by Jamie Dillon (updated December 2017)
Recently, a seasoned TACo wrote me a note asking about atlases. Good question it was. Here we've had lots of talk about astro software, but there's been very little info on TAC lately about paper charts. Given that we have a lot of smart new people coming out to observe, here we can start going on about the great value and unmatched accuracy of the best star atlases.
On a starter level, there are 3 real good atlases I know of. Edmund's Mag 6 is a winner. Intro chapters by the great Terence Dickinson, clearly drawn charts with descriptive notes on highlight objects on opposing pages. As far as I know the best place to buy this is direct from the Edmund Scientific catalog. There's a new edition out, ringbound, but for some dumb reason neither Orion nor Sky Publishing carry it any more.
Cambridge Star Atlas is another favorite among good observers. And there's Tirion and Skiff's Bright Star Atlas. Stars down to magnitude 6, with object selection by Brian Skiff, who's not only an ace observer but a pro astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, and the big kahuna on amastro.
Everyone with an interest in observing should have their own copy of Burnham's Celestial Handbook. It's inexhaustible and timeless. Tons of information and superb writing by a genuine hipster saint. Will never be obsolete.
Norton's Atlas has been a standard for a long time. The introduction is a good astronomy text on its own. The atlas itself was done some 50 years ago and has the bias of that time, when refractors were much more available than reflectors. Tons of doubles and variables, light on the extended objects.
Just in case not everyone has a shrine to Wil Tirion in their bedroom yet, this guy is a Dutchman who took up stellar cartography as a hobby on his Power Mac. He is the crowned king of star charts in our era; his work is not only clear and accurate but very beautiful. Story is, he sent SkyAtlas to the folks at Sky Publishing in Boston once upon a time, asking if they thought it might be useful. Incontinence must have ensued.
Tirion's SkyAtlas 2000 is the medium level atlas, period. Just a masterpiece, available everywhere quality astro stuff is sold. Reliable and gorgeous and real durable, holds up well in dew and dust.
For the On Beyond Zebra folks, the newly updated Uranometria 2000 is a treasure. Two books of sky charts, again by Tirion, with the third book in the set being the Deepsky Field Guide. Steve Gottlieb just refers to it as DSFG. Outside of a university library and the professional online databases, it's the gold standard for up-to-date information on deepsky objects.
The other serious grownup atlas is the Millennium Star Atlas, which I do not own but which Jay Reynolds Freeman swears by. So does Carter Scholz.
The other Big Kid atlas that deserves mention is the Herald-Bobroff. This was designed by some gonzo Aussies and is several highly useful atlases in one. Crazy Ed Erbeck used to be the US distributor for the HB, tells you something. The sucker has retired. And newest reports are that the HB is flat out of print. Copies can be had thru all the out-of-print methods.
What you do for any books in print is join AL. No kidding, the Astronomical League provides a book service. They'll get you any astronomically related book for 10% off retail, no S&H.
Along with your atlas you need sky notes, descriptions of objects, highlights. Dickinson has them included in the Edmund's Mag 6. Past there, with SkyAtlas you need the SkyAtlas Companion, very handy not only with the classic NGC notes on each object plotted in SkyAtlas, but notes from contemporary observers like Scotty Houston. The other reference I take along every time I go observing is Luginbuhl and Skiff's Observing Handbook and Catalogue of Deep Sky Objects. Has descriptions of a large catalog of objects arranged by constellation, with notes on what they look like in different sizes of telescopes.
For advanced observers, The Night Sky Observer's Guide is a must. Goes constellation by constellation with objects over a wide range of difficulty. Great format. Several of the best TAC observers use this alone for laying out a night's work. Thorough observing notes plus findercharts. Lots of plotting inaccuracies, but who's perfect?
I really like using paper charts at night. The whole standard set I carry is about the size and weight of a laptop. Now I always take UM2000, which weighs a lot less than a marine battery and contains no corrosives. UM 2000 in particular always gets more and more use from me as I become more mature. It has close detail charts of many Abell clusters and other busy areas of the sky, will last me many years.
Very reasonable total outlay, and power needs constitute one 9-volt for the red LED light. Clear spring skies to all, hope this is useful.
...David Kingsley added:
E. Karkoschka's "The observer's sky atlas" is an outstanding, very convenient hybrid atlas.
Small size (like a thin paperback book, easily fits in a larger pocket of a jacket or many eyepiece cases). Has main charts at the level of a mag 6 star atlas. Has insets at the level of detail of SkyAtlas 2000 (limiting magnitude mag 9). Excellent observing list of 250 double stars, 80 variables and 250 nonstellar objects (110 Messiers plus 140 best beyond Messier). Very useful data and text notes in tables right next to every chart. This includes lots of detailed information that you normally have to look up somewhere else (distance in light years, absolute magnitude, B-V values, surface brightness, position angles, orbits of variable stars, max and min of variables etc).
Also very good introductory summaries of all objects in the catalog that give a sense of both mean and extreme values of lots of physical properties of different types of objects (what is average, biggest and smallest, furthest and closest, brightest and faintest, bluest and reddest for galaxies, globs, open clusters, planetaries, diffuse nebula, stars etc).
I have found this a remarkably efficient and convenient small book, with enough stars to find things easily, and enough data to suggest interesting things to look for even in a relatively bright back yard or with a small telescope. It's in my jacket all the time, and I find I crack it open almost every observing session to check some detail or other, refresh myself on the stars and objects in a constellation, etc.
...and Jerry Elmer threw in a useful mention:
One paper atlas not mentioned is Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide To Stars and Planets. I have used one for years, and, for about $20, it is the best collection of astronomy information available. It not only has a complete Wil Tirion sky atlas, but also monthly sky charts, lists of double stars, complete Messier list and moon atlas. In addition, it has lots of beginner astronomy info, planet info and color photos of deep sky objects.
The publication has some drawbacks to it. First, the atlas is broken up into about 35 or 40 pages, and the print is small. Second, although the star info on the atlas is mag 6.5 or so, the deep sky objects shown on the atlas pages do not hold the same distinction. Many of them are tiny, 12-14 mag planetaries or galaxies that are impossible to find in a small scope, and some really difficult even in a 20" dob. However, if one has a copy of Burnham's Celestial Handbook to cross reference the items, it can be a good source of info, and it is very portable.