Book Review: Solar System Observer’s Guide

Postage stamp collectors often concentrate on particular types or themes. Amateur astronomers do the same, as a wealth of viewing pleasure came be had from choosing a small set of what’s available in the sky. Peter Grego in his book Solar System Observer’s Guide provides a thorough and descriptive aid for those astronomers who want to concentrate on our own small region of the universe. In it, he shows planets and other nearby celestial objects can be demanding and rewarding in their own right.

Most primary school students quickly learn that our planet Earth orbits the Sun. Next, little rhymes help the learners remember the sequence of the planets that extend outward from the Sun. Aside from doing rote memorization, little else is available to them. With school being a day time activity, almost no opportunities exist for first hand viewing by classrooms. Perhaps the simplicity and allure of the Internet is also to blame, as a few taps on the keyboard and the click of a mouse bring crystal clear satellite images to the desktop. Nevertheless, making your own preparations and witnessing first hand the treasures orbiting the Sun conveys a much more intense sensation. By making this small effort, the viewers get a much greater reward than keyboard jockeys; they obtain a greater understanding and more vivid, longer lasting memories

Grego’s book is for those astronomers who care about the art of astronomy and want to capture remarkable memories. In the book, he provides viewing details for each planet of our solar system and many other space wanders in close viewing range . But in keeping with the needs of the artist, he does more than describe the view. Grego gives a brief background on the composition of each planet or body, its surface appearance and the atmosphere, if present. This is a great help for the remainder of the descriptions, as Grego then goes on to describe, in clear and careful detail, what a viewer will likely see. He starts by stepping lightly into orbital mechanics in the sense of determining where and when to best look for which target. He then gives fine detail of features. Last, he adds a section on recording the image. This doesn’t necessarily mean using a camera. Rather, he installs into the reader a sense of value and beauty in pencil drawings. He includes many of his own, with appropriate annotation to show its simplicity and fine results. By also considering comets, meteors, the aurorae, the Moon and the Sun, Grego’s book captures nearly everything for a backyard astronomer who wants to concentrate their viewing on just our solar system.

This handbook has other support material which will help the nascent night viewer. There are safety issues particularly with regard to viewing the Sun. A section has the pro’s and con’s of various binoculars and telescopes. As well, Grego thoughtfully includes suggestions on the best equipment for any given subject, whether binoculars for the Moon or eyepieces for the Sun. To aid those wanting to study variations in time, he even includes how to use central meridian transit timings for Mars. A top twenty list of lunar attractions is another of his ideas he presents to start the beginner on their way. With this assistance, any reader is well prepared and ready to make excellent use of their observing time.

As much as this book is an observer’s guide, it does need to include a bit on the background of the subject. The challenge is to balance between the two. Grego makes a good balance for the most part. Some areas he seems to have either greater interest or information. For example, he goes band by band through the Jovian atmosphere giving a history and description for each. He also has a solid description of the Moon, which isn’t surprising given he’s also written an observer’s guide just for it. Aside from being a bit wordy in places, Grego does maintain a good balance and most often accentuates the observation rather than the background.

Space based telescopes are all the rage for the masses, but the individual astronomer is still more likely to get a greater thrill from first hand viewing. Peter Grego in his book Solar System Observer’s Guide gives the reader the background and information to make this first hand viewing a success. By providing extensive detail, he takes the unease away and makes night time astronomy of our nearby planets and their moons more rewarding and pleasurable.

Review by Mark Mortimer