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Books for Astronomy: For use by novice and avid intermediate astronomy enthusiasts

I don’t remember the name of the first constellation guidebook I owned when I was a kid. What I do remember is the style of book was one that listed a chart of a constellation on every page with a bit of data beneath it, some of the star names and a few other bits. I used it until the pages fell apart and I still used it after that. I learned most of the constellations by that book and using that book I once plotted the 50 brightest stars in the sky as a science project. I still have an old version of the Golden Skyguide, very similar to my first book.

My first serious star book was a 1983 version of The Peterson Field Guide Series, “A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets” by Donald H. Menzel and Jay M. Pasachoff. An excellent book with much detail, numerous extended tables of data and Wil Tirion mag 7 white stars on black charts with a scale about 30mm per 10 degrees, Each 4” x 5” chart, covering about 2 hr 15min RA by 35° Dec., is crammed full of so many stars and deep sky objects that you need a magnifying glass to read it all.

In general, constellation guidebooks are used more by beginner novice sky-gazers. They need a good guidebook to learn their way around the figures of the sky. And they need to learn some objects that might be hidden amongst the stars within the figures. The avid novice and the intermediate amateur astronomer might use constellation guidebooks as a quick reference or as a backpack reference. Usually they already know the constellations, having referenced their detailed star charts on so many nights at the scope. Still, for the seasoned practitioner, a constellation guidebook can be a useful reference and a good one is probably kept around the house, even though most information might be looked up from a detailed mag 8.5 or mag 9 star chart.

Not all of the books listed here are for beginners. In fact, many are not. I took this list and culled out the more advanced books leaving a nice suggested reading list for the novice. I posted that as a separate article, Beginner’s Astronomy Books.

The intermediate amateur not only uses a good set of star charts but also might own a deep sky object reference book. The charts are the road maps to the sky but the object references are the library in which we discover the meanings of the objects we view. No one reference seems to have it all. Where one reference book is found, usually another is not far away.

Likes and dislikes in books are naturally very personally influenced. These are my impressions of books I own and use. There are very many other excellent references, atlases and guidebooks available. I have often read articles by others that include remarks based on info from some books I do not own. I hope someday to enjoy the opportunity to use as many of those as possible. However, for now, I will use and enjoy what I have. Many of these books can be found for far less than list price by going to Amazon.com and clicking on the “available used” icon. I have bought numerous books that way for half price or even as much as 75% off and every one has been in new excellent condition.

My favorites from those listed below are:

Type Book
Constellation Guidebook- for star charts Cambridge Guide to Stars and Planets.
Constellation Guidebook - for Solar System DK Stars and Planets
Star Atlas Sky Atlas 2000.0 2nd edition Deluxe black stars on white
Deep Sky Catalogue – for data Sky Catalogue 2000.0
Deep Sky catalogue – for descriptions Burnham’s Celestial Handbooks
Visual Impact science The Reader’s Digest Children’s Atlas of the Universe
Beginners The Monthly Sky Guide
Phillip's Planisphere

Constellation Guidebooks

Skywatching, David Levy, $13.56, used/new $6.13 Amazon, 6.5x11 soft. Primarily a constellation guidebook. Charts by Wil Tirion. Charts are mag 6, scale is 27mm per 10 degrees and each chart covers an area 4 hr RA by 45° Dec. A fair amount of sky surrounding each constellation chart helps with orientation. Has 100 pages of science, how to, equipment and data tables including nearest stars and brightest stars. Lots of good science with excellent visuals. All sky maps for every month. Several notable objects described in each constellation provide a wide variety, however many would not be found with a moderate telescope. Good charts, but could label more stars and plot more objects. Moon maps and a limited section on the planets. Excellent bibliography and list of resources. Overall a good choice as a constellation guidebook and astro science book.

Cambridge Guide to The Stars And Planets, Patrick Moore / Wil Tirion, $11.96, used/new $1.99 Amazon, 256 pgs. 5x7.75” soft. Primarily a constellation guidebook. Charts are mag 6 + with scale of 25mm per 10 degrees and cover an area 4hrs RA by 40° Dec. All sky charts. Yellow stars on blue with standard deep sky chart symbols on every page. Most constellations include a short tabular list of objects found within. Lots of stars and objects labeled on charts provides for further research. Numerous large very detailed moon charts. Very detailed planetary data including fairly complete lists of moons. Best guidebook planet data! Best Moon charts! Best constellation charts!

The Cambridge Guide to the Constellations, Michael E. Bakick, $19.60, used/new $7.20 Amazon, 320 pgs. 7.5x9.5 soft. A poor reference as star charts or constellation guidebook. Poorly depicted charts. Includes some unusual data not found elsewhere, pronunciations, area of constellations, east/west coordinate limits. Has a long list of named stars. Various lists, but a great deal of useless information. Looking for constellations? Leave this one on the shelf.

The Monthly Sky Guide, Ian Ridpath & Wil Tirion, $13.95, $5.95 used/new Amazon, 64 pgs. 8.5x11 soft. Organized in a monthly layout, this book lists for each month of the year info on planets and meteor showers and one or two prominent constellations. A chart of the chosen constellation is surrounded by a good amount of sky for finding orientation. Each month has an all sky chart for orientation. 20 charts are mag 6, scale varies but the smallest is about 30mm per 10 degrees and is still easily usable, covering 4 hr RA by 75° Dec. Several charts have a larger scale, up to 60mm per 10 degrees and cover an area 3 hr RA by 30° Dec. Also, 6 detail charts have even larger scale and are plotted to mag 9. Charts do not cover the entire sky, but collectively the all sky charts for each month would cover it. This is a great way for a beginner to learn their way around. Offers lots of information, but quite a bit of reading to pull it out. This is one of the books I give to the older kids in the classes I teach astronomy. Excellent charts. Highly recommended!

Constellation Guidebook, Anton Rukl, $11.96, $8.95 used/new Amazon, 224pgs, 6x8.25” soft. This is a pretty good guidebook, printed on nice paper stock. It uses non-standard symbols for the constellation charts, but at least shows the legend on every page. Chart are mag 5, scale is 23mm per 10 degrees, most only covering an area 3hr RA by 30° Dec. However, it has a very useful section of charts for orienting, seasonal charts covering 6hr RA from 60°N to 60°S and polar all sky charts resulting in a full sky map. The constellations are listed in alphabetical order with a few objects detailed for each constellation providing a good variety. Includes many very nice deep sky photos, many which represent what might be seen in a moderately sized scope. A complete set of the constellations and a complete map of the sky. A Very Good choice!

DK Stars and Planets, Ian Ridpath, $15.16, $9.95 used/new Amazon, 224pgs, 5.75x8.5 soft. Primarily a constellation guidebook. Excellent science, highly visual presentation. Charts are mag 5, scale only 17mm per 10 degrees. Most show 3 ½ hrs RA by 45° although some are much smaller. White stars on light blue make charts difficult to see. This book has monthly all sky charts and a section with a good collection of objects presented monthly. Complete data on all the planets. Overall, a good choice, more so for the Astro science!

Find the Constellations, by H.A. Rey $9.95, used/new $6.95, 72pgs. 9x10.75” soft.
No deep sky, just the basics. This book is sketches and drawings explaining the shapes of the constellations, presented for the age group 9-12. Personally, I think this book is excellent but is better suited for an age group maybe 7-9. My son is 12. He has read the 1000+ pages of the four Harry Potter books. This book looks childish to him. It does a good job of showing how to identify where to look for constellations by showing pointers and diagrams. It has a tremendous wealth of information that can be learned by any novice. It’s just presented in such a way that the very young reader can understand it. Good choice for younger readers, but if your child has it, I would encourage you to pick it up and read it.

Star Atlases

The Cambridge Star Atlas, by Wil Tirion, $19.95, used/new $14.50, 90 pgs. 9.25x12.25 hard. Star Atlas plotted to magnitude 6.5 with 900 DSO’s. Charts are 33mm per 10 degrees. Scale puts more on a page at one time than Sky Atlas 2000.0. Each chart covers 5 hours Right Ascension by 50° declination. You may want to carefully connect the dots to draw in the constellations. Includes a moon map. Has an all sky index to quick find which chart to use. The benefit of this atlas is the page of data opposite each chart that lists a good selection of objects from that chart with data on size, magnitude and coordinates. A good first Atlas.

Sky Atlas 2000.0 2nd Edition Deluxe, by Wil Tirion & Roger Sinnott, $49.95, used/new $35.00 Amazon, 12” x 16” soft, 26 foldout charts, charts are 21x16” each. Star Atlas is black stars on white background plotted to magnitude 8.5 stars. Star Charts nicely done in color including varying shades of blue to designate the density of the Milky Way. Pretty comprehensive down to mag 8.5 stars. 81,000 stars, 2,700 DSO’s. Acetate overlay grid sheet for determining precise coordinates is very useful. Deep sky objects are plotted to scale, for example, open cluster are shown to size. Scale size of 82mm per 10 degrees makes Orion or Leo fill an 8 ½ x 11 photocopy. You must have a good reference book to use these charts effectively. The charts show you where things are. The references, like Sky Catalogue 2000.0 (recommended) or Observing Handbook and Catalogue of Deep-Sky Objects, give you data about what the object looks like and whether or not you will be able to see it with the scope you are using. There are other charts available with larger scale and more objects plotted. Still I like these charts the best.

The Great Atlas of The Stars, Serge Brunier / Akira Fujii, $34.97, used/new $29.95 Amazon, 112 pgs. 10.75x14.25” soft spiral bound. This is not a star atlas. It is a collection of Sky Photos of constellations with acetate overlays of constellation outlines. A fantastic way to see the sky and learn the shapes for anyone, young and old. Limited deep sky object info is easily excused. 30 exceptional constellation photos. Outstanding coffee-table book! An adult’s book that children will love to look at! I wouldn’t take this outdoors.

Deep Sky Object Catalogues

Observing Handbook and Catalogue of Deep-Sky Objects, by Skiff and Luginbuhl, $28.00, $24.00 used/new, 352 pgs. 8.5x11.5 soft. Book is organized alphabetically. Has Deep Sky Objects only, listed by NGC# within constellation. Has a good selection of objects but many more are not listed. Has 10 greatly detailed sky photos of clusters with star magnitudes listed to use for determining limits of scopes. 2050 objects listed for 68 constellations north of –50°. Includes numerous detailed eyepiece sketches. Provides descriptions of what an object will look like in various size scopes. Must refer to the cross-reference list to get coordinates. Cross-reference is listed in NGC order (RA order) first then other objects in alpha order (not always RA order). Reference includes 1950 and year 2000 coordinates. A brief list of doubles is included in the back of the book. I find many of the descriptions don’t match what I see in my 4”, 5” and 6” scopes. At least you can sit down with this book and read about the DSO’s in a given constellation. Pretty Good reference.

Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion, by Strong and Sinnott, $21.00, $23.92 used/new Amazon, 304 pgs. 8.5x11 soft. Lists every DSO found in Sky Atlas 2000.0 charts. Has DSO’s only. A very disoriented organization for listing objects, sorted alphabetically, i.e.; B objects, Be objects, Ced objects, M objects, NGC objects, Tr objects. Some objects are not found in any alphanumeric group because they are listed by their proper name. Objects are not grouped by constellation, although generally most are listed by NGC, so groups are fairly close. It does have a separate cross reference listing showing all the objects listed for a specific Sky Atlas Chart, with coordinates. I find the back and forth a real pain to use, but it provides some info that Skiff and Luginbuhl doesn’t. Still, there are better choices.

Sky Catalogue 2000.0, by Alan Hirshfield & Roger Sinnott, $42.95, used/new $38.71 Amazon, 512 pgs. 9x11.5 soft. This is a real yellow pages to the galaxy. Lists data for all types of objects, including detailed sections on double stars and visual binaries. If a “double” has several fainter components, they will all be listed here. Not a text description type book, just reams of data. All data is listed by RA within object type group, i.e. all doubles, all open clusters, all globular clusters, etc. You can find anything in this book. Use the acetate supplied with Sky Atlas 2000.0 to determine coordinates and you can go to this reference to find DSO’s or doubles with ease. There are far more DSO’s in this reference than there are shown on Sky Atlas 2000.0 charts. Approximately 10,000 double / multiple stars listed, over 500 visual binaries, 500 spectroscopic binaries, and another 10,000 deep sky objects. Indispensable!

Burnham’s Celestial Handbook Volumes 1,2,3, Burnham, 3 volumes for $37.48, total 2,138 pages, 6 x 9 soft. Must get all three volumes, in order by constellation. Has everything, listed by RA within each constellation, many pages of text explanations, b&w photos and detail charts on a multitude of the most interesting objects. The level of detail presented to accompany the many large-scale finder charts is astounding. The text descriptions for many of the better-known deep sky objects or doubles can be several pages long. More than you ever thought you wanted to know about the Universe. Presented in a clear and understandable way, this book explains the science behind every type of deep sky object. If you want a better understanding of the science on the universe, get these books. Coordinates are outdated, but information is invaluable. A must have set!

Deep Sky Companions, O’Meara/Levy, $34.95, 308 pages, 7.25x10 hard.
The Messier objects only, but great detail about each one, including incredibly detailed sketches at the eyepiece for each object. This book provides about two pages of detail on each Messier object. No all sky charts, so you already need to know your way around. Great reference on the Messier Objects.

Night Sky Observer's Guide – haven’t seen this one. Have attempted to find this by Amazon’s used listings and none have turned up available. Tried to order from Sky and Telescope 2002 catalogue, order got rejected. I’ll keep trying.

Turn Left At Orion, by Guy Consolmagno & Dan Davis, $17.50, 224 pgs. 8x11 hard.
Lists 100 interesting objects in seasonal groups. This is not a deep sky object catalogue, but an introduction to observing some of the sights that can be found by the avid novice. The descriptive detail of what you are looking at, for each of the objects listed, is explained well with some easily understood large-scale finder diagrams and eyepiece sketches. The seasonal guidepost sky maps are lacking and some of the detailed finder diagrams I think will leave the novice hopelessly lost. Includes 5 nice phase photos of the moon with some features identified on the photos. Also includes several pages on each of the naked eye planets, including where to find them thru year 2011. A real shortcoming of this book; it has no charts or all sky maps. Great list of objects for beginners, but you will still need a guidebook to learn the constellations and find your way around!

Binocular Astronomy, by Crossen and Tirion, $24.95, $30 to $60 used, 182 pgs. 8.5x11 hard. Organized by season. Lists about 250 objects visible in binoculars. Has a ten-page set of mag 6.5 star charts, The Bright Star Atlas, in the back of the book, nice for the binocular enthusiast who might not have a separate atlas. Chart scale is 29mm per 10 degrees. This book includes a data table to chart reference for every item identified in the text of the book. Larger size detail charts are included in each seasonal section. A great strength of the book is the outstanding sky photos with deep sky objects identified, making this a great choice for the beginner or avid novice. Some of these sky photos look exactly like the views thru my 10x50s and 15x70s. This can definitely be usable as more than a binocular guidebook and could easily be recommended for the avid novice telescope user. A great reference. Highly Recommended!

Other Astronomy References

The Planet Observer’s Handbook, by Fred Price, $29,95, 516pgs, 6.25x9.25 hard. Includes a great deal of information about each one of the planets. Includes many eyepiece sketches. Data and orbits of the moons. Rotational data for the planet disk. Ring divisions. Far more comprehensive planetary data than any found in the constellation guidebooks. An excellent planetary observer’s reference.

The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, Terrence Dickinson & Alan Dyer, $39.95, used/new $27.97 Amazon, 295 pgs. 9.75x11.5 hard. This is not a constellation guidebook. It is a guidebook to all the things you could learn about astronomy that will make your experience a little easier and a little better. In addition to the many details covered and the multitude of good advice, some excellent detail charts and fascinating photos make this book great cloudy weather reading. It covers everything from choosing telescopes or binoculars to maintaining and accessorizing. Observing advice given in this book should be considered necessary reading. Several detail charts in the back of the book show how to find some of the best objects in some of the more outstanding regions of the sky. This is one of those books that offer advice, tips and instruction for everyone, beginner, intermediate and advanced. Grow with it. Definitely a plus!

The Reader’s Digest Children’s Atlas of The Universe, Robert Burnham, $24.99, $17.49 used/new Amazon, 128 pgs. 10.75x13.5” hard. This is not a star atlas. It is an absolutely stunning presentation of the science of the Universe, Solar System, deep space, stargazing, constellations, planets and a multitude of other astronomical subjects. Open this book to any two page layout and get immersed in the facts, details, how to, people, photos, diagrams, projects, visuals, and data of so many different aspects of Astronomical Science for every age, you will not want to put it down. Not necessary or intended to be read front to back, but opened to a page, as we all do anyway, and it draws you in. Outstanding Presentation! Should be in every elementary school library. Should be used by anyone trying to show astronomy to children. Buy one for your local school today. A children’s book that adults will love to look at. If you get no other book listed here for children, you should get this one!!

Observing Variable Stars, David Levy, $18.95, 198 pgs. 7 x 10.75 soft. Although this is a guide for the beginner, it seems more like a fairly comprehensive discussion and guide to all aspects of variable star astronomy. I confess I do not yet know my way around this book. I have only just delved into bits and pieces. No matter how long we practice this science, there is always something new to learn. Includes many very detailed finder charts. A good guide to variable observing.

Astrophotography for the Amateur, 2nd edition, Michael Covington, $34.95, 331 pgs. 7.5 x 9.75” soft. A complete guide to taking pictures of the heavens. This includes digital and CCD imaging, although I don’t know enough about either of those subjects to comment. I have used it as a guide to take some successful dark sky photos. A tremendous amount of information for the photo enthusiast. Quite detailed, an advanced book.


Phillips’s Planisphere, $9.95, 10”, 4.5” x 5.5” window. This is a high quality fully plastic planisphere with white stars on black background. The plastic will insure longevity and no water or dew damage. Easily visible star and constellation names. Includes star chart Right Ascension hour reference on outer wheel. Back has data on planet locations thru 2009. Comes in plastic sleeve. Just bought myself a new one. Bought the last one in 1981. The Best.

The Night Sky Planisphere, David Chandler, $9.95, 8.5”, front window 5” x 7”, back window 2” x 6”. This is a unique planisphere; the only one I’ve seen where the back shows a window for looking towards the southern horizon. The front has some of the names printed face up and others face down. This is a thick paper star wheel sandwiched between a plastic front and plastic back. Blue stars on a white background. Nice unique feature, but should be all plastic.

The Miller Planisphere, $5.25, 5.5” 2.75” x 3.25” window. All plastic. White stars on a blue background. Too small for regular use, get the 8” or 10”. Good for backpacking.

Edmund Scientific Star and Planet Locator, $2.50 ea. 25 for $35.95, 8.5” front window 4.5” x 5.5”. The back has planet locations thru 2006 and the dates of meteor showers. This is a thin paper planisphere that will get easily ripped, but is nice to buy a bunch to give away to kids. Comes with a little instruction book. It works!

Cambridge Starfinder Pack, $19.95, $17.46 Amazon, Includes the Phillip’s Planisphere from above and also a large format wall all-sky star chart and a Moon map. Pretty good deal to get these two maps for only $7.50 more.


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