Hawaiian night sky
The night sky above Mauna Kea observatories.
Sean Goebel

I have a confession to make: some professional astronomers (especially the high-energy kind) understand the night sky less than you do. As a professional astronomer, I took the opportunity to visit Mauna Kea during a conference in Hawaii, and I gazed up at stars that looked so close I could touch them. Next to me at the visitor information station, the tour bus’s driver asked me, “So, what constellations are we looking at here?” And I had no idea.

Part of it was that I’d never been under a sky so dark and so full of stars. I’d only glimpsed the Milky Way a few times before, and nothing had prepared me for the ridiculously clear skies atop the Big Island.

Sky & Telescope's planisphere
The 40°N sky chart

But the larger part of it is that as a professional astronomer, I rarely had cause to study the naked-eye sky. I was too busy analyzing X-rays collected by the space telescopes Chandra and XMM-Newton, pondering the accretion disks feeding supermassive black holes in very faraway quasars.

Those Hawaiian skies convinced me otherwise. It’s one thing to feel awed by the vastness of our cosmos (and studying gobbling supermassive black holes tends to bring that on too), but once I felt that awe in person, I started wanting to understand it, too, to feel a part of it. What that translates to is wanting to learn the names and patterns of the stars, the signposts and waymarks of the night sky.

And Sky & Telescope’s planisphere is the way to do that. The star wheel is simple to use yet eternally useful. Senior Editor Alan MacRobert explains our planisphere in this video (start at 3:00 for the planisphere walk-through), but really, as soon as the planisphere is in your hand, you’ll be enjoying a newfound mastery of the night sky.

If you’ve been hankering for this or any other get-started guide to astronomy, this is the weekend to buy: we’ve got a Friends & Family sale going on in our online store that’s put everything in our store at 40% off, now through Sunday!

Happy stargazing!


Image of Bob-dBouncier


June 9, 2015 at 7:03 am

I'd also recommend "The Stars: A New Way To See Them" by Hans Rey. It was a great help in learning the night sky as a fledgling Boy Scout in the 60s. I got a newer copy for my own children when we were in Tucson (and successfully got them hooked 😉 ). The grandkids will get their copies soon...

You must be logged in to post a comment.

You must be logged in to post a comment.