenient to be able to write notes next to objects (“darned good galaxy”) and plot things like comet orbits, the pages become your astronomical diary. When I pull out my old Norton’s these days it’s to walk down memory lane with my old notations—like the path of Comet Ikeya-Seki.

While Jumbo’s standard charts are essentially the same as before, there are those new close-up maps for packed areas. These include the area of the Cone and Rosette Nebulae, the Bowl of the Big Dipper (bowlful of galaxies), Leo’s butt (or tail-area if you prefer), the rich Milky Way region around Deneb in Cygnus, the spout of Sagittarius’ teapot, and the Stinger of Scorpius.  With the larger format of Jumbo, zoomed charts are not quite as vital as they were with the original, but as the years go by and my eyeglass prescription gets ever stronger, I suspect I’ll be happy to have them.

So how is it? Under the stars? Like a telescope, the only true test of an atlas is out in the dark with a scope. The short and sweet is that if you liked the original, you will like this one. Better, actually. It’s simply easier to read, which is, naturally, its major benefit. I haven’t racked up a lot of hours with it yet, but I can tell you that its improvement in legibility is reason enough to buy Jumbo.

Annoyances? Only two. First, like the original, the galaxies in Jumbo are printed in red. Under a red light, the color almost completely disappears. Galaxies are outlined in black, however, so that really doesn’t hurt anything. Also as with the original, I wish the all-sky chart showing which constellation goes with which chart number was on the inside front cover instead of the inside back cover.

Lot of info on these pages...
Those are minor quibbles. The truth is this is an attractive and useful tool. Will it replace my computer programs? Not all of them and not all the time, but sometimes it will. Lately I’ve been using the Android app SkySafari on my tablet. I love it. The charts it produces are beautiful and easy to read. I was amazed, however, to find that I somewhat preferred Jumbo.

Jumbo’s charts were as easy for me to decipher as the illuminated maps of SkySafari, even though I obviously couldn’t zoom in the book. The only huge advantage the Android app had, really, was its search engine. It was way easier to find an object with the app if I didn’t know its general location. On the other hand, Jumbo does not require batteries, and does not go to sleep and turn itself off.

You could call my casual shootout it a wash save for one thing. SkySarfari and other computer programs can convey a tremendous amount of detail. More detail than any book can present. But you access that detail by zooming and clicking and pinching and unpinching. At a glance, Jumbo’s charts usually conveyed more information.

How often will I use Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition? Only time will tell, but I will tell you what I think. Even though it will not fit in my accessory box, I suspect Jumbo will be going with me to every single star party and dark site rumble from here on out and that is high praise, True Believers. 

Speaking as someone who was talked into buying the white-stars-on-black SA2000, the PSA is the ONLY atlas I take with me. My 61 year old eyes have no shot in the dark with a red light with that SA2000 beast. It gathers dust, whilst my PSA gets dog-eared. Besides, Deep Sky Planner can reference the PSA chart number, which I find very handy. Think I'll pick up this bad boy.
I always considered getting the PSA but am very happy with my Astronomy Magazines Atlas of the Stars. I have two of them, one for desk research and a copy for the field. Would you say that PSA is the equal of this Rod? that said most times I use SkySafari. Its just much more powerful.
I like the Astronomy atlas, but PSA is much--MUCH--better in every way IMHO.
I always like when you reference the old Skalnate Pleso "Atlas of the Heavens". I begged my parents for it as a Christmas present back in 1975--the last year it was published--and still occasionally use it (the colored, desk version) with the binos.

I sold my field edition of the Sky Atlas 2000 (white stars on black background) for the same reason for the same reason you ditched the Skalnate Pleso--worthless at the eyepiece. Talking about eye strain!

The Pocket Sky Atlas looks great, but frankly, my user-friendly atlas is Interstellarium. It's dew resistant, lays flat, goes down to mag 9.5, and shows pretty much everything I can likely see in my 8-inch SCT--without being cluttered with stuff far beyond its range.

Thanks for the great post, as usual.
All I know is that I've been spending too much on Sky Atlas' of late but this is on sale and looks like I'm spending more! Thanks for the great review!

I was impressed with your "List", and I look forward to reading the rest. You are a resource!

Thank you for your many contributions to astronomy and sharing your knowledge.

Gary Shelley
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