Around this time every year many amateur astronomers and sky-watchers start visiting their local newsagents and bookshops daily. To the staff, who see them coming in day after day, it might look like they’re scouting the place, checking for security cameras and exits, ready to rob it, but what they’re actually doing is checking the shelves for copies of the “Sky Guides” for the coming year.
These are usually large format magazines or small booklet type publications, which all do pretty much the same job – provide the stargazer with a full guide to what they’ll be able to see “up there” during the year ahead. Some are more detailed than others, some are more heavily illustrated than others, and some are more professional-looking than others, but they all provide the amateur astronomer with a handy “one stop” guide to the forthcoming twelve months of celestial events. Many people I know have given up buying the monthly magazines and now just buy one or more of these annual guides instead; I now only buy monthly magazines occasionally, if there’s a particularly good feature in, or a review of a piece of kit I’m interested in, or something like that.
Now, with just a couple of days left until December begins, most of the 2016 Sky Guides are out, so the sky-watcher is presented with a rather bewildering choice when they see them altogether like this (without the festive Dalek, of course)…
So, two questions: a) why bother buying one of these old-fashioned paper… things… in this modern online downloading age, and b) if you do buy one, which one – or ones – of those guides should you buy? Which one is the best?
Well, as handy and data-packed as 2015’s computer programs and Android and iOS apps are, and as brilliant as the internet is, you still can’t beat the luxurious and reassuring feeling of just opening up a printed book or booklet, leafing through it and finding the information you want, without the hassle of shrinking or enlarging the display, or running out of power. And as you scan the printed pages you don’t get distracted by musical tones telling you you have a new Facebook message, or your Twitter feed has updated, or you have email.
As for which one you should buy, none is “THE best”, because the best one for you might not be the same as for someone else. But we can have a look at how they differ, and that might at least help you make a choice.
First, let’s look at the guides produced by the UK’s monthly astronomy magazines…
THE SKY AT NIGHT MAGAZINE YEARBOOK 2016
This feels-heavy-in-your-hands magazine-style “Collector’s Edition” special costs £7.99 and is a very slick production indeed. Following the same look and format as the monthly SKY AT NIGHT magazine itself, it is packed full of interesting features, articles, reviews and “How To…” workshops aimed at the beginner (but not absolute beginner) astronomer, such as “How to sketch a fireball”, “How to refine your polar alignment” and “How to set up an Alt Az GOTO mount”. The monthly sections – written expertly, as always, by Pete Lawrence in a very reader-friendly, no-nonsense style – feature all the required comprehensive information about planet visibility, Moon phases, and seasonal treats such as NLC, meteor showers and eclipses etc.
The monthly star maps are detailed, perhaps a little too busy for an absolute beginner to use comfortably, but accompanied by easier to use smaller illustrations of individual events. One of the most useful features in the Guide is an introduction to basic astrophotography, written by Wil Gater, which absolute beginners will find invaluable, and very reassuring too, as starting out in astrophotography is very daunting; anyone reading Wil’s piece will be taking great photos of constellations and the night sky the next clear night after buying the magazine. On the down side, I think the feature on astrology is an absolute waste of space; yes, it’s very thoughtfully written, and explains how astrology and astronomy used to be very closely related, before the Russell Grant brigade took over and started writing their rubbish about meeting tall dark handsome strangers and coming into money, but I’d have preferred to see those precious four pages used for something more practical, such as a guide to observing satellites and the space station, or a detailed review of smartphone or tablet astronomy apps.
THE ASTRONOMY NOW 2016 YEARBOOK
Smaller and less flashy-looking than its SKY AT NIGHT cousin, the ASTRONOMY NOW sky guide to 2016 comes packaged with a very nice and very useful astronomy calendar, but even if it didn’t it would be worth the £7.99 price because it is a beautifully produced and written guide to the year ahead. Again, its monthly sky notes are surrounded and complemented by features and articles and “Object of the Month” guides, but the monthly notes really stand out impressively, not just because the notes are so well written, quite poetically in places in fact, but because they are illustrated with artwork by the always-brilliant Greg Smye-Rumsby, whose work adds so much beauty to the monthly magazine. The 2016 Yearbook’s monthly star charts are very basic – simple and uncluttered with lines, borders and symbols – but that’s not a criticism, it’s exactly what beginners want and need.
I especially liked Greg’s “photo realistic” illustrations showing how planetary conjunctions etc will actually look in the sky – beginners will find those very useful indeed. The ASTRONOMY NOW team has done a great job with their 2016 Yearbook, I was very impressed with it. Any beginner buying it – or bought it as a gift – will be delighted with it.
Let’s look now at the smaller format 2016 Sky Guides available…
“NIGHT SCENES 2016” by Paul Money
Every year amateur astronomer, writer and Outreacher Paul Money publishes his own Sky Guide called “Night Scenes”, and it does exactly what it says on the cover – provides the reader with a monthly guide to astronomical events for the year ahead. Compared to the Yearbooks produced by the two UK astronomy magazines, Paul’s £7 guide is a lot less flashy, a lot less slick, and a lot less polished – but not in a bad way; it’s a true home-publishing labour of love, produced by a hugely enthusiastic amateur astronomer who loves teaching people about the night sky and the wonders to be seen on it. This is a very, very busy publication, and like the TARDIS it is so much bigger on the inside than the outside!With hardly an inch of free space to be found between its covers, the pages are crammed full to each border and corner with pictures and text, words and images threatening to tumble off the page and onto the floor as you look at them…
And Paul writes like he speaks – enthusiastically and passionately, breathlessly, like a runaway train! 🙂 Exclamation marks are everywhere, unlike commas, just like Paul’s talks, but that gives the Guide a very personal feel, I think. What sets it apart from other guides and yearbooks are its fold-out pages, on the inside of which are the guide’s monthly star charts. These are, it has to be said, rather small, so appear crammed with detail, but the monthly notes accompanying them are very comprehensive and detailed, obviously written by an experienced and keen observer. This guide has no padding – no articles, no features, no reviews, and no adverts; it’s purely a guide to the year ahead, written for amateur astronomers by an amateur astronomer. It’s best bought by, and for, the more experienced amateur I think, because the illustrations are so full of information that an absolute beginner might be rather baffled by them. But if you know the sky, and know how it works, this is a great buy.
Now, there are two “standard” annual guides you’ll find in your local bookshop, in the astronomy sub-section of the “Popular Science” section. Both are small, softcover booklets, with no page-spanning features, articles or reviews, just monthly guides to goings on “up there.” Let’s look at those…
PHILIP’S MONTH BY MONTH STARGAZING 2016
The £6.99 Philip’s guide, written by popular and accomplished astronomy writers and broadcasters Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest, is the larger of the two. It opens with a very basic primer for the beginner, explaining how to use the guide, and ends with several sections describing the visibility of the planets during the year,details of any eclipses or transits etc, and prospects for comets and meteor showers. The final section is dedicated to recommended deep sky objects for the amateur to view, “The Planetary Imaging Revolution”. Inbetween, the monthly sky guide sections provide the reader with a “quick look” guide to what’s happening in the sky each month, with four pages per month, each month split into notes on the constellations, the planets, the Moon, special events and a featured object of the month – and these notes are one of the guide’s main strengths; Heather and Nigel are brilliant writers, and use the limited space available on the pages to great effect, not wasting a word or a cm of space.
Of course, each month has its own spread-spanning star map. These are very basic and uncluttered, though some might find the fold down the middle of them makes them hard to use outside. As you can see, there are no additional illustrations showing planetary conjunctions or anything like that, but the text is written so clearly and visually that it’s easy to imagine what will be visible in the sky. This is a great guide for the absolute beginner who just wants a “quick flick through” no frills guide to what’s visible in the sky in the coming year.
COLLINS 2016 GUIDE TO THE NIGHT SKY
Flicking through this Royal Greenwich Observatory-produced softcover booklet – also costing £6.99, and written by Storm Dunlop with star charts and illustrations provided by renowned celestial cartographer Wil Tirion – after plucking it off a Waterstones or Borders shelf your first impression is that it is a much more formal affair than the Philips guide. After all, it looks more like a textbook than a friendly guide, and the text accompanying the all important monthly star charts is written in a much stiffer style than the Philips, making it seem much more like a small reference book than a welcoming yearbook for beginners. (Indeed, the booklet starts with what is essentially a beginners guide to how the night sky works, and thumbnail sketches of each season’s sky, which are both quite formally written.) But while it is true that the monthly sky notes are quite starkly-written, the information is all accurate, and useful, and the charts themselves are as clean and practical as all Tirion’s charts.
Where this booklet comes into its own, though, is with its accompanying illustrations – the ones showing conjunctions of planets, or a planet and the Moon, or the path of a planet across the night sky, etc. Beginners and more experienced observers alike will find those extremely useful.
So, there you have it. I hope you’ve found this sneaky peek inside all the currently available 2016 yearbooks and sky guides useful, and it’s shown you how they compare. They all have plus points and minus points, but they all provide a beginner astronomer with a very useful guide to what they can expect (or rather, hope!) to see in the sky next year.
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