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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 guide to 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'll need 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 with a telescope effectively.
You'll also want a good deep-sky guidebook, such as Sue French's 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 beloved if dated Burnham's Celestial Handbook.
Can a computerized telescope replace charts? Not for beginners, I don't think, and certainly not on mounts and tripods that are less than top-quality mechanically (able to point with better than 0.2° repeatability). As Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their invaluable 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 hides deep in the glare of sunset.
Venus (magnitude –4.0, in Virgo) rises due east in darkness more than an hour before the first glimmer of dawn. By dawn it's shining brightly fairly high.
Mars (magnitude +1.2, in Ophiuchus) remains low in the southwest in evening twilight.
Jupiter (magnitude –2.8, in Taurus) rises in the east-northeast just after dark, with Aldebaran to its right and Elnath (Beta Tauri) a little farther to its left. Above Aldebaran are the Pleiades. The whole arrangement, shown at the top of this page, climbs into better view as the evening advances.
Saturn is deep in the glow of sunrise.
Uranus (magnitude 5.8, in Pisces) and Neptune (magnitude 7.9, in Aquarius) are in in good view in the south during evening. Finder charts for Uranus and Neptune.
If you have a large scope, have you ever tried for the moons of Neptune and Uranus? The brightest are about magnitude 13.5. Read more, and print charts for your time and date, at SkyandTelescope.com/triton and SkyandTelescope.com/uranusmoons.
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 Daylight Time (EDT) equals Universal Time (also known as UT, UTC, or GMT) minus 4 hours. Eastern Standard Time is UT minus 5 hours.
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