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Want to become a better amateur astronomer? Learn your way around the constellations. They're the key to locating everything fainter and deeper to hunt with binoculars or a telescope.
For an easy-to-use constellation guide covering the whole evening sky, use the big monthly map in the center of each issue of Sky & Telescope, the essential magazine of astronomy. Or download our free Getting Started in Astronomy booklet (which only has bimonthly maps).
Once you get a telescope, to put it to good use you must have a detailed, large-scale sky atlas (set of charts). The standards are the Pocket Sky Atlas, which shows stars to magnitude 7.6; the larger Sky Atlas 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 8.5); and the even larger and deeper Uranometria 2000.0 (stars to magnitude 9.75). And read how to use your charts effectively.
You'll also want a good deep-sky guidebook, such as Sky Atlas 2000.0 Companion by Strong and Sinnott, or the more detailed and descriptive Night Sky Observer's Guide by Kepple and Sanner, or the classic if dated Burnham's Celestial Handbook.
Can a computerized telescope take their place? I don't think so — not for beginners, anyway, and especially not on mounts that are less than top-quality mechanically. As Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer say in their Backyard Astronomer's Guide, "A full appreciation of the universe cannot come without developing the skills to find things in the sky and understanding how the sky works. This knowledge comes only by spending time under the stars with star maps in hand."
This Week's Planet Roundup
Mercury is hidden in the glare of the Sun.
Venus, magnitude –4.5, is rapidly emerging into view in the eastern dawn. Look for it low in the east-southeast as dawn begins to brighten. Above Venus are much fainter Spica and, higher up, Saturn.
Mars, magnitude +1.4, is disappearing deep in the sunset.
Jupiter (magnitude –2.7, at the Pisces-Aquarius border) shines high in the southeast to south during evening. It's by far the brightest starlike point in the sky. In a telescope it's still a big 46 arcseconds wide.
Jupiter's Great Red Spot is near System II longitude 157°. Assuming it stays there, here's a list to print out of all the Great Red Spot's predicted transit times for the rest of this observing season.
Saturn (magnitude +0.9, in Virgo) glows in the east-southeast in early dawn, above bright Venus and dim Spica. The best time to try observing Saturn with a telescope is in morning twilight, perhaps an hour before your local sunrise time, when the planet will be less blurred by the low-altitude atmospheric mess. Saturn's rings have widened to 8° from edge-on.
Uranus (magnitude 5.8) is 3° east of Jupiter.
Neptune (magnitude 7.9, in Capricornus) is highest in the south after dusk. See our finder charts for Uranus and Neptune online or, with article, in the September Sky & Telescope, page 56. Can you see any color in Uranus and/or Neptune?
Pluto (magnitude 14.0, in Sagittarius) is disappearing in the southwest after dark.
All descriptions that relate to your horizon — including the words up, down, right, and left — are written for the world's mid-northern latitudes. Descriptions that also depend on longitude (mainly Moon positions) are for North America. Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) equals Universal Time (also known as UT, UTC, or GMT) minus 4 hours.
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