I’m often asked about what I’d recommend as a very basic book for beginner’s to help them learn their way around the constellations and how to put their binoculars or small telescopes to good use. Needless to say, there’s an endless array of books for the beginning stargazer and no one particular volume is going to excel by a wide margin over another. However, I after taking a look around, I started asking questions at what could be had for about $20 and what I think would work well for the novice as a complete package. This time my choice was well-bound and colorful volume called “Celestron Sky Maps and Luminous Star Finder.” Here’s why…
Over the years it has been my distinct pleasure to own a great many books geared towards the first time astronomer. My bookshelves are graced with timeless classics like “Turn Left At Orion”, “SkyWatching” and “365 Starry Nights”. Heck, those of you that know me also know I write astronomy books, so it makes it even harder to find and recommend a particular volume! While my own stellar navigation abilities have progressed tremendously over my lifetime and my own books are geared towards all readers, I’ve never forgotten what it was like to be totally new at the game and just how confusing and big a dark, starry sky can look. Long before I ever graduated to using a telescope, I’d stand outside with those clever monthly star charts that come in the astronomy periodicals and a flashlight – just trying to make sense of it all. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was blinding myself by using a flashlight and I was having an even more difficult time coming to grips trying to compare the chart to the sky. Of course, I learned – and so can you – but there’s no reason for the process to be painful or confusing.
Enter the Celestron Sky Maps and Luminous Star Finder…
Ordinarily my first recommendation to anyone who doesn’t know the night sky is a planisphere. Again, there’s a whole range of planispheres available and every last one of them does exactly the same thing. For those of you not familiar with the term, a planisphere is a very basic star map arranged on a calibrated wheel. Turn the wheel and match the calibrations to the correct date and time and what you see in the “window” is what the skies look like for either the northern or southern hemisphere (depending on the edition). The planisphere is so basic that I actually print off plans and make planispheres with guests at the Observatory to take home – but my “freebies” are flimsy – accurate, but not lasting. In the case of the Celestron Sky Maps and Luminous Star Finder, the planisphere is part of the book itself. Again, it is very basic – but it’s also very durable and has a nice twist… It glows in the dark! Before heading out to use it, leave the planisphere under a lamp or in a bright light source, but protect your own eyes so you’ll dark adapt more quickly. I found the ideal arrangement (for me) was to put it in a room with doors I could shut and a bright overhead light which I could turn off with my eyes closed. Once “charged”, the glow-in-the-dark planisphere is ready to tackle the night.
Without the distraction of using a flashlight (either white or red) the luminous star finder was really a ingenious addition. While the constellation imprints (when held at arm’s length) aren’t to the same scale as the sky, the pleasing glow made it very easy for me to hold up the book and reference the stars at the same time. Because it’s user friendly, total beginners to the night sky should be able to quickly match the stellar patterns with this clever aid. Again, there’s lots of planispheres out there – and even ones that glow – but there’s more to the total package.
The Celestron Sky Maps and Planisphere book is a bit more, for it also contains an Illustrated Star Map Atlas and Deep-sky Objects Reference Guide. Yes, it’s very basic… And yes, the listings of the deep sky objects and coordinates are a bit dated – but there’s a reason this book has sold over 2 million copies – it’s very easy to use. Throughout the seasonal listings, you’ll find over 1,000 objects to explore with binoculars and small telescopes and the illustrated reference section provides basic information about various types of stars, nebulae and galaxies. They aren’t Hubble photographs, just very ordinary film photos which closely resemble the view in a larger telescope. To me, this is an awesome feature for a beginner. I remember all too well the first time I found the Andromeda Galaxy and how I wished someone would have told me that it looked like a little glowing cloud! It’s one thing to see a spectacular color image of a deep space object and it’s another to see it through binoculars or a small telescope for the first time. Someone needs to show you what to expect and Celestron has done an admirable job.
So what’s inside? The star charts are arranged by season with two charts – divided north and south – to use. Rather than be crammed full of things you can’t see, it’s parsed down to what you need, white pages with black stellar images, magnitude listings, proper symbols for deep sky objects and inset boxes to give you more detailed information on objects in the area, including star names. Here you’ll find your way towards double stars, bright nebula, interesting clusters and achievable galaxies. Looking for a planet? Celestron has thought of that, too. There’s even a table to help you locate the planets through the year 2016. All of this is very easy to read in the dark with a red flashlight and very easy to understand and put to use.
Is it a big book? Yep. At 11″ X 13″ this is what’s considered a “coffee table” size – but what it isn’t is a thick book. It only has 21 pages including the charts and reference material, but those 21 pages are also extremely well done. Unlike most of the beginner’s star gazing books, the Celestron Illustrated Star Map Atlas and Deep-sky Objects Reference Guide was meant to be taken outdoors and used. The pages are heavy card-stock, durable and moisture proof. This means you can lay it down while using it to explore a certain region of space with a specific chart and the wind won’t take your place away! You can lay it on the damp grass and the pages won’t curl or the ink smear. It’s a durable and lasting volume – all the way around.
Is it the perfect book for beginners? I can’t tell you that. Maybe one person will learn better from planetarium software – while another might benefit more quickly from the new electronic sky navigators. What I can tell you is the book is absolutely worth the $20 asking price. Chances are if you enjoy it and use it – you’ll outgrow it in a year or two… But then, that’s a good thing, isn’t it? What you’ll learn using Celestron Sky Maps and Luminous Star Finder will prepare you to use a more detailed star atlas and even more dedicated star charts. Even if you never outgrow it, there’s a thousand things both in there and out there…
Just waiting on you to find them.
At request, the Celestron Sky Maps and Luminous Star Finder Book was provided for this review by Oceanside Photo and Telescope. My many thanks to Chris Hendren for his assistance. Please remember that should you decide to order from OPT to put “Universe Today Astronomers” in the club afflilation of your order to receive your UT rewards discount on your final bill!