The Backyard Astronomer's Guide

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The modern classic, completely updated.

The newest edition of The Backyard Astronomer's Guide includes the latest data and answers the questions most often asked by home astronomers, from beginners to experienced stargazers. Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer provide expert guidance on the right types of telescopes and other equipment; photographing the stars through a telescope; and star charts, software and other references. They cover daytime ...

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The modern classic, completely updated.

The newest edition of The Backyard Astronomer's Guide includes the latest data and answers the questions most often asked by home astronomers, from beginners to experienced stargazers. Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer provide expert guidance on the right types of telescopes and other equipment; photographing the stars through a telescope; and star charts, software and other references. They cover daytime and twilight observing, planetary and deep-sky observing, and much more.

With over 500 color photographs and illustrations, The Backyard Astronomer's Guide is one of the most valuable, beautiful and user-friendly astronomy books ever produced.

New and updated for this edition:

  • A 20-page full-color Atlas of the Milky Way provides location and context for hundreds of celestial objects mentioned throughout the book.
  • A chapter on Astrophotography with Digital Cameras specifies what equipment works best and how to use it to collect a color gallery of celestial portraits.
  • Telescopes for Recreational Astronomy features assessments of a wide range of new telescopes, from models for beginners to those for veteran astronomy enthusiasts, with special emphasis on computerized telescopes and how they work.
  • Accessory Catalog spotlights the best of the accessories and flags the frivolous and irrelevant.
  • Three practical appendices: Polar Aligning Your Telescope; Optics Cleaning and Collimation; Testing Your Telescope Optics.

Any serious home astronomer must have this superb guide as an ongoing reference.

An essential reference tool for both beginning and veteran sky observers. Drawing on decades of stargazing experience, the authors suggest what equipment to buy and what to avoid, describe observing techniques, and explain how to hunt down the most interesting celestial objects. Each chapter is illustrated with the latest, breathtaking astrophotography.

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Editorial Reviews

Lunar and Planetary Information Bulletin
With over 500 color photographs and illustrations, this book is a valuable, beautiful and user-friendly astronomy reference.
American Reference Book Annual - Denise A. Garofalo
A magnificently illustrated and superb guide to astronomy is contained in the newest edition of The Backyard Astronomer's Guide.... Overall, this title is a beautiful and informative resource for the amateur astronomer, both the beginner and the experienced.
Sky and Telescope - Sean Walker
I fondly remember haunting my favorite bookstore as a college student in the early 1990s, ogling the big, full-color astronomy texts, when I happened upon The Backyard Astronomer's Guide. It wasn't as flashy as the other books, but I was quickly taken by its practical information, covering all the subjects I was interested in as a fledgling amateur. Now in its third edition, Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer have completely rewritten large sections to keep in lockstep with the evolving trends. Like an old friend who has grown wiser over time, this compendium has become better with age. It's good-looking too--though chock-full of useful information, none of the full-color layouts appear cramped or confused. Immediately from the first chapter the authors' fluid writing style draws you in, casually introducing you to the pursuit of the night sky. As in previous editions, the flow comfortably builds with each page, easing you into progressively challenging subjects without missing a step.
The text builds though each successive chapter, describing today's plethora of binoculars, telescopes, mounts, eyepieces, and other accessories. We then move on to delve deeply into everything of interest in the sky, from the planets to deep-sky objects. The detailed yet accessible explanation of celestial mechanics should be required reading for everyone. The third part introduces digital astrophotography. Yes, digital--it starts out by stating that film is dead. This new section covers everything you need to get started taking pictures, including some useful parts of Adobe Photoshop. The Backyard Astronomer's Guide closes with a set of beautifully rendered charts of the Milky Way by Glenn LeDrew. Opposing pages display a color version and a labeled, black-on-white version plotted to magnitude 9. Dickinson and Dyer have brought their excellent guide further into the 21st century. I can't recommend it highly enough. - Glenn Perrett
Dickinson and Dyer provide considerable information that amateur astronomers will appreciate... Complementing the informative text are hundreds of colour photographs and illustrations as well as a 20-page, full-colour atlas of the Milky Way that includes 10 charts. This revised and expanded third edition will be of interest to serious amateur astronomers.
Shelf Life
The Backyard Astronomer's Guide continues to impress, offering a little something for everyone. If you have never seen this book before, now is the time to add it to your collection. It is one book you will never tire of opening, always finding something of interest in the world of astronomy.
[Review of earlier edition:] More than any other guide to backyard observing, this excellent book focuses on equipment.
American Reference Books Annual, Volume 35 - Mark Wilson
[Review of earlier edition:] Lively, accessible style; is comprehensive; and is lavishly illustrated with hundreds of photographs, diagrams, and charts... highly recommended for any library.
Science News
[Review of earlier edition:] This all-encompassing reference provides practical advice.
Monday Magazine - Russ Francis
[Review of earlier edition:] If an amateur astronomer could afford one book, this would be the one to get ... one of the most attractive practical astronomy works ever produced.
E-Streams, Vol. 6, No. 4 - Ursula Ellis
[Review of earlier edition:] Excellent introductory text ... completely revised... it is lushly illustrated in color throughout.
American Scientist
[Review of earlier edition:] Few books capture the spirit of the hobby so well -- the pleasures and the pitfalls of the equipment you might need, and the simple joy of watching the universe go by.
Choice - A.R. Upgren
[Review of earlier edition:] Recommended for all libraries and for experienced or inexperienced amateur astronomers.
Sky and Telescope - David Aguilar
[Review of earlier edition:] Big colorful user-friendly book ... I recommend this book for anyone who is contemplating buying a telescope, has one but does not quite know how to use it, or wants to learn more about accessories and fun activities to supplement his or her stargazing. If you teach observational astronomy, run a public observatory, or conduct community stargazing classes, put this magazine down and order it right now ... This book is your passport to the stars.
Canadian Camera - Pierre R. Gauthier
[Review of earlier edition:] This book is an indispensable tool for any serious naturalist who wants to understand and experience the full expanse of the world and universe around us.
Astronomy - Craig Tupper
[Review of earlier edition:] Crammed with practical information that should help you become a better observer, and have fun doing it.
Halifax Chronicle-Herald - John McPhee
[Review of earlier edition:] Besides its practical benefits, this book is a real treat for the eyes. It's loaded with colorful photographs, graphics and information boxes.
Science Books and Films - John O. Christensen
[Review of earlier edition:] I highly recommend this volume for most amateur astronomers and all libraries. I wish I had read it before I purchased my first telescope.
[Review of earlier edition:] More than any other guide to backyard observing, this excellent book focuses on equipment.
Library Journal
Despite the book's title, there is very little about astronomy here, i.e., lists of constellations, star charts, night sky maps, or details about planets, stars, and galaxies. However, there is a wealth of information about the equipment used in astronomy, including prices, consumer-type information, advice on when to use and when not to use binoculars, telescopes, cameras, film, lenses, filters, and other items for the amateur astronomer. Four chapters, though, concern the observation of the solar system and deep space objects. There are also several chapters discussing the photographing of all types of astronomical phenomena. Though cost may deter small-to-medium-sized libraries, there is much information here for the experienced amateur, and some useful information for the beginner as well. Illustrations and index not seen.-- Robert Ellis Potter, Dunedin P.L., Fla.
Lunar an Lunar and Planetary Information Bulletin
With over 500 color photographs and illustrations, this book is a valuable, beautiful and user-friendly astronomy reference.
Anchorage Daily News - Tracey Pitch
One of the best books to guide amateurs.
A comprehensive guide for the amateur astronomer on buying and using equipment, including telescopes, mounts, eyepieces, and accessories. If you're bewildered by the choice of astronomy equipment out there, this book will help immensely.
Chronicle-Journal (Thunder Bay) - Linda Turk
Here's the ultimate resource for anyone who's thought of following up on an interest in astronomy.... A valuable addition to the amateur astronomer's bookshelf, "The Backyard Astronomer's Guide" brings distant object to our everyday lives.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781554073443
  • Publisher: Firefly Books, Limited
  • Publication date: 9/12/2008
  • Edition description: Revised and expanded
  • Edition number: 3
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 166,439
  • Product dimensions: 8.90 (w) x 11.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Terence Dickinson is the author of Night Watch and 13 other astronomy books, among them The Universe and Beyond, Summer Stargazing and Exploring the Night Sky. He is also editor of SkyNews.

Alan Dyer is program producer at the Calgary Science Centre Planetarium and a contributing editor to Sky and Telescope magazine. An authority on commercial telescopes, his reviews of astronomical equipment appear regularly in major astronomy magazines.

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Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION A New Stargazer's Guidebook

There is something deeply compelling about the night sky. Those fragile, flickering points of light in the blackness beckon to the inquisitive mind. So it was in antiquity, and so it remains today. But only in the past decade have large numbers of people decided to delve into stargazing-recreational astronomy-as a leisure activity. Today, more than half a million people in North America call themselves amateur astronomers.

Not surprisingly, manufacturers have kept pace with the growth of the hobby, and there is now a bewildering array of telescopes and accessories to meet the needs of the hundreds of thousands of backyard astronomers. This development has produced a gap in the reference material available to stargazers, a gap that this book attempts to bridge.


In our work as astronomy authors and communicators, we have encountered thousands of enthusiasts seeking tips on how to be backyard astronomers -- specifically, how to select the appropriate equipment, how to use it, how to avoid buying unnecessary gadgets and, most important, how to feel comfortable that they are using the equipment they have as well as they can.

The truth is, one can become a competent amateur astronomer with hardware no more sophisticated than binoculars combined with the appropriate reference material: this book, one or two star atlases, an annual astronomical almanac and as subscription to Astronomy or Sky & Telescope magazines. But most enthusiasts yearn to graduate to a telescope. Our main task in the following pages to act as your guides as you select and use the proper equipment and accessories for many enjoyable nights under the stars --in essence, this is a detail practical guide to getting the most out of the experience of night-sky watching.

In many respects, this book is a sequel to co-author Dickinson's NightWatch, which emphasizes preliminary material for the absolute beginner. NightWatch assumed no previous experience on the part of the reader. Here, we provide extensive reference material for enthusiasts who have decided that amateur astronomy is an activity worth pursuing, even though they may not yet own a telescope.

The best plan with any leisure activity is to become knowledgeable about the equipment before buy it. We provide that information with specific references to brands and items available on today's market. It is easy to be romanced by the technology and by glitzy high-tech advertising; we flag the unnecessary and the frivolous.

No single book, obviously, can do it all, and this one is no exception. However, before we started work on this project, we took a close look at the amateur-astronomy guidebooks already available. We saw certain subjects covered over and over again (the same constellation-by-constellation observing lists, for example), while some aspects of the hobby were consistently overlooked. With this in mind, we have concentrated on the areas we feel have been traditionally neglected or have only lately emerged as topics of interest.

In recent years, for instance, the Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope has become the most popular type of instrument for amateur astronomy, yet many references offer only one or two pages on the subject. In this book, we devote half of one chapter and parts of others to the Schmidt-Cassegrain. We detected a need for candor in discussions of commercial astronomy equipment, so we have tried to be as specific as possible about brand names, reporting what we do and don't like and why.

Prices of telescopes and other equipment quoted throughout are in 1993 U.S. dollars and are intended to serve as rough guides only. Prices in Canadian dollars are 25 to 40 percent higher, depending on current exchange rates and sales taxes.

With this book, we also wanted to dispel the misperception that one must be a computer whiz with a degree in astrophysics to use a telescope properly or to appreciate fully the wonders of the universe. Physics and computers are unnecessary baggage for personal exploration of the cosmos, and we have deliberately avoided extensive discussions of any such subjects. However, we do offer suggestions and Appendixes for anyone interested in topics that we chose not to include, such as telescope making.

Finally, a few words about the illustrations. All the celestial photographs reproduced in this book were taken by amateur astronomers. Most of the images have never been published before. Some of the photographs rival those taken with much larger telescopes at professional observatories, attesting to the skill and dedication of modern amateur astrophotographers. But beyond the technical achievements is the astonishing beauty that modern cameras, films and telescopes can capture. Many readers undoubtedly will be stirred by these pictures to attempt celestial photography for themselves. We devote three chapters to astrophotography, the major sub-hobby within recreational astronomy. We specifically attempted to display new pictures of familiar objects as well as state-of-the-art astrophotography. Other illustrations are intended to complement the main text. In most instances, the caption material is not contained within the main text and should be considered supplementary information.


For many enthusiasts, the canopy of stars is almost tranquilizing. One member of a husband-and-wife team described it thus: "Astronomy is one of the few hobbies that lets you get completely away from it all. It opens your mind, everyday problems fade, and you don't even notice the time -- or the cold. One night, we tape-recorded our viewing session, then replayed it the next day and heard ourselves saying over and over, 'Oh, wow! Look at that,' as we took turns at the telescope. It was really beautiful."

Whatever their passion, all amateur astronomers agree that a major threshold in the hobby is the magical night when the sky ceases to be a trackless maze of glittering points and begins to transform itself in the mind of the observer into the real universe of planets, stars, galaxies and nebulas with names, distances, dimensions and a powerful aura of mystery. Once that happens, there is no turning back. The night sky becomes an infinite wonderland waiting to be explored.

Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer
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Table of Contents

Introduction: A New Stargazer's Guidebook

Chapter 1: Amateur Astronomy Comes of Age
- Naturalists of the Night
- Amateur Astronomy Today
- Sharing the Universe
- Introductory Star Charts


Chapter 2: Binoculars for the Beginner and the Serious Observer
- Selecting Binoculars
- Exit Pupil
- The Ideal Binoculars for Astronomy
- Field of View
- Eyeglasses and Binoculars
- Binocular Tests
- Giant Binoculars

Chapter 3: Telescopes for Recreational Astronomy
- Telescope Evolution
- Choosing a Telescope
- Decoding Telescope Specs
- Avoiding Aperture Fever
- Comparing Telescopes
- Reviewing the Telescope Market
- Where and How to Buy a Telescope

Chapter 4: Eyepieces and Filters
- Eyepieces
- Eye Relief
- Basic Eyepiece Designs
- Nagler-Type Eyepieces
- Barlow Lens
- Planetary Filters
- Nebula Filters

Chapter 5: Accessories and Observing Aids
- Finderscopes
- Anti-Dew Devices
- Polar-Alignment Aids
- Telescope Storage

Chapter 6: Ten Myths About Telescopes and Observing


Chapter 7: The Sky Without a Telescope
- Phenomena of the Day Sky
- Phenomena of the Setting Sun
- Meteors
- Auroras
- Recording Your Observations (by Russ Sampson)

Chapter 8: Observing Conditions: Your Site and Light Pollution
- The Eroding Sky
- Rating Your Observing Site
- Conventions at Dark-Sky Sites
- Limiting-Magnitude Factors

Chapter 9: Observing the Moon, Sun and Comets
- Lunar Observing
- Solar Observing
- Observing and Photographing the Sun in Hydrogen Alpha (by John Hicks)
- Bright Comets: 1940-90
- Observing Comets (by David H. Levy)

Chapter 10: Observing the Planets
- Mercury
- Observing Mercury by Day
- Venus
- Inferior Conjunction
- Mars
- Mars Rotation Photographs
- Jupiter
- Tracking the Four Moons
- Saturn
- Saturn's Satellite Family
- Uranus
- Neptune
- Pluto

Chapter 11: How to Find Your Way Around the Sky
- An Observing Philosophy
- Star Atlases
- Setting Circles
- What's in the Sky Tonight?

Chapter 12: Exploring the Deep Sky
- The Messier Catalogue
- The NGC
- Beyond the NGC
- Within the Milky Way
- Beyond the Milky Way
- Sketching at the Eyepiece (by Gregg Thompson)
- Deep-Sky Strategies
- Deep-Sky Observing at the Limit (by Alister Ling)


Chapter 13: Capturing the Sky on Film
- Selecting the Right Equipment
- Selecting the Right Film
- Selecting the Right Telescope
- Selecting the Right Accessories
- Photographic Limiting Magnitude

Chapter 14: The Essential Techniques
- Tripod and Camera
- Shooting the Moon
- Lunar and Solar Close-Ups
- Planetary Portraits
- Deep-Sky Piggyback Photography
- Prime-Focus Deep-Sky Photography

Chapter 15: Eclipses, Gremlins and Advanced Techniques
- Lunar Eclipses
- Solar Eclipses
- Keeping the Gremlins at Bay
- Advanced Techniques
- Deep-Sky Photography From Urban Settings (by Klaus R. Brasch)

EPILOGUE The Universe Awaits

- Recommended Books and Magazines - North American Organizations - Astronomy Product Sources - Polar Alignment - Maintaining Telescope Performance - Glossary of Optical Jargon (by Peter Ceravolo) - How to Test Your Telescope's Optics - Charts of Selected Sky Regions Index
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First Chapter

Chapter One: Amateur Astronomy Comes of Age

There is something deeply compelling about the starry night sky. Those fragile flickering points of light in the blackness beckon to the inquisitive mind. So it was in antiquity, and so it remains today.

But only in the past decade have large numbers of people decided to delve into stargazing -- recreational astronomy -- as a leisure activity. Today, more than half a million people in North America call themselves amateur astronomers.

The magic moment when you know you're hooked usually comes with your eye at a telescope eyepiece. It often takes just one exposure to Saturn's stunningly alien, yet serenely beautiful ring system or a steady view of an ancient lunar crater frozen in time on the edge of a rumpled, airless plain.

Naturalists of the Night

19th-century poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "The man on the street does not know a star in the sky." Of course, he was right then and now. Well, almost. In recent years, a growing number of people want to become acquainted with the stars. Sales of astronomy books, telescopes and astronomy software have reached all-time highs. More people than ever before are enrolling in the astronomy courses offered by colleges, universities and planetariums. Summer weekend gatherings of astronomy enthusiasts for telescope viewing and informative talks (known among the participants as "star parties") now attract thousands of fans. There is no mistaking the signals: Astronomy has come of age as a mainstream interest and recreational activity.

Not coincidentally, the growth of interest in astronomy has paralleled the rise in our awareness of the environment. The realization that we live on a planet with finite resources and dwindling access to wilderness areas has generated a sharp increase in activities which involve observing and appreciating nature: birding, nature walks, hiking, scenic drives, camping and nature photography. Recreational astronomy is in this category too. Amateur astronomers are naturalists of the night, captivated by the mystique of the vast universe that is accessible only under a dark sky.

In recent decades, the darkness that astronomy enthusiasts seek has been beaten back by the ever-growing domes of artificial light over cities and towns and by the increased use of security lighting everywhere. In many places, the luster of the Milky Way arching across a star-studded sky has been obliterated forever. Yet amateur astronomy flourishes as never before. Why? Perhaps it is an example of that well-known human tendency to ignore the historic or acclaimed tourist sights in one's own neighborhood while attempting to see everything when traveling to distant lands. Most people now perceive a starry sky as foreign and enchanting rather than something that can be seen from any sidewalk, as it was when our grandparents were young.

That is certainly part of the answer, but consider how amateur astronomy has changed in two generations. The typical 1960s amateur astronomer was usually male and a loner, with a strong interest in physics, mathematics and optics. In high school, he spent his weekends grinding a 6-inch f/8 Newtonian telescope mirror from a kit sold by Edmund Scientific, in accordance with the instructions in Scientfic American telescope-making books. The four-foot-long telescope was mounted on what was affectionately called a plumber's nightmare -- an equatorial mount made of pipe fittings. In some cases, it was necessary to keep the telescope out of sight to be brought out only under cover of darkness to avoid derisive commentary from the neighbors.

Practical reference material was almost nonexistent in the 1960s. Most of what there was came from England, and virtually all of it was written by one man, Patrick Moore. Amateur astronomy was like a secret religion -- so secret, it was almost unknown.

Thankfully, that is all history. Current astronomy hobbyists represent a complete cross section of society, encompassing men and women of all ages, occupations and levels of education. Amateur astronomy has finally come into its own as a legitimate recreational activity, not the pastime of perceived lab-coated rocket scientists and oddballs. Indeed, it has emerged as a leisure activity with a certain prestige. Unlike some hobbies, it is not possible to buy your way into astronomy. Astronomical knowledge and experience take time to accumulate. But be forewarned: Once you gain that knowledge and experience, astronomy can be addictive.

Amateur Astronomy Today

Amateur astronomy has become incredibly diversified. No individual can master the field entirely. It is simply too large; it has too many activities and choices. In general, though, amateur astronomers divide fairly easily into three groups: the observers, the techno-enthusiasts and the armchair astronomers. The last category refers to people who pursue the hobby mainly vicariously -- through books, magazines, lectures, discussion groups or conversations with other aficionados. Armchair astronomers are often self-taught experts on nonobservational aspects of the subject, such as cosmology or astronomical history.

The techno-enthusiast category includes telescope makers and those fascinated by the technical side of the hobby, especially the application of computers to astronomical imaging and telescope use and the application of technological innovations related to amateur-astronomy equipment. It can also involve crafting optics, though this type of telescope making is less prevalent than it was a few decades ago. With the vast array of commercial equipment available today, "rolling your own" is not the common activity it once was.

This book is written primarily for the third kind of amateur astronomer, the observer, one whose dominant interest in astronomy is to explore the visible universe with eye and telescope. Observing, we believe, is what it is all about. The exhilaration of exploring the sky, of seeing for yourself the remote planets, galaxies, clusters and nebulas -- real objects of enormous dimensions at immense distances -- is the essence of backyard astronomy.

Getting in Deeper

Amateur astronomy can range from an occasional pleasant diversion to a full-time obsession. Some amateur astronomers spend more time and energy on the hobby than do all but the most dedicated research astronomers at mountaintop observatories. Such "professional amateurs" are the exception, but they are indeed the true amateur astronomers -- that is, they have selected an area which professional astronomers, either by choice or through lack of human resources, have neglected. They are, in the purest sense, amateurs: unpaid researchers.

In the past, such impassioned individuals were often independently wealthy and able to devote much time and effort to a single-minded pursuit. This is seldom the case anymore. For instance, Australian Robert Evans is a pastor of three churches, has a family with four daughters and is by no means a man of wealth or leisure. Yet he has spent almost every clear night since 1980 searching for supernovas in galaxies up to 100 million light-years away. He discovered 18 within a decade -- more than were found during the same period by a team of university researchers using equipment designed exclusively for that purpose.

Similarly, most bright comets in recent years have been found by committed amateur astronomers. However, the persistent supernova or comet hunter represents just a tiny fraction of those who call themselves amateur astronomers. The vast majority -- at least 99 percent -- are more accurately described as recreational backyard astronomers. Although this term has not gained wide usage, it more precisely describes what most amateur astronomers do. They are out enjoying themselves under the stars, engaging in a personal exploration of the universe that has no scientific purpose beyond self-edification. It's challenging and

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Since the publication of the first edition of The Backyard Astronomer's Guide in 1991, amateur astronomy has evolved in several important areas. This prompted a major rewrite and redesign for the Second Edition in 2002. Even more rapid developments since then bring us to this Third Edition and another major overhaul, which now expands the book substantially beyond its original 295 pages.
As always, new developments in equipment are behind most of the revisions led by affordable computerized telescopes and the entry of China as a major player in telescope manufacture. More unexpected was the speed of the digital-camera revolution, which opened a new wonderland of astrophotographic opportunities undreamed of in the days of film. That, combined with a wider array of telescopes and accessories at better prices than ever before, meant that every chapter required revisions,
ranging up to a complete rewrite of the astrophotography section, Chapter 13.
In response to readers' requests for how-to reference guides to fundamental telescope setup, use and maintenance procedures, we've added two new chapters (14 and 15). More than 200 new photos and illustrations accompany these changes, both major and minor, in every chapter. (Prices given are average U.S. dollar dealer prices.)
To keep the text uncluttered and readable, we have avoided embedding a lot of website addresses throughout. To locate the websites for companies and products described, simply Google the names. Finally, at the back of the book, we've added a beautiful and practical Milky Way atlas, created by Glenn LeDrew.
In almost all cases, we have used photographs of equipment that were taken in the field and in our own studios rather than relying on stock shots from manufacturers. (We've really used this equipment!)
In many respects, this book is a sequel to coauthor Dickinson's NightWatch: A Guide to Viewing the Universe, which emphasizes reference material for the absolute beginner. In The Backyard Astronomer's Guide, we provide more in-depth commentary, guidance and resources for the enthusiast.
We invite readers to visit the book's website (see below), where updates and links to other informative sites can be found.

Terence Dickinson
NightWatch Observatory
Alan Dyer
Telus World of Science-Calgary

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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
I remember reading my first astronomy book in my school library at age eight. I had been fascinated by the stars ever since I had seen a bright meteor as a preschooler. But now I could read well enough to begin to discover the wonders of the universe for myself.

I recall eagerly turning the book's pages and coming upon a section that told me that stars are really suns, just like our sun, but at colossal distances. I found this fact so mind-blowing that I ran around the neighborhood telling everyone this amazing thing I had just learned. My enthusiasm was met with polite disinterest by adults and impolite ridicule by my school chums, who wondered why I was telling them something so boring. But for me it set alight a fire in the mind.

I pestered my parents for years until they bought me a small telescope for Christmas. I almost wore it out observing the heavens, summer and winter, from our suburban backyard. Later, I bought a better scope, then built an even bigger one. I was thoroughly hooked. There was no doubt in my mind that astronomy was my calling, and I was ready to answer the call!

The call came in 1966, 15 years after I read that first astronomy book in the school library. I was hired as staff astronomer and lecturer at Toronto's new state-of-the-art McLaughlin Planetarium. It was the perfect job for an astronomy addict. Every day under the planetarium's great projection star dome I extolled the wonder and beauty of the stars and constellations to audiences of up to 350 visitors. In the planetarium classroom I taught courses on astronomy and backyard stargazing to both adults and children. For me it was a dream come true.

But one thing puzzled me. When I looked around for a stargazing guidebook that I could recommend to beginners, everything I found was either too superficial or else overly technical. I wondered why the authors weren't using plain language and uncluttered illustrations to focus on what those people in my classes, and others like them, really wanted to know. Subjects such as the easiest way to find celestial objects, and how to select and use binoculars and small telescopes to observe them, seemed to be begging for improved treatment. This bothered me to the point that I decided to do something about it.

In the late 1970s, after working for more than a decade at two planetariums and as editor of Astronomy magazine, I decided to devote myself full time to astronomy writing -- including the development of the definitive beginner's stargazing guidebook. By a stroke of good timing, a publisher who had seen my work in a nature magazine approached me about writing such a book. Thus, NightWatch was born in 1983.

As I had hoped, NightWatch immediately filled a gap in the literature. It has become my flagship book, and one of the bestselling stargazing guides in the world. For the Third Edition, I updated every page and included more than 100 new photos and illustrations. My other major stargazer's "bible" is The Backyard Astronomer's Guide, a more in-depth treatment than NightWatch that I coauthored with Alan Dyer of the Calgary Planetarium. Another book I am particularly proud of is The Universe and Beyond, which is more an illustrated tour of the universe rather than a stargazing guide, making it a good companion to NightWatch.

Over the years I have been a professional astronomy communicator, interest in the subject has exploded. A once-obscure hobby interest two generations ago, astronomy today appeals to a broad cross section of the population. It has been an honor to be a part of that revolution. (Terence Dickinson)

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2000

    Read this book first!

    Anyone interested in what goes on 'out there' -- and that includes most of us -- should read 'Backyard Astronomer's Guide' before plunking down any money on binoculars, telescopes, eyepieces, or surplus Saturn V rockets. The proud papa of a new telescope, I had about 50 questions that were apparently unanswerable, such as, How much magnification can I get with my 'scope, and how do I increase the optical power without degrading the image quality; Why do stars look twinkly and fuzzy, instead of the prescribed pinpoint of light; How do you decide on a good set of binoculars; and, how do I test and fine-tune the optics of my telescope? And then I found this book. 'Backyard' answers all those questions and more. Messieurs Dickinson and Dyer apparently felt that there were enough star guides and atlases; what was needed was something that would tell people in practical terms how to choose, use and care for the equipment necessary to see all that stuff out there. That's a huge order, and it would have been easy to become bogged down in details that would have rendered the book obsolete before it even went to press. Astro-technology is like everything else, moving at almost the speed of light. But by focusing on the core principles and basics, while periodically revising and updating hardware specs and models, the authors have dodged the technology trap and created a book that will remain a valuable guide for many years to come. The book immediately saved me a wad of cash: I had been thinking about buying a good zoom eyepiece. 'Backyard' states emphatically that the words 'good' and 'zoom eyepiece' don't go together. 'Nuff said. With its comparative tables on everything from magnitude scale to eyepieces and filters, its richly detailed explanations of how equipment works and how to work it, and its huge number of photos, charts and drawings, 'The Backyard Astronomer's Guide' is truly the Boy Scout Handbook of amateur astronomy. It is one of my most prized books on astronomy.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2001


    Great for all types of observing of the night sky. A much more advanced version of nightwatch. I use it when I am out with my 8 inch telescope.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2000

    Great for serious beginners!

    I learned a lot from this book! It's full of info that's written in an easily understood fashion. I benefitted greatly from the section on setting circles, R.A. and declination and other confusing topics novice astronomers face. It's worth the dough, folks.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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