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Sky At Night 2017 Yearbook

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Yes, the Sky At Night 2017 Yearbook has finally appeared on the shelves in Kendal’s WH Smiths, so I can complete my annual review of all the various yearbooks/guides available in newsagents.

In previous years the SaN Yearbook has been sold as a stand-alone publication, like a special edition of the magazine. Popular with newcomers to astronomy and more experienced amateurs alike, it features what you’d expect from a yearbook – a guide to the sky for each month, plus articles and features to help you get the most out of the astronomical year ahead. This year the SaN team has done things a little differently by making the yearbook part of a “Bumper Value Stargazing Pack” – obviously aimed at the ‘the perfect gift for Christmas’ market just as much as the existing amateur astronomer market – which looks like this on the shelf…

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As you can see from the cover of the big envelope, and from the photo at the top of this post, the package comprises the yearbook itself, a planisphere and a Moon phases chart. (it doesn’t include the cute sleeping cat, by the way, before anyone asks…)

I have to be honest, I had mixed feelings handing over my £13 when I bought this. One part of me – the “I’m already an amateur astronomer” part – was rather grumpily thinking “Hang on, I just want the Yearbook, I don’t need another planisphere and I don’t need a chart of Moon phases because I can get those on my phone…” I always enjoy reading the yearbook, and find it useful, but the two “extras” were things I personally neither wanted nor needed, and seemed rather unnecessary to me. I felt a little bit pressured into buying them as part of this package. Having said that, of course I could have bought the Yearbook on its own by post, but it’s been a part of my “look for and buy the yearbooks and guides” ritual for years now, and I was rather annoyed to not be able to do that this year.

But… looking at this from the point of view of someone starting out in the hobby, or from the point of view of someone looking for a gift for someone starting out in the hobby, this is a great package. A newcomer – especially someone not savvy (yet… they will be, oh, they will be…) with the world of astronomy apps for phones and tablets – will find this package the perfect front door to go through into the world of stargazing. The planisphere will be very useful to them as they learn the sky and how it works, and the Moon phases chart will be a handy quick-look guide too.  So, I can see both sides. I guess the “package” wasn’t aimed at me as a buyer, and that’s ok.

So, what’s the actual Yearbook like?

It’s a classy product, for sure. The heart of the Yearbook is, of course, its guide to what will be visible “up there” in the year ahead, and this year’s “Month by Month Guide” really is very, very good. Written by Pete Lawrence, in the same warm, friendly, refreshingly hype-free tone he uses on the TV show, reading it really is like standing in your own garden and having your very own personal stargazing tour from a knowledgeable amateur astronomer. The monthly charts accompanying Pete’s text are very detailed and “busy”, with lots of features and targets labelled, with notes at the bottom re the visibility of planets, the Moon etc.

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This year the “events” illustrations – the images showing planetary conjunctions, eclipses, things like that – look really nice, better than in previous years I think, and I am sure they will be much more useful to newcomers than the main charts.

Around the Yearbook’s Month by Month Guide are various other sections, providing lots of great observing and technical advice for amateurs and beginners alike, plus some interesting projects to get stuck into in 2017. There are equipment reviews, photography guides and more. One of the highlights of the Yearbook is a section written by Will Gater: “Secrets of Selene” focuses on the Moon, and picks out twenty lunar features for amateurs to find and enjoy.

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This will be really useful for beginners – especially those who got into the hobby because of the whole (yawn) “Supermoon” thing – and more experienced observers alike, especially. It could only have been improved if it had included some of Will’s gorgeous lunar sketches… (not-too-subtle hint for the next Yearbook there!) And on a purely selfish, personal note, it was great to see the crater “Eddington” (named after the great astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington who was born in my town) getting some love, as it’s often overlooked in Moon guides and books.

As you’d expect for a modern astronomy publication the Yearbook is lavishly illustrated, with some gorgeous photos. One thing that struck me is the amount of exposure (sorry!) given in the Yearbook to the “Insight Astronomy Photographer Of The Year” contest. 32 of the Yearbook’s 116 pages are covered with entries to the contest, which is almost a third, and that seems a bit excessive to me.

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I know they’re gorgeous photos, and the winners will all be as proud as parents watching their child dressed as an angel or a wise man in their first school Nativity Play when they see their images used in the Yearbook, I would be too, but I am wondering now if the magazine isn’t using these photos a bit too much..? Don’t get me wrong, the photos are lovely, and each one represents a great achievement by an individual. I just worry that they might intimidate as many people as they inspire, as some of them are taken with such expensive, high-tech kit that they are way beyond the capabilities of all but a few of the publication’s readership. Personally I would have preferred that 8 page section of the Yearbook, or at least some of it, to have been used for something more useful to an absolute beginner -maybe a feature on phone or tablet astronomy apps or websites (which I am asked about all the time), observing the space station and Iridium flares (both of which are very popular activities for sky-watchers now) or book recommendations, something like that. But maybe that’s just me thinking as an Outreacher who spends a lot of time helping absolute beginners get “into” the hobby. Others will find this section very useful and inspiring, I’m sure.

So, after all that do I recommend the 2017 Sky At Night Yearbook? Absolutely! There’s genuinely something in it for everyone, bright-eyed newcomer or weather-weary veteran. If I had one major criticism it would be this: as this is a publication produced by The Sky At Night, which has always had a kind of “mission statement” to help absolute beginners see things without lots of equipment or technology, and although Pete gives great basic observing advice in his monthly notes,  I would have loved – and I expected – to have found a section dedicated solely to absolute basics stargazing: what you can see just standing in your garden, looking up on a clear night, explaining the very basics about star brightnesses, the constellations they appear to make in the sky, what meteor showers and aurorae really look like, and how to tell planets and stars apart, etc. That’s missing from the Yearbook, and I think that’s a shame. Maybe something to bear in mind for the 2018 Yearbook, guys…

The 2017 Sky At Night Yearbook is available on newsagents now, and by mail order from the magazine too. With only those few reservations about some of its content I can definitely recommend the “Bumper Value Stargazing Pack” to you if you’re just starting out in the hobby, or looking for a gift for someone who is.

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