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The Urban Astronomer's Guide by Rod Mollise

Posted by Timm Bottoni   10/27/2006 12:00AM

The Urban Astronomer's Guide by Rod Mollise

Published in 2006 as part of the Patrick Moore’s Practical Astronomy Series, this 257 page paperback book provides a world of encouragement and assistance for all of us folks who suffer from light polluted skies in urban and suburban areas. The author Rod Mollise, takes us on a journey to tackle the problems of light polluted urban skies with a combination of tips and techniques, and a season by season tour of a variety of objects that range from very easy to very hard (depending on your equipment, light pollution, and skill level).

About the Author
“Uncle” Rod, as he is affectionately known by many in the amateur astronomy world, is also the author of “Choosing and Using an SCT” and has written other material on the Internet including postings on his SCT Yahoo group, his “rodscitylights” Yahoo group, his own Blog, reviews and articles on the Anacortes web site (Musings and Reviews), as well as other written publications and web forums. He is known by many, to be one of the most knowledgeable experts on the compound design scopes (SCTs and MAKs), and has quite a large public following. I knew about this book for a while, having been a member of various Yahoo groups, and eagerly anticipated its release. I own and have read Rod’s SCT book, yet I still don’t own an SCT scope. Even though I have never met Rod, I feel like I have known him forever, due to his friendly replies to emails, and postings, and constant communications with the amateur Astronomer community via his writings. His knowledge and humor are appreciated by many, and this book is a project he has been working on for quite a while. This makes it hard to write an objective review (OK, impossible), since it’s hard not to like Rod and his writing style. Since you already know that I am going to recommend this book, the remainder of this review is an explanation of what I liked the most and why I liked it.

The short review
Uncle Rod has cooked up a book that is refreshing and worthwhile. The short review is a simple one – this book is informative and fun to read, by taking a somewhat different approach from those seen in many other astronomy books. The book is divided into two parts, providing a high reread value for the urban amateur astronomer of all experience levels. It is a practical book, which includes a great deal of reading, a number of “real” astrophotos (sorry, no Hubble shots here), sketches, descriptions, photos of example equipment (that is mostly affordable), actual observing notes and a generous helping of Rod’s likeable humor.

The book assumes you have a basic understanding of your equipment, and a basic understanding of the sky. This should not be the first book you read if you are totally new to the world of Astronomy, since it leaves out the typical basics you will find in many other books. I think this book would appeal to a large part of the observing community who has a scope, lives in a light polluted area, and has already gotten over the fascination of playing with the gear, and the initial excitement of observing the moon, planets, and bright stars, only to find out that the rest of the sky is made up of hard to find, dim fuzzy objects, that are not nearly as exciting to most as Jupiter, or the rings of Saturn. The book doesn’t spend any time on observing the Moon or the Planets (or minor planets) in case anyone was wondering.

I would bet that this is a fairly large part of the amateur astronomy community, and includes a large number of people who got into the hobby by buying a scope, learning the basics, reading some magazines or introductory astronomy books, and finds they aren’t using their gear all that much because they have been told they have to drive two hours (or more) to a dark site by some “expert” in order to really enjoy the hobby. It’s a shame and a reality that most of us live in urban areas that prevent us from seeing the Milky Way, and have a great deal of light pollution, but this book gives us practical advice on what to look for and how to look for it, rather than giving up. So get your telescope out of the closet, face the facts that light pollution isn’t going away any time soon, and learn how to make the most of the gear you have, and those clear nights from your back yard with Rod’s book, rather than watching reruns on the TV.

Part 1 - Chapters 1-5
The first half of the book is divided into five chapters, broken down into the following topics.

Chapter 1 discusses the “Why’s and How’s of Urban Observing” and offers a sensible approach to understanding the problems associated with trying to observe the sky from light polluted locations. It delivers a convincing message that all is not hopeless when trying to observe even some of the faintest objects, provided your expectations are set correctly. It explains that it is possible to observe more than just the moon, and planets, and very brightest of objects, if your equipment and techniques are adapted to the environment at hand. It sets the stage for the equipment, techniques, and good advice offered up to help with long list of objects in Part II.

Chapters 2 and 3 provide an experienced approach to advice on telescopes and accessories that will benefit nearly every urban astronomer. There are no “magic street-light-putter-outers”. Sorry, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to mention the device from the first Harry Potter book and movie that sucks the light out of the lamps, that I wish I could get my hands on. These two chapters take a common sense approach to understanding what the different types and sizes of telescopes and the accessories that can be used to make the urban astronomer’s viewing more worthwhile. By explaining the myths, pros, and cons to the various options, the reader gains an understanding of what works, and why, without delving into optical theory, technical specifications, or prejudice towards one manufacturer or another. It covers a variety of current topics including software that can help plan your night, to eyepieces, to filters, and to tricks that make things easier to see.

Chapter 4 explains a number of techniques and ways to make finding and viewing objects easier and more rewarding for those who face even the toughest light pollution. There are some tried and true things that will help even those with the worst light pollution, and this chapter is bound to have something to help readers across a variety of observing situations. Sorry, but there are still no devices for knocking out street lights in this chapter either.

Chapter 5 adds purpose to your viewing session and is titled “Urban Observing Programs”, which I incorrectly thought was going to be about computer software. It is instead, about making good use of your time by being organized, and recording your observations with a touch on astrophotography for the really ambitious folks.

Part II - Chapters 6-9 – “A Walking Tour of the Cosmos”
Now that the book has provided the “how”, it continues on to provide the “what”. Rod sends you on a season by season journey, in an effort that challenges the reader to see what Rod has been able to see, with some of his favorite “urban achievable” objects. Not surprisingly, it includes a range of difficulties from very easy, to very hard, and makes this part of the book impossible to read in one sitting. It’s really almost a field guide, yet it’s not because there aren’t really any charts suitable for using in the field. There are a few charts, to get you started, but they are rather small, and that is not really what this book was designed to be. If you are looking for charts or a star atlas to purchase, this isn’t the book for you. Then again, if you read part one, you probably already know how to make your own custom charts for any given night, or section of the sky, and probably already have a handy list of objects you are just chomping at the bit to try to see.

While it may seem hard to follow at first, each section is very logically laid out. Each set of objects is really like taking a stroll around a different part of a neighborhood in the sky. In general, Rod breaks out each season into smaller tours of objects, of about 6-14 objects per tour, and about 4-5 tours per season. For those who are interested in statistics, there are about 161 objects in total (based on the complete list in the back). This breaks out further into Spring (52), Summer (34), Fall (38), and Winter (38). The objects are generally located high up in the sky, for most North American observers (sorry, but if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, this part of the book won’t be nearly as useful). This allows the reader to focus on a number of objects that should be easiest to see, for a given season, by keeping them away from the sky glow that is so common for many of us that gets progressively worse as you looks towards any of the horizons. In each section, are objects of varying type and difficulty to be found, and Rod includes his observing notes from a number of observing sessions, including what to expect from different size scopes that he has used. When he gets to an object that needs a light bucket, he tells you flat out, not to bother if you are “aperture challenged”.

If you are looking for a Messier Marathon, this ain’t that kind of book. In fact, of the 161 objects, there are only 66 Messier objects, with the rest made up of various NGC objects, nebulas, double stars, asterisms, a galaxy or two, and other objects of various flavors. Of course, I wanted to see them all in one night, but again, this ain’t that kind of book. I discovered after reading a number of sections, that I was forced to slow down. I like to go fast, so not only did this book make me slow down in reading, and rereading the observing notes, but it also has been able to get me to slow down in observing. That is a GOOD thing for me. I used to take the lists of objects from various sources and plug them into the Nexstar GoTo scope controller and buzz, whir, spin, find, and view for a few minutes, and then move on. I think that Rod’s book, has me spending more time with each object, because reading his detailed descriptions made me realize that I could see more quality and less quantity, if I just took my time. With light polluted skies, there are often not that many good object to view in a given night. The best objects, and Rod points out, are the ones least impacted by sky glow, and that means spending most of your time around the Zenith (and away from the East in my case). So while you are there, look around, slow down, and really look at the beauty of some of the objects Rod has described, and feel free to do a little exploring on your own.

In the End…

There are a lot of “urban” objects to view out there, many of which Rod has sent us searching for, and many that I can’t see in my Mag. 3 skies with my 80mm refractor, but that just means this book is going to be a load of fun in the future, when I invest in a bigger scope. Reading the book, and other things by Rod, has already convinced me to start investing in more gear though. I have already bought two ultra wide angle eyepieces, and I am now “itch’n” for a 8 inch (or larger) SCT to go along with my refractor. You’ll have to read the book to find out why.

As I said, I bought the book knowing I liked Uncle Rod’s writing style, but the book provides all the tools to help anyone overcome the notion that they have too much light pollution to bother with getting out their telescope in their back yard under the sky glow of the big city. So get out and enjoy your scope, on any night that you can, because regardless of how bad your light pollution is, or what size scope you have, there are plenty of things to see that are worthwhile, and this book will lead the way.

Click here for more about this subject. -Ed.