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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 little Pocket Sky Atlas, which shows stars to magnitude 7.6; the larger and deeper Sky Atlas 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 8.5); and the even larger Uranometria 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 9.75). And read how to use sky charts effectively.
You'll also want a good deep-sky guidebook, such as Sue French's new Deep-Sky Wonders collection (which includes its own charts), Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion by Strong and Sinnott, the bigger Night Sky Observer's Guide by Kepple and Sanner, or the classic if dated Burnham's Celestial Handbook.
Can a computerized telescope replace charts? 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 (about magnitude –0.3) is having an excellent apparition in the dawn. About an hour before your local sunrise, look for it low above the southeast horizon, very far lower left of the Saturn-Spica pair.
As dawn brightens, you can also look for fainter Antares beginning to emerge about 7° below or lower right of Mercury.
Venus (magnitude –3.9) shines as the “Evening Star” in the southwest during twilight. It’s getting a little higher every week, heading into a grand apparition high in the evening sky this winter and much of the spring (for the Northern Hemisphere).
Mars (magnitude +0.5, at the hind leg of Leo) rises around 11 p.m. below Regulus and the Sickle of Leo. It's highest in the south before the first light of dawn, with Regulus now to its right. In a telescope Mars is a small blob 8 arcseconds wide.
Jupiter (magnitude –2.7, at the Aries-Pisces border) blazes high in the southeast after dusk and a little higher in the south around 8 p.m. It sets around 2 or 3 a.m. In a telescope Jupiter appears 45 arcseconds wide; see our observing guide.
Saturn (magnitude +0.7) rises around 2 or 3 a.m. and glows in the southeast well before dawn. Spica, similar in brightness at magnitude +1.0, is 5° or 6° to Saturn's right. Brighter Arcturus shines far to their upper left.
Uranus (magnitude 5.8, near the Circlet of Pisces) is high in the south right after dark.
Neptune (magnitude 7.9, at the Aquarius-Capricornus border) is getting low in the southwest right after dark. Use our printable finder charts for Uranus and Neptune, or see the September Sky & Telescope, page 53.
All descriptions that relate to your horizon — 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 Standard Time (EST) equals Universal Time (also known as UT, UTC, or GMT) minus 5 hours.
Like This Week's Sky at a Glance? Watch our new weekly SkyWeek TV short, now playing on PBS!
NEW BOOK: Sue French's DEEP-SKY WONDERS! This big, long-awaited observing guide by Sky & Telescope's Sue French is available from Shop at Sky. Hefty and lavishly illustrated, it contains Sue’s 100 favorite sky tours (25 per season, with telescopic finder charts) from her 11 years of writing the Celestial Sampler and Deep-Sky Wonders columns for S&T. You know you want it for the holidays….
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