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Book Review - Objects in the Heavens

Posted by John Kramer   01/16/2012 12:00AM

Book Review - Objects in the Heavens
Disclaimer: Peter Birren, the author of the book Objects in the Heavens, reached out to me as we share a common acquaintance on Facebook, and asked if I would welcome receiving his latest edition of his book for a unbiased review.

Backyard stargazers have plenty of objects to enjoy; the challenge comes in selecting viable targets for your aperture and knowing where to find those celestial targets in the heavens. Objects in the Heavens (5th edition) aims to help solve that problem for amateur astronomers by showcasing a wide variety of objects in a very usable format, in fact, to take a quote form the back cover, "Every known galaxy, cluster and nebula - down to magnitude 10 and viewable from the northern hemisphere - is finally in one place, mapped and formatted for convenient at-the-scope use." Indeed, Objects in the Heavens (we'll refer to it as OITH) delivered just that. Lets review the logical layout of this useful addition to our astronomy library.

The book, well actually field guide would be more accurate, starts off giving you a layout of the data arrangement and symbols of the guide. Spend time there, because of the "convenient at-the-scope" nature of the guide, there is a condensed yet practical approach author Peter Birren takes to providing relevant information about the selected objects in the guide (Page 7-8). It took just a few moments to review before the logic sunk in enough for me to go to any page and easily decipher the information. Peter includes the "Star Ranking System" based off of the Bayer system of lower case Greek lettering, typical to most publications of this nature, but gosh, I still haven't memorized them so thank goodness it's there. Also included is a quick breakdown of all the objects in the guide, plenty for most observers. What I REALLY enjoy is the inclusion of double-stars, carbon stars, binocular objects, and even the Moon. It's great to see an author include such a variety of objects, and not stick to just the Messier and bright NGC's.

The other interesting elements in this first section of the guide include informative sections of solar system objects, a graphical representation showcasing the relative sizes of celestial bodies, a nice list of bright stars with informative tables, a quick explanation of double-stars and the challenges they present, plus select doubles per constellation. Finally, an index of both Messier and select NGC objects for any time of year. Oh, and I almost forgot the inclusion of a general object index too that included less popular but still very interesting objects cataloged by other observatories (IC, Collinder, etc).

The next section of OITH focuses on observing the Moon, and puts forth considerable effort in showcasing interesting lunar targets during any particular phase. Now the charts are not very detailed, due to the size constraints no doubt of a field guide of this nature, but they will get you to the general vicinity, and the brief yet accurate descriptions included with each one will assist you greatly on finding craters, valleys, rilles, mare and mountains. So now you have no excuse not to observe the Moon folks, it's there, you can't cover it up, you might as well enjoy it, and OITH helps you do just that.

Now we get to the meat and potatoes of the guide; the constellations and their objects, which start with Andromeda on page 48 and ends with Vulpecula on page 123. Each constellation includes an interesting quote from famed amateur astronomer T.W.Webb, and then delves into the objects of interest. Having used the book for a few months now, with a handful of decent observing opportunities, I enjoy simply starting with the first objects, and working my way down the list, it's that simple. It doesn't appear to be laid out by RA, but rather by stars, then sorted by object number (M or NGC). Each object has a brief description, I believe based from T.W.Webb's personal notes and the authors, with information on size, RA / DEC, and finally magnitude. Double-stars include separation, and usually color of components. Open clusters usually included an estimation of number of stars visible, shape, size, etc. I found those descriptions helpful pointers, especially with some of the tougher NGC open clusters I used the book to track down for the first time.

Speaking of tracking down, OITH includes a chart for each constellation, however this is only going to get you to the general location of the object, and is not intended to be substituted for a detailed atlas. OITH covers this by referencing the matching page numbers of each chart to my other "at-the-scope" guide, Sky & Telescopes wonderful Pocket Sky Atlas (PSA for short), and the larger desk reference SkyAtlas 2000 (SA2K for short). I'm sure you can make it by using OITH as a single reference and finder chart, but when OITH and PSA are used together, you've got yourself a nice combination that will keep you happy at the eyepiece for a very long time. OITH recommends the most interesting objects per constellation with enough detail to assist you in your observations, and makes a fantastic compliment to PSA or SA2k which have the more detailed star charts that may be better suited to helping you star-hop your way to any object in a constellation.

Backyard stargazers are always looking for interesting and challenging observing lists and programs, and this guide delivers that in a well thought out, easy and compact format. OITH, you had me at "convenient at-the-scope use", and delivered just what this observer needed to enjoy my time at the eyepiece. Well done.

For more information, or to pick up your own copy of OITH (Print and Kindle), you can visit or