The Backyard Astronomer's Guide

The Backyard Astronomer's Guide

by Terence Dickinson, Alan Dyer

Hardcover(Revised and expanded)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781554073443
Publisher: Firefly Books, Limited
Publication date: 09/12/2008
Edition description: Revised and expanded
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 180,454
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 11.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About 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.

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

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

What People are Saying About This

The Best Skygazer's Guide You Can Buy


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)


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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The Backyard Astronomer's Guide 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.