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Star Watch – The Amateur Astronomer’s Guide to Finding, Observing, and Learning about Over 125 Celestial Objects – by Philip S. Harrington

Posted by Timm Bottoni   12/28/2006 12:00AM

Star Watch – The Amateur Astronomer’s Guide to Finding, Observing, and Learning about Over 125 Celestial Objects – by Philip S. Harrington
You have a new telescope (or binoculars), now what do you look at?

For those who are new to observing, or maybe rekindling their love for stargazing, this book is a beginner’s delight to some of the best objects available in the night sky, with a solid foundation for the techniques to find and enjoy them. The book is a soft cover book, of 301 total pages, comprised of variety of chapters, including observing basics, seasonal observing objects, and a collection of interesting facts that provides for a lot of reading, and repeat reading. It is the author’s unique ranking system of celestial objects that I found particularly useful, but I am getting ahead of myself. For those of you who don’t’ know the author, he is a writer of a number of books, and articles on various astronomy topics, including his well known “Star Ware” books giving advice on various telescope gear. He is active in several Yahoo Internet Groups, and has always been eager to answer my questions, when I have personally emailed him. I consider him to be a great resource for amateur astronomers around the world.

Let’s start at the beginning...

The book starts out with the basics, and then proceeds in a very logical order. The first chapter covers all the basics, giving helpful information to anyone new to observing the night sky. While not a long section, it certainly provides enough information for even the most inexperienced observer, and will help as a refresher of the basics to anyone who has a general feel for how the night sky is viewed. Chapter 2 continues on the Moon, which is admittedly, one of the first things new owners of telescope or even binoculars will view at night. Detailed photos with areas identified and labeled are there for anyone who wants to dive into the moon at whatever level of detail they would like. Again, it is enough information without overdoing it. The next logical step for many people is the planets, and Chapter 3 covers the planets and asteroids, in enough detail to get most people started, providing the basics of finding and observing them, along with what to expect when found. Chapter 4 takes the reader to the Sun, with the usual safety information, and eclipse details. Again, just enough to introduce the reader to the basics. Finally, chapter 5 provides and overview of Deep Sky Objects (DSOs) and prepares the reader for the remainder of the book.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...

Each of the next four chapters, 6 – 9 all follow the same well organized structure. The season is introduced, for example Spring, along with a basic sky chart of the entire sky, which has a portion of the sky divided into a number of Sky Windows. Each season focuses on that area of the sky that is best suited to observation for people in the Northern Hemisphere. There are 7 Spring Sky Windows, 8 for Summer, 5 for Autumn, and 6 for Winter. For each Window, a detailed star chart is displayed, with objects clearly labeled, and easy enough to read under a red observing light. Each object is given a description, and in many cases accompanied by a black and white photo or sketch. Some objects include a gray box of text, filled with interesting tidbits of information and history about the object, which all combines for a very straight forward and logical approach to observing. The final section includes some worthwhile appendixes that include the constellations, a basic guide on where to see the planets in the years 2003-2015, and a complete listing of all of the objects mentioned by season, in order.

What you will be observing, and learning from this book
First of all, this book highlights the Messier objects, and out of the 125 plus objects you will find that 110 of them are Messier objects. The remainder includes an assortment of NGC catalog items, a few double stars, some nice variable stars, and a few nice Asterisms. If you are reading this and unsure what all those things are, don’t worry, it’s covered in the first half of the book! This is good, because again, it seems logical that most new observers will buy a scope, point it at the moon, then perhaps planets, and then start looking for those “messy” things in the sky they have heard people talk about. The key, here is that the author takes the time to teach you about the objects, while showing you how to find them, and setting your expectations accordingly. To me, the single most important part of the book is the ability to set expectations of the new telescope or binocular owner. There are no high resolution full color Hubble telescope quality pictures in this book, and in fact there are no color photographs in this book at all. There are many examples of amateur photos and drawings clearly described including what instruments were used.

The Author’s Object Rating System and Formula for Success
Each object is listed by its Messier number, or NGC number, and given a brief title based on what it is. Then its nickname is listed, if it has one, followed by the distance from Earth. Now what comes next is the cleverest part of the book to me. Each object is given a one to four star rating for each object, for each criteria including Finding Factor, and “WOW” Factor for Binoculars, Small Telescopes (3” to 5”) and Medium Telescopes (6” to 8”). This is fantastic for new users, to help in determining what to expect. Next comes a “Where to Look” section, followed by a “What You’ll See” both in binoculars and telescopes. Again, this is a great way to approach these objects because so many people new to astronomy look at things and say “that’s it?” or worse, “where is it?” One of the biggest problems people who are new to backyard astronomy have is expecting to see things like the colored pictures on the outside of some many cheap department store telescope boxes.

Season by season, window by window, object by object, the author walks readers through what essentially is a full Messier list plus an assortment of additional extras that are many of the true gems of the night sky that Charles Messier missed. I have yet to see everything listed in this book with my 80mm APO refractor, and light polluted skies, but for those who do, and are willing to keep a log and submit it to Phil via his web site, will be rewarded with a special certificate mailed to them from Phil Harrington.

What’s really great about this book?

Everything! Buy it for yourself or someone you love, who wants to learn about the night sky, or who wants to learn how to observe with binoculars or telescopes, and want’s a genuinely friendly and logical way to learn a lot about what they can expect to see, along with a host of tidbits of history about the objects. It may be the best $16.95 you ever spend to learn a heck of a lot about the night sky.