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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 is hidden in conjunction with the Sun.
Venus (magnitude –3.9) is getting lower in the dawn each morning. Look for it above the southeast horizon about 30 minutes before your local sunrise.
Mars (magnitude +1.2) still glimmers very low in the west-southwest in the fading glow of sunset. Don't confuse it with Fomalhaut far to its left.
Jupiter (magnitude –2.7, in Taurus) is the first "star" to appear in the eastern sky after sundown. It dominates the high southeast after dusk, with orange Aldebaran below it and the Pleiades over it as shown above. They tilt around and pass highest in the south around 8 or 9 p.m. local time. In a telescope Jupiter is still about 45 arcseconds wide.
Saturn (magnitude +0.6, in Libra) rises in the east-southeast around 1 or 2 a.m. local time. By the beginning of dawn it's fairly high in the southeast. That's the best time to get your telescope on it. Saturn's rings are tilted 19° to our line of sight, the widest open they've been for seven years.
Uranus (magnitude 5.8, in Pisces) is still in good view in the southwest right after dark. Finder chart.
Neptune (magnitude 8.0, in Aquarius) is sinking away low in the west-southwest after dark.
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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