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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 (magnitude –0.3) is having an excellent morning apparition for skywatchers in the Northern Hemisphere. Look for it low in the east-southeast, far lower left of bright Venus, about 60 to 45 minutes before your local sunrise time. Look also for Antares much closer below below Venus.
Venus (magnitude –4.6) blazes as the "Morning Star" in the southeast before and during dawn. In fact Venus rises some two hours before the first glimmer of dawn (for mid-northern latitudes) — a weird UFO of a thing low in the east-southeast.
Look for Saturn and Spica very far to Venus's upper right in the south, and Arcturus even higher above Venus.
Mars is lost behind the glare of the Sun.
Jupiter (magnitude –2.3, at the Pisces-Aquarius border) shines high in the south as the stars come out, then lower in the southwest later in the evening. Jupiter is the brightest starlike point in the evening sky, but it sets by 10 or 11 p.m. now. In a telescope it has shrunk to only 38 arcseconds wide as Earth rounds to the far side of the Sun from it. But keep watch on Jupiter's South Equatorial Belt re-forming, as dark markings spread east and west around the globe from the storm spot that broke out in the SEB's latitude in November.
Jupiter's Great Red Spot is near System II longitude 157°. Assuming it stays there, here are all of the Great Red Spot's predicted transit times for the rest of this season.
Saturn (magnitude +0.7, in Virgo) rises around midnight but is best seen in a telescope high in the south before dawn (far upper right of brilliant Venus). Don't confuse Saturn with Spica below or lower left of it.
In a telescope, Saturn's new white spot has grown and spread far around the planet! See the pictures below and our article Saturn's New Bright Storm. Here are predicted transit times of the storm's original outbreak site across the center of Saturn's disk.
Saturn's rings, meanwhile, have widened to 10° from edge-on, the widest they've appeared since 2007. And see how many of Saturn's satellites you can identify in your scope using our Saturn's Moons tracker.," he writes. South is up." credits="Donald C. Parker" width="" height="" align="right"]
Uranus (magnitude 5.9) remains less than 1½° from Jupiter this week.
Neptune (magnitude 7.9, at the Capricornus-Aquarius border) is sinking into the sunset.
Pluto (magnitude 14, in Sagittarius) is hidden in the background of Mercury in the glow of dawn. Pluto is at its highest in the evening in summer (Northern Hemisphere summer).
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.
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