Our Book: The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos

The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos by David Dickinson with Fraser Cain
The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos by David Dickinson with Fraser Cain
The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos by David Dickinson with Fraser Cain
The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos by David Dickinson with Fraser Cain

Have you ever wanted to get into the hobby of astronomy but don’t know where to start? It can be challenging, especially with the bewildering array of telescopes, objects in the night sky, and techniques. Our new book, The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos, is all you need to get started.

It’s written by David Dickinson, the Universe Today reporter who covers skywatching and astronomical events, with additional material from Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today, co-host of Astronomy Cast and host of the Guide to Space. There are also over a hundred photographs from contributing amateur astronomers, showing you what’s possible with some gear, skill and lots and lots of patience. And an additional forward from Dr. Pamela Gay, co-host of the Astronomy Cast podcast.

In the book you’ll learn:

  • How to find your way in the night sky.
  • Choosing and using a variety of astronomy gear.
  • Following the Moon and the planets across the sky.
  • Finding the deep sky objects: nebulae, galaxies and star clusters.
  • What to see in the sky from season to season over an entire year.
  • Finding modern wanderers, like satellites, space stations and more.
  • Observing comets, asteroids and meteor showers.
  • Safely observing the Sun.
  • Astrophotography.
  • The top astronomy events from 2019 – 2024
  • Real science you can do and protecting the night sky.

Click here to buy a copy from Amazon. Or Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.

Due to be published on October 23, 2018.

Author Dave Dickinson writes:

After years of discussing the idea, and about a year’s worth of essays, outlines, revisions and re-revisions, we’re happy to announce that our first full astronomy book comes out on October 23rd, 2018 courtesy of Page Street Publishing.

We’re talking about the Universe Today Guide to Viewing the Night Sky: Everything You Need to Know to Become an Amateur Astronomer. It’s already up available for pre-order on Amazon now, and we jam-packed it full with the very latest tips from the fast-changing world of amateur astronomy.

We drew off of decades of experience as an amateur astronomer and science writer, to show you just how far the field has evolved in just a few short decades. When I was a kid growing up as a child of the 70s (1970s that is!), a 6-inch Newtonian was a big ‘scope, Jupiter had twelve moons and we took pictures on plastic strips coated with a gelatin emulsion known as ‘film’. Today, you can purchase a ‘scope and camera rig for your backyard observatory that would be the envy of many a university, and discover comets before bedtime online.

Telescopes: large and small. Credit: Dave Dickinson

Why write one more ‘how to get started in astronomy’ guide? Hasn’t it all been done before? Well, our aim was not to write a textbook, but build something new, packed full of actionable information for backyard observers. If you’re a beginner, we’ll show you how to find your way around the sky, how to follow the planets and how things change overhead night to night, season to season and year to year. Even mid- to advanced observers may find out something new in the book, including, for example, how to hunt for and report a new comet discovery and tracking clandestine satellites.

The book is also chock of never before seen photos from dozens of astrophotographers from around the world. These cover the gamut of skill sets, from basic shots of the Moon and planets, to award-winning photos of eclipses and rocket launches. When it comes to astrophotography, our goal in the book was to take the beginner “over the hump” from doing basic star trail shots to deep sky astrophotography, a very steep learning curve to climb. Modern DSLRs, however, have made the entry into basic astrophotography easier than ever before.

lunar eclipse
The stages of a total lunar eclipse. Image credit and copyright: Zheng Zhi

What satellite is that? Want to build a planetary webcam? How about doing interferometry… from your backyard? Each chapter of the book is packed with projects galore. We’ve personally completed every project in the book over the years, (except for the Sun Funnel, which was done by Dr Pamela Gay), and we shared all of our experiences in the book.

Building the Very Small Optical Observatory (VSOO) out of a garden shed. Credit: Dave Dickinson

We also shared our own personal narrative throughout the book, a journey of several decades in amateur astronomy doing star parties, using telescopes, chasing eclipses and observing from around the world. The history of astronomy is a fascinating one, and the roles of professional and amateur astronomers blur, then merge as you travel back in time. We tell some of those fascinating tales in the book, from how we almost ended up with a planet named George, to whether or not Copernicus really saw Mercury, to why deep sky cataloger Charles Messier is buried in the same graveyard as rock star Jim Morrison. These fascinating asides give us insight in just how the largely untold story of the history amateur astronomy played out against the backdrop of human drama over the millennia.

Sun features
Features on the Sun. Image credit and copyright: Paul Stewart, labels by author.

One key challenge with writing a book is the long production trail of often a year or more. You want to write something that’s ageless, but we all want to stuff the very latest facts in discoveries in there, as well. We raced to add in the very latest space news (the passage of interstellar asteroid 1/I ‘Oumuamua through the inner solar system in late 2017 was a good example) all of which threatened to make the book obsolete before it ever hit the shelves. We grew up with seminal classics such as T.W. Webb’s Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes, Guy Ottewell’s annual Astronomical Calendar and Burnham’s 3 volume Celestial Handbook, all essential guides still sitting on our desktop that have stubbornly resisted digitization. We still marvel at these works and pick them up and peruse through them like old friends. It’s our fondest hope that our new book lights the same tiny spark of inspiration as those classics.

The book also contains some unique graphics, from the geometry of eclipses, to just how satellite orbits work and more. We worked hard to give the reader some unique perspectives with these graphics, something you won’t find anywhere else. We can also now say personally, as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, that doing a simple “wall of words” novel versus text and graphics now feels like only doing half a book!

Eclipse geometry
The geometry of eclipses. Credit: Dave Dickinson.

Hopefully, this book will ignite the spark to get you out and observe, not only on every clear night, but to simply see the wonder and weirdness that surrounds us, everyday. Amateur astronomy is now nearly as much an online pursuit as it is a backyard hobby, and we lead the reader to those essential websites to show you where we’re looking when a new comet is discovered or when the Sun erupts in activity.

What’s next? Well, one aspect we really wanted to do up right was a set of concise constellation charts, covering the entire sky. We had to settle for basic overview charts to familiarize the reader with the sky by seasons and the overall layout of the constellations—otherwise the book would’ve been twice as long (and took twice the time) to write. Our hopes are to create a compendium star atlas for the book… soon.

Be sure to check out the Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos – out October 23rd, now up for pre-order, for inspiration and an introduction to the fascinating world of amateur astronomy.

See The Finest Sights Before You Die With “Wonders of the Night Sky”

Credit: Bob King
Framed by stars reflected by water, a kayaker leans back to take in the grandeur of the night sky. The photo appears in my new book in the chapter titled “Stars on Water.” Credit: Bob King

After months parked in front of a computer, I’m thrilled to announce the publication of my new book. The full title is — get ready for this — Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die: The Guide to Extraordinary Curiosities of Our Universe. In a nutshell, it’s a bucket list of cosmic things I think everyone should see sometime in their life. 

I couldn’t live without the sky. The concerns of Earth absorb so much of our lives that the sky provides an essential relief valve. It’s a cosmos-sized wilderness that invites both deep exploration and reflection. Galileo would kill to come back for one more clear night if he could.

Cover of Wonders of the Night Sky. 57 different sights are featured.

To me, the stars are irresistible, but my sense is that many people don’t look up as much as they’d like. We forget. Get busy. Bad weather intervenes. So I thought hard about the essential “must-sees” for any watcher of the skies. Some are obvious, like a total solar eclipse or Saturn through a telescope, but others are just as interesting — if sometimes off the beaten path.

For instance, we always hear about asteroids in the news. What does a real one look like from your own backyard? I give directions and a map for seeing the brightest of them, Vesta. And if you’ve ever looked up at the Big Dipper and wondered how to find the rest of the Great Bear, I’ll get you there. I love red stars, so you’re going to find out where the reddest one resides and how to see it yourself. There’s also a lunar Top 10 for small telescope users and chapters on the awesome Cygnus Star Cloud and how to see a supernova.

You can see most of the sky wonders described in the book from the northern hemisphere, but I included several essential southern sights like the Southern Cross.

The 57 different sights are a mix of naked-eye objects plus ones you’ll need an ordinary pair of binoculars or small telescope to see. At the end of each chapter, I provide directions on how and when to find each wonder. Because we live in an online world with so many wonderful tools available for skywatchers, I make extensive use of mobile phone apps that allow anyone to stay in touch with nearly every aspect of the night sky.

For the things that need a telescope, the resources section has suggestions and websites where you can purchase a nice but inexpensive instrument. Of course, you may not want to buy a telescope. That’s OK. I’m certain you’ll still enjoy reading about each of these amazing sights to learn more about what’s been up there all your life.

Northern spectacles like the Perseus Double Cluster can’t be missed.

While most of the nighttime sights are visible from your home or a suitable dark sky site, you’ll have to travel to see others. Who doesn’t like to get out of the house once in a while? If you travel north or south, new places mean new stars and constellations. I included chapters on choice southern treats like Alpha Centauri, the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds, the closest and brightest galaxies to our own Milky Way.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the epilogue, where I share a lesson my dog taught me about the present moment and cosmic time. I like to joke that if nothing else, the ending’s worth the price of the book.

The author with his 10-inch Dobsonian reflector. Credit: Linda Hanson

The staff at Page Street Publishing did a wonderful job with the layout and design, so “Wonders” is beautiful to look at. Everyone who’s flipped through it likes the feel, and several people have even commented on how good it smells!  And for those who understandably complained that the typeface in my first book, Night Sky with the Naked Eye, made it difficult to read, I’ve got good news for you. The new book’s type is bigger and easy on the eyes.

“Wonders” is 224 pages long, printed in full color and the same size as my previous book. Unlike the few but longer chapters of the first book, the new one has many shorter chapters, and you can dip in anywhere. I think you’ll love it.

The publication date is April 24, but you can pre-order it right now at Amazon, BN and Indiebound. I want to thank Fraser Cain here at Universe Today for letting me tell you a little about my book, and I look forward to the opportunity to share my night-sky favorites with all of you.

What I Learned Writing ‘Night Sky with the Naked Eye’

Credit: Duluth News Tribune / King
The author enjoys a pretty display of the northern lights on October 23 under a starry sky. His new book, "Night Sky with the Naked Eye," explores all the amazing things you can see in the sky without special equipment including satellites, planets, meteor showers and of course, the aurora.
The author enjoys a pretty display of the northern lights on October 23, 2016 under a starry sky. His new book, “Night Sky with the Naked Eye,” explores all the amazing things you can see in the sky without special equipment including satellites, planets, meteor showers and of course, the aurora.

My book Night Sky with the Naked Eye publishes today. It would have never seen the light of day much less ever been conceived were it not for Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today, and Nancy Atkinson, an editor and writer for the same. Several years ago, Nancy invited me to write for UT. I hopped at the chance. Before her contact, I’d been writing a daily blog on astronomy called Astro Bob (and still do).

Fast forward to last summer when I got an email from Nancy saying Page Street Publishing had contacted her about writing a book about space missions. The publisher also wanted a book about night sky observing without fancy equipment for which she recommended me. Me? I felt like the luckiest guy on the planet!

Book writing proceeds in many stages. First, the table of contents had to be prepared and approved. Then followed a sample chapter. The publisher chose the one on artificial satellites, which I wrote in about a week. The tone was right, but he asked for changes in the organization, which I dutifully made. By November, a contract followed and the project was underway with a first draft due to my editor in about 10 weeks.

Cover of my book that publishes today. Credit: Bob King
Cover of my book that publishes today. Credit: Bob King

Writing is hard work. But it’s a special place all writers come back to again and again. We can’t help but keep trying to find just the right words to capture a concept or emotion. And when we do, a quiet pleasure flows down the spine like warmth creeping into cold fingers splayed in front of a fire. Not that these moments always come easily. Writer Colson Whitehead describes the experience of writing as “crawling through glass.” I would soon become well-acquainted with that feeling, too.

Nancy wrote her book Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos at nearly the same time. We were grateful for each other’s support, and it was a kick to follow her progress as well as bounce ideas around. With a tight deadline in front of me, I set to work immediately, taking more than two weeks of vacation from my regular job to make sure the draft was done on time. No way was I going to compromise an opportunity of a lifetime.

Maybe you’ve thought of writing a book, starting a blog or hope one day to write for Universe Today or another online astronomy site. There’s plenty of good advice for writers out there. I’ll share what worked for me.

#1: Put your butt in the chair and keep it in the chair. My wife reminded me of this often, adding that the book wasn’t going to write itself. Temptations are everywhere. Answering the phone, making another cup of tea, staring out the window and my favorite, shoveling the driveway. I had the cleanest driveway in the neighborhood. Even an inch of new snow was enough to grab the shovel and happily scrape down to the gravel. So yes, I did occasionally get out of the chair, but many times it did me good, freeing up the brain to see more clearly into a topic. Or dream up a fitting photo or illustration.

Creativity comes at odd little moments. It can flow while tapping away in front of a glowing screen or sneak into consciousness when you’re bending down to feed the dog. So a mix of activities seemed the best but with extra emphasis on staying put. I rarely hiked last winter and kept my walks in the neighborhood brief. Instead of observing at night, I wrote or gathered photos. By January, I joked to my friends that I’d voluntarily put myself under house arrest.

#2: Spill your guts, worry about the details later. It’s incredibly tempting when writing to continuously edit one’s work, going back over every sentence to make each “perfect”. This is a muse-killer. Though difficult to stick to, once you let your thoughts flow onto paper without worrying about spelling, clauses and the whole lot of burdensome rules, you’ll become a wild horse running free on the prairie. Let it out, let it out and worry about the commas later. I don’t play a musical instrument, but free-flow writing — just getting the ideas out — must feel something like riffing on a jazz melody.

#3: When stuck, move on to another topic, take a walk, listen to music. Struggling to describe an important concept or connecting your thoughts in a way that flows on the page can drive you nuts, even bring you to tears.  Sure, you can keep beating on the idea like a madman hammering on a bent nail, but why why torture yourself? A little distraction can be good. Move on to another part of the story or a different chapter or get up and take a short walk. Defocusing allows the ideas you’re having a tug-of-war with to come of their own accord.

To keep track of ideas, topics and the photos I'd need for the book, I kept a notebook. Credit: Bob King
To keep track of ideas, topics and the photos I’d need for the book, I kept a notebook filled to the gills with lists. Checkmarks indicate tasks accomplished. Credit: Bob King

As the February 1 deadline approached, time took on a physical dimension under the intense pressure to get everything done. I cut time into little blocks that when added up would get me to the finish line on the first draft. I made it just in time, shipped off my copy via e-mail, got in the car to go to work and turn up the music really LOUD. For a fews days I was on top of the world. Invincible.

My editor, Elizabeth, contacted me later with positive comments and then returned the manuscript with “developmental edits” or questions about descriptions and organization. We pitched the ever-refined draft back and forth over the next few months. Each time I read through the ten chapters and made both suggested changes and other refinements. I also added photos during this stage and worked via e-mail with the layout staff to place the best images and graphics at the best places in the text. I shot more images and requested photos from talented astrophotographers, prepared the acknowledgments and sought our recommendations from respected scientists and writers.

This diagram from the book uses the human face to illustrate how changing lighting angles causes the phases of the moon. Credit: Bob King
This diagram from the book uses the human face to illustrate how changing lighting angles causes the phases of the moon. Credit: Bob King

The editors at Page Street were quite generous with photo usage, a joy for me because that’s what I do for a living. I’ve been a photographer and photo editor at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. for many years. My favorite subjects are people, but I slip in an aurora or eclipse now and again. And that’s the irony. I never saw myself as a writer.

Like many, I started by keeping a journal of my observations through the telescope and reflections about the night sky. The Astro Bob blog took that a step further and writing for Universe Today and Sky & Telescope let me find my voice. So I maybe I have a voice, and I like to think I can be a helpful guide at your side, but writer? That still seems too lofty a term to describe what I do. But here we are.

After several edits including the final one, when I was sent a thick stack of low-res black and white pages of the book to mark up and return, I rested briefly before beginning the final phase: publicity. This is the weird part, where you tell everyone what a nice book you’ve written and how it would make a great Christmas gift for that budding astronomer in the family. When I held the first copy in my hands I couldn’t believe that all those hours of work at the computer became a physical object, a beautiful one even.

This map from the book shows Saturn's location around the time of opposition through 2021.
This map from the book shows Saturn’s location around the time of opposition through 2021. Credit: Bob King, Source: Stellarium

I’m biased of course, but I think both beginning and amateur astronomers will find the book useful. It includes lots of suggested activities – set off in separate boxes – to encourage you to get out under the stars. I make regular mention of the Web and phone apps as ways to become more familiar with the constellations, learn of newly-discovered bright comets and even find a dark sky.

Besides the easy naked eye topics like how to find the brightest constellations or see the best meteor showers of the year, the book offers visual challenges. Have you ever seen craters on the Moon without optical aid or the midnight glow of the gegenschein? You’ll find out how in my book. As a photographer, I’ve included tips on how to focus a digital camera and use it to photograph the aurora or a space station pass.

I’d be willing to bet that most books aren’t as complete as their authors would hope. I had to cut precious photos, graphics, 3 years of a sky calendar and other bits and pieces from mine. Ouch! To this day, I’m still thinking of ways to improve it with a fresh photo, new diagram or change of wording. Now it’s your turn to be the judge.

The zodiacal light punctuated by the planet Jupiter reflects off Lake Superior near Duluth, Minn. this morning (Nov. 8). The book describes nighttime lights such as the zodiacal, gegenschein, airglow and lunar halo and corona phenomena. Credit: Bob King
The zodiacal light punctuated by the planet Jupiter towers over northern Wisconsin along Lake Superior near Duluth, Minn. this morning (Nov. 8). The book describes nighttime lights such as the zodiacal, gegenschein, airglow in addition to lunar halo and corona phenomena. Credit: Bob King

Throughout, Nancy and I rooted for one another and shared our ups and downs. Incredible Stories was to publish within a week of Night Sky, but a type corruption error discovered in several chapters put the book on hold. Her new publication date is December 20, and I encourage you to pre-order a copy, so it arrives in time for Christmas. Order a copy of my book also, and I promise the two of us will keep you company on those long winter nights ahead.

Can I share one final tip? Once you’ve found your passion, say ‘yes’ to every opportunity that furthers it. You’ll be amazed at the places that one word will take you to.

***  To order a copy of Night Sky with the Naked Eye just click an icon to go to the site of your choice — Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Indiebound. It’s currently available at the first two outlets for a very nice discount. It should also be at your local B&N bookstore.  And don’t forget to vote today!


Book Review: Your Ticket to the Universe

Your Ticket to the Universe: A Guide to Exploring the Cosmos (Available April 2)
Your Ticket to the Universe is full of images and graphics of astronomical wonders.
Your Ticket to the Universe is full of images and graphics of astronomical wonders.

Every once in a while an astronomy book comes out that combines stunning high-definition images from the world’s most advanced telescopes, comprehensive descriptions of cosmic objects that are both approachable and easy to understand (but not overly simplistic) and a gorgeous layout that makes every page spread visually exciting and enjoyable.

This is one of those books.

Your Ticket to the Universe: A Guide to Exploring the Cosmos is a wonderful astronomy book by Kimberly K. Arcand and Megan Watzke, media coordinator and press officer for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, respectively. Published by Smithsonian Books, it features 240 pages of gorgeous glossy images from space exploration missions, from the “backyard” of our own Solar System to the more exotic environments found throughout the Galaxy… and even beyond to the very edges of the visible Universe itself.

Find out how you can win a copy of this book here!

As members of the Chandra team, headquartered at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Kim and Megan have long had firsthand experience with incredible astronomical images — they previously designed and coordinated the internationally-acclaimed From Earth to the Universe and From Earth to the Solar System photo installation projects, which helped set up presentations of space exploration images in public locations around the world.

Your Ticket to the Universe features images from some of the most recent missions - like MSL!
Your Ticket to the Universe even features images from some of the most recent missions – like MSL!

Your Ticket to the Universe takes such impressive images — from telescopes and observatories like Hubble, Spitzer, SDO, Chandra, Cassini, GOES, VLT, and many others, as well as from talented photographers on Earth and in orbit aboard the ISS — and puts them right into your hands, along with in-depth descriptions that are comprehensive yet accessible to even the most casual fans of space exploration.

This is my favorite kind of astronomy book. Although I look at images like the ones in Your Ticket to the Universe online every day, there’s something special about having them physically in front of you in print — and well-written text that can be understood by everyone is crucial, in my opinion, as it means a book may very well become an inspiration to a whole new generation of scientists and explorers.

“The sky belongs to everyone. That’s the premise of this guidebook to the Universe. You don’t need a medical degree to know when you’re sick or a doctorate in literature to appreciate a novel. In the same spirit, even those of us who don’t have advanced degrees in astronomy can gain access to all the wonder and experience that the Universe has to offer.”

Kim K. Arcand holds a copy of her book during a presentation at the Skyscrapers Astronomical Society of Rhode Island
Author Kimberly K. Arcand holds a copy of her book during a presentation at the Skyscrapers Astronomical Society of Rhode Island

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting co-author Kimberly Arcand on several occasions — I attended high school with her husband — and her knowledge about astronomy imaging as well as her ability to present it in an understandable way is truly impressive, to say the least. She’s quite an enthusiastic ambassador for space exploration, and Your Ticket to the Universe only serves to further demonstrate that.

I highly recommend it for anyone who finds our Universe fascinating.

Your Ticket to the Universe will be available online starting April 2 at Smithsonian Books, or you can pre-order a copy at Barnes & Noble or on Amazon.com. Don’t explore the cosmos without it!