Thoughts about Star Charts

As I wrote in a previous blog, I like to "do" Sue French's Deep-Sky Wonders column whenever possible. A few nights ago, I finally got a chance to start work on the March 2010 column — with a little trepidation.

Figuring out the illustrations for this article gave me a lot a heartache, because I knew I wasn't' got to be able to do it justice. Normally, Sue covers a small chunk of sky, making it relatively easy to cover the whole thing with one or two charts. This time, her targets stretched over more than 25° of sky, and I also wanted to include the "anchor stars" Castor and Pollux, making the coverage area even bigger.

S&T Illustration
To make matters worse, a number of the targets in this column are pretty faint, needing highly detailed charts for people who plan to locate them by star-hopping. Trying to cover such a large piece of sky at that level of detail would have consumed all the available pages, leaving no space for the text. Plus, it's really helpful to have photographs of some of the objects both as eye candy and also to give you hints what to look for through the eyepiece.

So I compromised, giving detailed coverage to the most challenging targets, but showing the rest just on a small map with stars to 6th magnitude. At the very least, that shows where everything is in the sky. But would it be adequate for star-hopping?

Not for me, it wasn't. The first two targets, Iota and 57 Cancri, are bright double stars, so they were easy. The galaxy NGC 2683 (which, by the way, I see only now I failed to highlight in yellow!) wasn't too hard either. It's right near a charted star, and at magnitude 9.8 it sticks out like a sore thumb in my 12.5-inch scope.

But I failed humiliatingly on the 11.6-magnitude galaxy NGC 2782, which is several degrees from any 6th-magnitude star. I had to revert to my backup charts (the Millennium Star Atlas) to find this little fellow. It wasn't especially subtle once located; I might have seen it on my first try — but I didn't.

I wonder how much all of this matters. A survey I did a couple of years ago indicated that most people who follow Deep-Sky Wonders either use Go To scopes or else use their own charts (printed or software) to star-hop, and don't rely primarily on the charts in the magazine. But after all, I'm a Deep-Sky Wonders reader too, so my opinions count at least a little. And although I do always have backup charts, I find it mighty handy when everything I need is right there in one place, in a format that's easy to hold up to an eyepiece.

What do you think?

21 thoughts on “Thoughts about Star Charts

  1. Jeremy Perez

    Tony,

    I’ve enjoyed reading your revived blog. It’s been particularly interesting to see the thought process you go through when editing and illustrating Sue’s columns.

    I use my own charts when star-hopping to objects. However, the charts supplied with the column are nice to get introduced to the objects being considered, to get oriented where they are in general, and to see how they are grouped. The one time I did use a chart contained in the article at the telescope was for locating G1/Mayall II–that was a GREAT resource.

    I’m looking forward to your next installments.

    Take care,
    Jeremy

  2. Bob Prokop

    I use my own sky atlas to find deep sky objects, but what are invaluable are your magazine’s accurate and easy-to-follow charts for comets and asteroids. I would like to see S&T publish more about observing asteroids in each issue (and not just the Big Four).

  3. Anthony Barreiro

    I agree with Bob.

    I have a small telescope and a light-polluted sky. “Deep Sky Wonders” is very informative for me, and I do try to see what I can, but I usually only find the two or three brightest objects. The rest are goals for the future.

    The charts of the movements of the asteroids, as well as Uranus and Neptune, have been invaluable in helping me locate those objects, especially because they’re not in my sky atlas. For instance, it’s been a real treat to watch Vesta thread the needle between gamma and 40 leonis these past nights. I could have printed out charts from SkyX, but the chart in Sky and Telescope was *edited* by a human being to be especially useful.

    Thanks for all your good work.

  4. Jim Curry

    I can’t imagine reading your articles w/o the charts. No, I don’t take the mag into the field but the charts put objects into perspective in the sky. Keep up the great work.

    Jim

  5. Ronald Powaski

    I organize SKY and TEL deep sky articles by constellation and keep them in binders that I refer to while observing. Even though I have atlases, I find the charts not only very useful but also quite artistic. I’d hate to see an end to them.

  6. Bob Carrington

    I teach astronomy at a local community college and after teaching for 30 some years and having seen the technology change and the students adoption of it..I find myself not so amused that students dont care “why” anymore they only want to know “how”. Star hopping and in fact having an understanding of the objects in our sky is to astronomy that all those early math courses are to an engineer or scientist or mathamatician or phyisit or … … I spend two lectures and two laboratory sessions teaching the very fundamental exploration of the stars and constallations using nothing more complecated than your star charts and one lab on using planispheres (an astronomers slide rule!!)
    Gee… with tecnology perhaps we need to get rid of paper maps and all of us use GPS’s

    Prof. Carrington

  7. Jeff Gortatowsky

    Like most, I don’t use the article’s charts per se in the field. I make a copy of the article and use the narrative to confirm my own observations (or refute them!) For the actual hunt, I use SkyMap Pro and a deeply red filtered and attenuated laptop. If that is dead, I have Urano and SA2000 as backups.

    The usefulness of the charts is in the reading of the text as they lend context when doing arm chair astronomy. If using a printed atlas, they give one an idea of what chart to turn to.

    I would not like to see the charts removed. But were I you, I would not stress over whether you can use them to starhop. Pass on to Sue my heart felt admiration of her work. It is my favorite column.

    PS: What is ‘Goto’???

  8. Rein Vanderhill

    I have use Google sky which is sort of a photographic chart
    to find asteroids. I start with the ephemeris numbers of the asteroid. Google sky shows a RA Dec readout at the cursor position which i then mark and print out. I take my ‘chart’ to the scope and try to find the star field on my print out.

  9. Tony Flanders

    This sounds much like the results of my previous survey — everybody likes the overview charts that give a sense of how the targets fit together in the sky, but few people use the detailed charts to actually find things. This suggests that even greater levels of detail, like Digitized Sky Survey images, which exceed not only print atlases but also almost all planetarium programs, might be more useful than detailed charts. One caveat, though. Sue often discusses targets which aren’t plotted in most print atlases — or even in many planetarium-program databases.

  10. Joseph Slomka

    I regularly use Sue’s Deep Sky Wonders during the rare nights that are not clouded out. I enjoy her articles greatly and use them to sharpen my observing skills. I have a briefcase that carries copies of S&T as well as observing forms, pencils and pens. I find this setup easy to carry and use in the field. The vast majority of the time, the magazine’s star charts are adequate to find the objects she mentioned. Very rarely do I resort to Sky Atlas 2000 for a more detailed chart. By the way, I sometimes use Sue’s book Celestial Sampler for alternate challenges.

  11. Celso Montalvo

    I love Sue’s column since her very first issue. I appreciated very much her comments and observations even before, through the Amastro list. Deep Sky Wonders has been my first source of objects to observe when I plan my observing sessions (now very scarce and disperse due to very bad weather for more than a year). I found adequate the scale of star charts for star hopping when the objects are in an area 5-10º as is most of the time with Sue’s notes. This is good for reading the column in the printed magazine, but I also print other specific charts for locating and observing objects at the field as I do not carry the magazine in my trips. My printed charts have different scales depending on the object and the location. Concerning the charts in the magazine, I expect to have more than a chart if the objects are located far from each other. I still do not receive January or February issues, so I cannot tell if the scale refered by Tony is adequate, but I think it would not be of use to have a chart with a scale too big that there are not enough reference stars near the object to locate.

    Saludos.

    Celso.
    celso.

  12. Alessandro

    It is like having a tourist guide with no maps. Of course you have often your own maps, but think about the Lonely Planet guides: their chart contain the specific information connected to the text.

  13. Marty

    A fun article and nice discussion! Feels like the “glory days” of the old sci.astro.amateur newsgroup…
    It would be very difficult for S&T to print sufficient charts to find a series of dim targets in a typical article. After choosing a target, I’ll generally choose a star to hop from using the first “crude” chart, then go to the old Scalnate Pleso Atlas, and finally finish up with acetate “FOV circles” on the Uranometria 2000, which goes out to the scope with me. Most magazine articles would be pretty cluttered if all that were included. Works better on my living room floor.
    As far as GOTO scopes go, I’m a fossil. The hunt is a large part of the fun for me, and part of the enjoyment of being under a night sky. While I have nothing against GOTO, and others make good use of it, I can’t even help a newbie learn to use it…

  14. Dave Minnick

    I have always enjoyed the article-related charts S&T has provided its readers, and as a practcal astronomy magazine it remains head and shoulders above competing publications because of the way these charts assist one at the eyepiece. Although I have other print atlases available, I prefer to use the magazine at my side, whenever possible. The detailed charts in S&T are one of the reasons this magazine still arrives in my mailbox. Your work in this regard, Tony, is greatly appreciated (I say, “Give that man a raise!”)

  15. Roy RobinsonRoy Robinson

    One faint fuzzy is usually much like another in my telescope. An object’s unique feature is its location. I’m a star-hopper, and gain a lot of satisfaction from knowing some NGC object’s position on the celestial sphere even without the telescope. I have a go-to scope; it’s often more fun (rewarding) to turn it off and use the charts.
    Our young people will learn more about the sky (i.e., enjoy astronomy more) if they actally LEARN the sky. Competent guidance and instruction would also help.

  16. Tom Fleming

    I scanned all the comments to avoid duplication and didnt find anyone using my method. So here it is. I use Stellarium on my laptop for my searches. It is completely ‘tunable’ to magnitude and scale. I usually set it near to the size of my fov on my binocs (125X35′s). My laptop does not have a brightness control so I attenuate the brightness with a layer of smoked glass.

  17. Robert McCabe

    I like the star charts. I print them out for star hopping to find the fainter objects. I do not have a go-to telescope, so the star charts are most helpful to me.

  18. Michael Zeiler

    I greatly appreciate the fine cartographic values of the many charts and maps in Sky & Tel, but I’d like to see this magazine transition to the new digital reading devices such as the iPad. As we all know, Sky & Tel and all magazines are suffering a decline in readership but I believe that tablet devices could present magazines and newspapers with a renaissance of new readership. Imagine if these sky charts could be dynamic and display several map scales to star hop around an area of interest. I’d also like to see monthly all-sky star charts adjust themselves to the latitude of the reader. These tablet devices would also be easier to read and use in the field than a hardcopy magazine, perhaps on a mount on the telescope tripod.

  19. Mike Lynch

    Tony,

    I NEVER take magazines or books like Sue’s to the field. Humidity is regularly an issue in central Kentucky! There are several high-quality free atlases online which can be downloaded and printed. I did just that, and put all the card-stock pages into sheet protectors in a binder, along with an index of object data.

    But I prefer to use SkyMap Pro software on a laptop, which has more objects than I can ever seek out!

    Incidentally, Tony, objects that Sue describes that are not in the program’s databases can be added, too.

    You may find this hard to believe, but I’d take more object lists and descriptions with fewer or no charts at all in the magazine.

    And, as someone else asked, What on Earth is ‘GOTO’? Doesn’t sound like any fun OR challenge to me!

    Mike

  20. Mark Force

    I use the charts as an overview of the area and other tools at the eyepiece to actually find them. The magazine comes out with me to the field and ends up on the observing table. I quite often use the SkyTel map with the bino’s to orient myself. The maps are very useful and, as someone else pointed out, very artistic. Keep up the good work!

  21. Nitza L

    Please don’t end your artistic charts. I’m an amateur who look to the sky in every oportunity and my ONLY visual reference are your charts because they have the esential information for me to look…I have PC programs (2 for skymaps) and a pocket begginers sky charts (very basic- a gold for me) but I always use your charts every month as a reference in preference. The other are secondary for me because sometimes I have dificulty with see all the details they have.And yes, sometimes include in the articles comets and asteroids other than the usually ones. Thank God and you for your charts.Please includes in the magazine objects for see with binoculars and small telescopes. Again thank you for your hard work.

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