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Want to become a better amateur astronomer? Learn your way around the constellations. They're the key to locating everything fainter and deeper to hunt with binoculars or a telescope.
For an easy-to-use constellation guide covering the whole evening sky, use the big monthly map in the center of each issue of Sky & Telescope, the essential magazine of astronomy. Or download our free Getting Started in Astronomy booklet (which only has bimonthly maps).
Once you get a telescope, to put it to good use you must have a detailed, large-scale sky atlas (set of charts). The standards are the Pocket Sky Atlas, which shows stars to magnitude 7.6; the larger Sky Atlas 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 8.5); and the even larger and deeper Uranometria 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 9.75). And read how to use your charts effectively.
You'll also want a good deep-sky guidebook, such as Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion by Strong and Sinnott, or the more detailed and descriptive Night Sky Observer's Guide by Kepple and Sanner, or the classic if dated Burnham's Celestial Handbook.
Can a computerized telescope take their place? I don't think so not for beginners, anyway, and especially not on mounts that are less than top-quality mechanically. As Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand."
This Week's Planet Roundup
Mercury is hidden in the glare of the Sun.
Venus, though bright at magnitude 4.4, is quite low in the west-southwest during twilight. It sets by dark.
Mars, vastly dimmer at magnitude +1.5, is to Venus's right or upper right, as shown here. Look also for similar Spica passing by Venus this week, from upper left to right. They appear closest together on the 31st. Saturn has moved far off to Venus's lower right and may be getting lost by now. Bring binoculars for all three of these faint objects.
Jupiter (magnitude 2.9, in Pisces) rises in twilight and is well up in the east-southeast by late evening the brightest starlike point in the sky. It's highest in the south around 2 a.m. daylight saving time.
Jupiter's Great Red Spot is near System II longitude 150°. Assuming it stays there, here's a list to print out of all the Great Red Spot's predicted transit times for the rest of 2010.
Uranus (magnitude 5.8, in Pisces) is not quite 2° west of Jupiter. In a telescope Uranus is only 3.7 arcseconds wide, compared to Jupiter's unusually wide 49″.
Neptune (magnitude 7.8, at the Aquarius-Capricornus border) is up high by mid-evening. See our finder charts for Uranus and Neptune in 2010, also in the September Sky & Telescope, page 56. What colors do Uranus and Neptune seem to show, if any?
Pluto (magnitude 14, in northwestern Sagittarius) is highest in the south right at the end of dusk, when there's no Moon. See our Pluto finder charts in the July Sky & Telescope, page 60.
All descriptions that relate to your horizon or zenith including the words up, down, right, and left are written for the world's mid-northern latitudes. Descriptions that also depend on longitude (mainly Moon positions) are for North America. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) equals Universal Time (also known as UT, UTC, or GMT) minus 4 hours.
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