Finding Your Way Around the Night Sky Back | Up | Next

One of the biggest problems that beginning astrophotographers have is simply finding their way around the night sky. It's easy to get frustrated if you want to photograph the spectacular Orion Nebula, but can't even find it.

You have to take some time to learn your way around the night sky. You could use a computerized Go To telescope to find things to photograph, but you might be a little embarrassed when you show someone the picture and they ask where it is in the sky, and all you can reply is "I don't know".

But it's not hard to get started. Learn how to read a star chart and learn the major constellations. Learn the big bright groups first, such as the Big Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia, Scorpius and Sagittarius. They are unmistakable, and they point the way to some of the finest deep-sky objects in the night sky.

Don't worry about learning all of them. There are some small obscure ones that are, quite honestly, not that interesting.

Almost all star charts are based on the constellations. There are two basic ways to use the constellations to find objects in the night sky - star hopping, and the geometrical method.

In the star hopping method, you start with a bright obvious star, and then hop along to fainter stars until you come to the object you are interested in.

In the geometrical method, you locate an object by finding two stars that form, say, a right triangle with it. Or you draw a straight line between two stars and extend the line to find an object of interest.

You can use the Big Dipper to easily find several interesting deep-sky objects. If you extend a line from Phecda through Dubhe the same distance between those two stars, you will find galaxies M81 and M82. Extend a line the other way and you will run into galaxy M106. If you go from Mizar to Alkaid and then make a left turn, you will find galaxy M51. Make a triangle with Mizar and Alkaid on the other side, and you will find galaxy M101.

Both methods work very well and once you learn them you will probably find your way around the sky with a combination of both.

Constellations and star charts come in two basic forms - printed star charts and computer planetarium programs. Computer planetarium programs are very neat because you can even put the sky in motion with them, and see how it moves through the night. You can zoom into to small objects, and you can print out detailed charts at different scales.

A section of the sky from Deep Map 600, a printed star chart, is seen here.

Printed charts can be very handy out under the night sky where you might not have a computer or a source to power it all night long at a remote observing location at a dark-sky site.

Learning how to use a good star atlas or planetarium program is an invaluable way to find your way around the night sky, and to find the treasures of deep-sky objects.

Good Star Charts

  • Deep Map 600 by Wil Tirion and Steve Gottlieb - Deep Map 600 is a large 33 x 21 inch poster sized map on waterproof, no-rip plastic that folds to 5 x 10.5 inches. Data for the best 600 objects visible from the northern hemisphere is on the back of the map. This one is excellent for travelling or the budget conscious.

  • Sky Atlas 2000 by Wil Tirion and Roger Sinnott - Sky Atlas 2000 is the best atlas of star charts on a constellation scale with 26 charts and 81,312 stars down to magnitude 8.5 and 2,700 deep sky objects. It comes in different versions, such as an unbound field edition with white stars on a black background, and a full-color desktop edition.

  • Sky and Telescopes Pocket Sky Atlas - The Pocket Sky Atlas is a small spiral-bound book with 80 charts that contain more than 30,000 stars to magnitude 7.6 and 1,500 deep-sky objects.

A chart from the planetarium program Sky Map Pro shows the constellations of Gemini, Monoceros, Orion and Taurus.

Good Planetarium Programs for PCs

Good Planetarium Programs for MACs

Computerized Go To Telescopes

Another way to find objects in the night sky is to use a computerized Go To telescope mount. If you start out with this method, you won't really learn your way around the night sky, you'll be dependent on the computer. If you set the mount up and correctly initialize and synchronize it, it will find objects just by punching their catalog number into the hand controller. But you really have to know the sky first to synchronize it. A Go To mount can save a lot of time if you want to photograph something that is too faint to be seen visually in your scope, if it is set up correctly and if you learn how to use it.

Most of the planetarium programs will also control many computerized Go To telescopes, but you will need a computer and a way to power it. If you are observing from your back yard or driveway, this is not a problem. If you are observing from a remote dark-sky location, you will need something like a powerful deep-cycle battery to power the scope and computer.

Finding Your Way Around the Night Sky - The Bottom Line

Star charts and sky maps, both in traditional printed form and in computerized versions, can be very helpful in locating objects in the night sky for observing and photographing them.

Computerized Go To telescopes can automatically locate objects of interest and point the telescope at them.

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