Holiday hints for the astronomer

The amount of stuff available for backyard astronomers is now almost unbelievable

The amount of stuff available for backyard astronomers is now almost unbelievable. We can only look at a few key items here.  If you are the family astronomer, your loved ones will of course appreciate some strategically dropped hints.

There is a huge choice of software available. There are programs for observation planning and also doing research into past or future astronomical events. Ephemeris and star map software can be used to produce maps showing what’s in the sky from any location at any time. There are some free programs that are really good, such as Stellarium, which you can download from

Despite the software option, a good-quality printed star atlas is a must-have. These range from desktop works of art to workhorse ones for taking outside. The Wil Tirion Sky Atlas 2000 is a wonderful thing for indoor observation planning. If possible, get the deluxe, colour, laminated version. It’s beautiful. For taking outside there are few equals to Norton’s Star Atlas. This has been around for decades, going through edition after edition. The maps are printed on flat pages without folds, so Norton’s is easier to use outside.  Your copy will survive being dropped in the mud far better than will your laptop, no matter how good the astronomy software is that you have installed on it.

Another must-have is a planisphere. This useful little gadget consists of two plastic discs (don’t even consider getting a cardboard one) with a rivet through the centre. The bottom disc bears a star map and a calendar printed around the edge. The upper one has a clear window in it and Local Standard Time printed around the edge. Line up the time with the date, and through the window you’ll see what stars and constellations are visible in the sky. Planispheres come in various sizes; get the biggest you can. Make sure you get the right one for your latitude. That brings us to the third must-have: the Observer’s Handbook. This is published every year by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. It is a mine of information, including what is going on in the sky every day of the year.

As manuals for the beginner backyard astronomer, you might consider Nightwatch, by Terence Dickinson, and the Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, by Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer. These are only two examples of a large and growing choice. However, before pulling out your wallet, consider where you will be using your books. There has been an unfortunate trend from ring-bound books printed on thick paper (fairly drop proof, mud proof and which open flat) to glued books with thinner paper, which are more suitable for use inside only.

These books are in most bookstores. However, if you want to discuss book possibilities with knowledgeable people, try your local science store. That is also the best place to find planispheres, software and other astronomical stocking stuffers. If you have no science store in easy range, there are some excellent Canadian ones on the web. Another source of suggestions and advice is your local astronomy club. You may end up joining.

P Jupiter is unmissably bright and dominates the southern sky during the night. Mars rises around 11 p.m., Saturn around 3 a.m. Venus might be visible low in the southwest after sunset. The moon will reach last quarter on Saturday.


Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, and is based at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Penticton.