Sunday, May 24, 2015


Going Paper

Which is the opposite of the direction we are supposed to be going in in amateur astronomy and everything else. We are supposed be going paperless. However, I am experimenting with that opposite, temporarily at least. As I said not long ago, I will not give up my favorite applications like SkyTools, Deep Sky Planner, and AstroPlanner (more on the latter soon). Still, books appeal to the desire to simplify that has taken hold in me of late. Also, it is nice not to have to disconnect the computer and drag it outside.

Why would I have to disconnect a computer to take it outside? Why not just use my astro-laptop? I lost my desktop, a nice Toshiba all-in-one, the other day when its hard drive crashed. Should I run out and replace it immediately? Or just tear it open and replace the failed drive? I wasn’t sure. To tell you the truth, I am tired of Windows. Tired of the constant updates. Tired of the frequent revamps of the o/s. I didn’t much like Windows 8, and didn’t think I’ll like 10, either. I decided I'd use my Win 7 laptop as my primary computer while deciding what to do.

I’d begun to think my eventual direction might be a switch to a Macintosh desktop and, when the Toshiba laptop, my astro-computer, dies, to an iPad or a Macbook for use in the field. But I decided not to do anything right away. It will be a busy summer. This fall, if everything remains as it is now, maybe I’ll travel to Huntsville’s Apple Store (we don’t have one here in Mobile) and get a nice shiny iMac. Till then, I’d use my old Win 7 netbook for astronomy.

Which worked, sort of. SkyTools and DSP run on the little atom processor powered thing, if not well. Not well at all. “You know, Rod,” I thought, “there are still these things called ‘books.’” Books, star atlases, are a longtime fascination for me. I like maps, and thought it might be nice to use ‘em again for a while.

The only question was "Which atlas?" I've got most of the mainline atlases and decided I wouldn't mind buying one more if I thought something I didn't have would serve better. Buying a book, after all, is much less stressful than buying and setting up a new computer.

One thing was sure no matter which star atlas I chose, even today "print" has its advantages. You don’t have to charge a printed book's battery, print atlases are relatively cheap, and they go deep enough for most purposes depending on the volume in question. Funny thing, too? Despite the supposed superiority of computer star maps, we are living in a golden age of the star atlas with more available than ever before. There are a couple of out-of-print MIAs, but you may be able to get even those from Amazon or Abe’s.

Before we outline what I have used and intend to use and what you might want to use if you decide to follow me, let’s talk about what we don’t want to mess with. That is 6th magnitude atlases, whether the original Norton’s Star Atlas, one of its reworked descendants, or any other book that only shows star down to magnitude 6. These works are OK for 10 x 50 or smaller binoculars, but that is it. They do not show enough stars to make star hopping to objects easy—or sometimes possible—even with a 3-inch telescope. Yes, I know many of us Baby Boom Astronomers have fond memories of Norton’s; it was for many of us our first serious book of charts. But do you remember how much easier finding stuff got when you upgraded to Skalnate Pleso (in some sense the antecedent of Sky Atlas 2000, youngsters)?

Sky & Telescope's Pocket Sky Atlas

This one, by  Roger Sinnott, is my current favorite grab and go atlas. While it’s too large for the pocket of your jeans unless your name is “Incredible Hulk,” at 6 by 9-inches it is nice and compact and easily stashed. There is a copy permanently stationed in the top compartment of the fishing tackle box I use as my small equipment case. Its small size does not mean it is not a powerful tool, however.

This is a big step past Norton’s. Pocket goes down to nearly magnitude 8 and includes 1500 deep sky objects. More often than, not, that is all I need, even with my 12-inch scope. Despite its compact size, the atlas does not sacrifice readability. The charts are clear and legible with dark stars on a white sky—which most observers find easier to read than the opposite under dim red light—and appropriate use of color. Hard to best this for 20 bucks. Single downcheck? I wish the index of constellations were on page one. Other than that it is hard to find fault with Pocket. I love it.

Sky Atlas 2000

SA2000 Deluxe
After Skalnate Pleso came Sky Atlas 2000 by renowned celestial cartographer Wil Tirion (who I had the pleasure of dining with at one long ago Peach State Star Gaze). It is much like the old S-P; but has more of everything. More stars, more deep sky objects, and, importantly, it was the first widely available atlas for Epoch 2000. As time went on, it was produced in versions to fit every taste.

What I used for years was the Desk Edition. Despite its name, I found it more useful outdoors than the Field Edition, since it featured black stars on white sky, the reverse of Field. It was on heavy stock, and was never harmed by even my heavy dew. The size is generous, 18 x 32, and with a limiting magnitude of 8.5 and 2700 deep sky objects, this has been my bread and butter atlas for years. As normally sold, the charts are separate, unbound sheets (the Field Edition is the same). I fastened mine together with binder clips which worked fine for years.

Not fancy enough? You can step up to Sky Atlas 2000 Deluxe. It is (spiral) bound, in color, and for many folks is all they will ever need. Like Desk, it is white sky/dark stars and is one of the more legible sets of charts I have encountered.

You can actually take another step up, and buy Deluxe (or Field or Desk) with laminated charts. Frankly, I discourage that choice. The normal paper pages are heavy enough that they, as above, have never been harmed by my heavy Gulf Coast dew. There’s one other beauty of non-laminated. You can write notes on your charts, a big benefit of paper. You can’t do that with a laminated copy without resorting to dodges like grease pencils or erasable markers. My pick is “Deluxe, unlaminated,” which will set you back about 60 bucks and which is worth every penny.

Uranometria 2000

Mr. Tirion didn’t rest on his laurels after SA2000. In addition to contributing to other projects, he did the cartography for the next step up, Uranometria 2000.  Tirion, Will Remaklus, and Barry Rappaport’s work was, when it debuted, one of the most absurdly deep atlases most of us had laid eyes on. Its stellar limiting magnitude is 9.75, and the DSO count is a full 30,000 for the 18 x 12-inch book (that’s the size of each double page chart).

Uranometria 2000
Is there anything bad to say about U2000? Not really, other than the fact that at this level of detail you are beginning to push the boundaries of what is practical with a book. You probably won’t want to use U2000 by itself. Doing that would involve a lot of page flipping whether you have the original two-volume edition or the current “pole to pole” one volume version (my choice). You use it in conjunction with SA2000 or another broad coverage atlas of your choice for close-ups when needed. 60 dollars will get you the single volume U2000, and another 60 will get you the companion “Field Guide,” which contains catalog data and object lists and is somewhat useful.

The Herald – Bobroff Astro Atlas

Flipping between two books, SA2000 and U2000, doesn’t sound like much fun? There is an alternative, or at least their used to be, the Herald – Bobroff Astro Atlas (1994) from Australia. It is notable for three things: its large size (12.5 x 16.5-inches), the amount of information contained in its pages; and its inclusion of six series of charts,.

Certainly, being big is a help. This atlas, which, as is usual for observer’s atlases, has white skies and black stars, is eminently readable, moreso even than SA2000 Deluxe, and is perhaps the most easily readable atlas I’ve used. The pages are glossy, heavy, and very dew resistant.

Those big pages are also jammed with symbols that convey a wealth of information about objects. So much, that you may not normally need other reference materials. These symbols and labels are easy to read, but their variety and numbers mean you tend to forget what they are. The H-B does have a handy card that helps you decipher them, however. When I use the atlas reasonably frequently, it’s no problem to figure out what it is trying to tell me.

There’s no denying, however, that the atlas’ big draw is that it covers the sky three separate times, with each series going into more detail. For crowded areas like Virgo’s Realm of the Galaxies, there are three more series. You begin with “A,” which is comparable to Norton’s and is mostly useful for rough navigation, move to “B” which is your “Sky Atlas 2000,” and wind up with “C,” which is comparable to Uranometria, all under one cover. When you need help with difficult areas, the three extra series are there to aid you (though most of their coverage is invisible to us Northern Hemisphere observers).

Herald – Bobroff, which I bought not long after it was published, is my “serious” atlas; it is for those times when SA2000 is not enough. Unfortunately, by the time I bought it, Megastar has come on the scene and I was deserting paper. I may use it much more now than I ever have if my present mood continues (which I believe it will), though.

Can you? Likely not. The original version has been out of print for ages. It comes on the used market occasionally, but you can bet you will pay far more for it than its original $90.00 price. Lymax Earth and Sky sold a reprint in slightly smaller format for a while, but even their version has been out of print for years. Shame, since H-B is one of the greatest print atlases every produced. If not the deepest.

There may be salvation at hand for those of you who want Herald-Bobroff. It’s the somewhat similar German atlas Interstallarum. It doesn’t feature H-B’s series paradigm, but it goes deep, down to magnitude 9.75, is large, and is, like H-B, packed with informative symbols, maybe even being an advancement over Herald-Bobroff in that regard.

The Millennium Star Atlas

Millennium is and will likely remain the penultimate non-photographic star atlas. How could it not? Roger Sinnott and Michael Perryman’s atlas, based on the catalog produced by the ESA’s Hipparcos satellite, contains 1548 charts showing one million stars and some 10,000 deep sky objects. These charts are contained in three fat volumes, and the white-sky/black-star charts are printed on (necessarily) rather thin stock.

H-B Legend
The physics department where I teach astronomy owns a copy of Millennium, so I can use it whenever I choose. Alas, those times are rare. The scale of the atlas is 100-arc seconds per millimeter for the entire sky, not much different from the view in a C8, but it turns out that is too much.

For me, Millennium's small scale makes it too confusing to navigate with under dim red light. Yes, the pages show the field visible in the C8, but it is mirror reversed, naturally, from what I see in my SCT—no print atlas can help with that. Even with a larger scale atlas to assist, it is not overly pleasant to use Millennium. The atlas’ thin pages stand up surprisingly well to dew, but to say they are as dew resistant as those of the inexpensive SA2000 would be wrong. Most of you won’t want to take the Millennium plunge anyway. It is currently out of print, and used copies can sell for over 1000 dollars.

Semi Print Atlases

Finally, we have semi-print atlases. They are not usually available for purchase printed, but can be downloaded as .pdf files and printed by you. Most are also free. The most outstanding one so far is probably TriAtlas by Jose Torres. It is certainly ambitious, going to freaking magnitude 12.5 and is packed with 11,000 DSOs. While its computer generated maps certainly don’t rival those of Tirion, it is very clearly plotted and if you don’t mind printing hundreds of pages, might be just the thing.

There is an even deeper one by Martin Meredith, an insanely deep one, one that goes down to magnitude 18, for God’s sake. However, with a scale of 14-arc seconds per millimeter it is not designed to be printed out (the full set of charts would cover an acre and you would still need a magnifying glass to read them), and not printing out kind of misses the point here, doesn’t it? Still, this might be nice for someone who wants the depth of a modern computer atlas without running a computer program to get that.

So what will I use? I won’t always use a print atlas, even when I’m exploring the sky in my new-found simplistic matter. I will usually be back to Skytools, or Deep Sky, or Deep Sky Planner, or AstroPlanner. However, for those fairly frequent occasions when I foresee I will want to forego the silicon sky, I will likely use Herald-Bobroff. I think so, anyway. We’ll take a few test runs to see if I need to fall back on the even more "simple" of Sky Atlas 2000—stay tuned.

I find Sky Safari Pro on my iPad Air to be the best atlas ever. Put the iPad on Airplane mode and the brightness down to minimum and the battery will last several nights. Sky Safari is like a more easy-to-handle H-B with nearly infinate zoom; and in Sky Safari, zooming in means the magnitude threshold changes (you set how you want that for stars and DSOs separately in the Settings). For star hopping, I don't consider this setup to be a computer but rather a back-lit atlas, because that is how it behaves.
Interstellarum (new) may be the best yet! But you're right, the Pocket Sky Atlas is the one that should always be in the equipment case. It's like the road map in the glove compartment of the car. Even if you're not planning to need a map, you may see something, and it comes in handy.
Dear Uncle Rod,

I'm glad to hear that you are going back to visual observing. My favorite atlas is the "S&T Pocket Atlas" and find that it works just as good as my much larger ones, I'm just a humble backyard observer, and have never advanced beyond a No. 2 pencil, and a 5 x 8 blank notecard.

Roger Ivester
After reading your recent post on going back to simplistic observing, I too started using my print atlas for visual stargazing with my C8 on Orion VersaGo III mount. Good to see that my choice SA2000 got a mention!
I also like my Pocket Sky Atlas. I also use a couple of iPhone apps: StarMapPro and SkyWeekPlus, alson with StarSeek Pro controlling my 'scope. These "atlases" DO fit in my pocket, LOL !!!

- George
Rodster, I wouldn't be without the Pocket Sky Atlas however I'm beginning to feel the same about the new Interstellarum atlas. It's just the right size for use at the telescope and is easy to navigate. Will it replace Sky Tools? Probably not. I plan to use both.
I second your opinion on the Triatlas. When I first looked at it I thought it was Uranometria put into an App....Dwight

Uncle Rod, It's always been fun and interesting to read your blog...I'm always learning something. Your latest entries concerning visual observing and hardcopy sky atlases are great. It's been my objective and passion to promote "old fashioned" visual observing for many years also. About 25 years ago, it occurred to me that I needed more than just going outside, observing, and the next day having nothing to show for my hours out with the telescope. I started taking copious notes, but after a while, I needed more, and began sketching all of my objects with nothing more than a No. 2 pencil and a blank 5 x 8 notecard. My amateur astronomy took a great leap, and for the first time, I felt a purpose in what I had been doing since I was 12 years old. I try to make all of my sketches as accurate as possible, with no embellishment, but attempting to accurately to portray what I saw through the eyepiece. No rendering of a "Hubble" Telescope image! I then needed an outlet to share my work. I started a very simple astronomy blog a few years ago: however, before that I co-founded the Las Vegas Astronomical Society, Observer's Challenge monthly report. www.lvastronomycom/observing-challenge It is an international observing project that allows any serious amateur the opportunity to share their observations with others, and the report is posted on the LV site and several others, including my blog. We recently celebrated our 75th consecutive monthly report. I see my work now as something of value to amateur astronomy, mostly in an attempt to get folks to enjoy what many of us did during the age of the space race. I could go on and on. The days when we would wear out those little Edmund Scientific catalogs, and dream about having one of those big and beautiful reflectors, made by Cave Optical. Unlike today, when most kids are only interested in a smart phone, video games and social media, and waiting "with baited breath" for that next text message. Uncle Rod....thank you so much for your incredible blog, and sharing with the amateur astronomy community. What a great contribution you provide, not only with your blog, but with your books, articles and other. Thanks for allowing me to share. Roger in the foothills of North Carolina with my beautiful wife, dachshund, and Persian cat. Life is good!
If you want to get a Computer with Windows 7 on it, you should check out TigerDirect. I purchased a laptop there for my Astronomy Club's Treasurer. It came with Win 7 with an upgrade to Win 8, which our Treasurer will never install.

Thanks, Terry...but I don't believe I really want a computer with any sort of Windows on it anymore. I am thinking iMac for my desktop.

My computer problems ended when my wife Debbie said...Hey...we're going to get a MacBook Pro. That was three years ago. Being a person who never likes to change anything, I reluctantly went kicking and screaming to the Apple Store. Maybe this is the reason I could never go beyond astro-sketching with a No. 2 pencil. No I love sketching and notes. Back to computers: It took both of us a couple of months to really get used to the new system, but when we! what a revolution. Our previous and latest two "big name" Window notebooks, seemed to last only two or three years each, with tow many problems to list. With the Macbook Pro... no more virus problems, no more....every time we seemingly opened up our Windows units, it was time to update the virus protection. Another beauty is the integration between a Macbook or iMac, an iPhone, and an iPad-mini which we like much better than an iPad, due to the more convenient size. Never would I have thought I would want to go MacBook. I known "too" many of my friends and others that can share a similar experience to what Debbie and I have experienced. Singing praises for an Apple. Our seemingly daily computer problems ended three years ago when we changed to a MacBook Pro. BTW, Uncle Rod, I know you are an Engineer. I'm a retired Textile Industrial Engineer after 30 years. Roger and Debbie Ivester
Despite being a high-tech software developer, I'm surprisingly old-fashioned in other areas myself. I don't worship technology -- I only use it when I find it useful. And I agree that the continual Microsoft/others software/OS upgrades that complicate my life and provide very little new value for me are not necessarily a 'good thing' in my book.

Out under the stars, I don't yet use a computer. Visual only. Though I am currently trying a (non-computer) dual-Mallincam setup that does add a lot of value but unfortunately at a serious complexity cost too.

My own primary tool is the S&T Pocket Sky Atlas. It's cheap so I buy a bunch of copies of it, and then customize a copy for each of my observing lists, marking up each page with the list items on that page. Then i'll work through one or more pages in a given observing session. I've got a little plastic envelope I keep the atlas in while observing. However it's a slow process customizing the S&T atlas, because ink dries very slowly on those semi-water-resistant pages. You mark up a page, trying real carefully not to smear anything, and then set it aside to dry for 30 minutes or so, before you can move on to the next page.
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