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Book review: “Philip’s Essential Guide To Space”


Note: book does not come with sleeping cat.

At this time of year, hoping to grab a piece of the Christmas gift market, publishers are releasing books faster than Donald Trump can post paranoid nonsense on Twitter, and Philip’s is no exception. They have just released a new astronomy title, called rather grandly, “The Essential Guide To Space” (hereafter just going to be referred to as “The Guide” ok? I’m not typing out its full title every time!), written by science journalist and Society for Popular Astronomy stalwart Paul Sutherland. So, is it “essential”? And with soooo many astronomy books being published, is there enough new and different in it to make it “the perfect gift for Christmas” as they say in the ads nowadays?

Firstly, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I know the author. I work with Paul on the SPA Council and on the SPA Facebook page, etc, but this review is going to be neutral and honest, just as he’d want it to be. No point doing it otherwise!

Ok. So, The Guide is a good old fashioned “hefty” space book, heavy and very well made, the kind that sits comfortably on the shelf in a school library’s “science” section and almost displaces the fabric of time and space as you lift it. Inside, as you would expect from a modern astronomy title, it is packed full of beautiful photos and artists impressions of stars, planets, astronauts and space probes. And, refreshingly, almost all of them are bang up to date, the very latest images available from modern telescopes and space missions as the book was being put together; there are only a few of the “old favourites” that every astronomy book seems to use, such as the artist’s impression of astronauts on Mars on page 185, which was surely painted just after the Big Bang…

The photo quality is excellent throughout, and the layout of the book is very crisp and clean too, though I have a few issues with some of the design choices made. The font used for each section’s title and elsewhere in fact boxes etc is horrible, some weird kind of grunge/graffiti design which doesn’t look “spacey” at all and is visually at odds with the aforementioned “crisp and clean” look of the pages. And there is a lot of black, which I personally think makes it a bit dark in tone as well as visually, and makes it feel a little “cold”. But that’s just a thing for me; I know it makes sense for a space book, what with space actually *being* black and all.

However, I do think that in some places the black is over-used, such as the spread of pages 86-87 which has a beautiful landscape image from the Mars Pathfinder mission spread across it, at the bottom, but there is none of Mars’ beautiful salmon pink/butterscotch-hued sky visible, which looks stunningly beautiful on the original image. Instead the designers have cropped off the sky and just pasted the landscape onto the black page, which might suggest to some readers that the sky on Mars is black…


But really that’s a minor design niggle. The main thing is that the book is, as I said, bang up to date, with gorgeous images taken by the most recent “celebrity” missions such as ROSETTA and  New Horizons, which are covered very fully in the book. This is sometimes at the expense of covering other, older missions with the respect I felt they deserved – the amazing achievements and discoveries of the Mars Exploration Rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” are somewhat glossed over – but I understand that there’s only so much room available on a page, and it’s only fair that newer, more recent missions are given the spotlight.

I keep going back to all that black though…. brrrrrrrr.

On the plus side, something I was very glad and relieved to see: there are none of the migraine-inducingly garish and confusing “false colour” 1970s and 80s images of the planets that STILL crop up in astronomy titles today…!

The book’s main strength, I feel, is its text. Reading the book is like listening to a really good presentation by an experienced Outreach speaker, and that for me is one of the signs of a good reference book, whatever the subject. As with all astronomy titles, The Guide isn’t meant to be read from cover to cover; it’s a book to dip into, to learn about a certain planet, mission or field of astronomy when you want or need to. And each section really is like a short illustrated talk by a good Outreach educator. The writing is clear and concise, but not dull and dry, and there’s a natural flow to the writing, with long, conversational paragraphs,  which makes it very easy to read – unlike some astronomy titles, which are written in soundbite sentences like a James Patterson novel, or just coldly list facts and figures that make them read as if they were written by a robot.

Take, for example, this section from the introduction…


That’s really nice isn’t it? Space exploration can seem very cold and inhuman sometimes… all that black, you see…. but images like that show that there’s another side to it, a richer, more romantic side, which many ridicule these days but I think is still very important, especially in such dark times as we find ourselves in now.

So, to go back to the questions I posed at the start of this review – is this book “essential”? No. No astronomy (or science) book is that, not in this internet age when space exploration and the science of astronomy moves so quickly that every book is out of date the moment it is sent off to get printed, and mission websites contain more detail and information than a book ever could, and can be updated within hours of a new discovery being made. What this book is is a very effective snapshot of what we know now, looking back at what we have achieved to date and looking ahead to what we are hoping to do in the future.

And is there enough new and different in it to make it “the perfect gift for Christmas”? Well, that depends who it’s bought for. It’s not suitable for anyone younger than a teenager, I think, unless they are a real “space cadet” kid who has been devouring this stuff for years already. I think it would be a great gift for someone a little older who has just become interested in space exploration and wants to catch up with things, maybe a teenager who has just discovered how fascinating “space” is at school, or an adult who has seen a TV programme about Pluto, or Mars, and who wants to know more. If you know someone like that I would definitely recommend you buy them this book for Christmas if you haven’t sorted them out with a present yet.

It’s a book I would have loved to have been given when I was a teenager.



Tonight’s not-so-super Supermoon…

Only 8.30am here in the UK and the Supermoon media hype is already approaching potential Warp core breach levels…!!!

I’ve just been on BBC Cumbria asking people to be aware that this whole thing has been hyped up a ridiculous amount, and  in fact the Moon won’t look *that* much more impressive, but I fear this runaway train’s brakes were cut days ago and a lot of people are going to go out tonight “Supermoon-hunting” and they’ll either be super disappointed with what they see, or will convince themselves it really does look huge because that;s what they’ve been told to expect.

This is happening a lot with astronomical events now – every meteor shower, no matter how modest, will “fill the sky with shooting stars”, every lunar eclipse will “turn the Moon blood red!”, every event is hyped up like a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. Calm down, everyone. Here are the facts – which might not be what people want to hear, but they’re the truth: because it will be occurring when the Moon is at the closest point to Earth in its orbit, today’s Full Moon *will* look bigger and brighter than usual, but just a tiny 7% bigger than the average Full Moon, and only 14% bigger than a Full Moon which occurs when the Moon is at its farthest point from the Earth…

Now, those numbers sound pretty impressive, I know.  After all, if you made a Mars bar 14% bigger (you know, to the size they used to be!) you’d notice it for sure. If you made your nose 7% bigger you’d notice that too. But what non-astronomers don’t appreciate is that the Moon is a tiny, tiny thing in a huge, huge sky, so a 7% increase in its size will not be slap-across-the-face obvious. Think of it this way: if you stuck a small coin to the wall where you are right now, then walked to the far end of the room and looked back at it, that coin would look tiny wouldn’t it? Now imagine it magically increasing in size by 7%… it would STILL look tiny! That’s all that’s happening tonight – the Moon, which is actually tiny in the sky, will appear a little bit bigger, but not really big enough to be obviously larger than usual to the naked eye. Sorry.

There will be lots of gorgeous pictures appearing online (in fact they’re already there, taken by people in other countries who have already seen the Moon) and the Moon will look ENORMOUS on them, but just be aware that they’ll have been taken with telephoto lenses zooming in on the Moon, so they’ll exaggerate its size. That old saying “The camera never lies”? Not true in astronomy. In astronomy the camera lies through its back teeth…!

So, tonight, if you are lucky enough to be under a gap in the cloud, PLEASE don’t fall for the hype and expect to see a blindingly-bright, bloated, silvery Moon the size of a hot air balloon rising up from behind the hills. Sorry to be a killjoy, but that’s not going to happen, and I think it’s important to be honest about these things. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look. A Full Moon is always a beautiful sight, especially if you see it rising up from behind distant trees or hills, and Supermoon or not, tonight’s Full Moon will be a beautiful sight.

And if all this Supermoon excitement has got you looking at the night sky for the first time, then welcome to the fascinating and rewarding hobby of stargazing! Glad to have you with us! The Supermoon and its hype will come and go, but when it has gone there will still be a lot to see “up there”. As well as the stars and the constellations they make, you can also see planets, star clusters, galaxies, shooting stars and much, much more. You don’t need a telescope to see many of these things, they’re visible to the naked eye if you know where and when to look, and what you’re looking for. If you’re not sure about what to do next, just contact your local astronomical society (you’ll find their details with a quick Google search or in the “Local Clubs” directory in your local library) or even drop me a line here in the comments section if you like and I’ll try to help.

Kendal Sunrise on Remembrance Sunday


It’s “Sky Guide” time again…


This is the time of year when amateur astronomers and stargazers start scanning their local newsagents’ and bookshops’ shelves for the “Sky Guides” for the coming year. When I have them all in my hands (just waiting for The Sky At Night magazine’s guide to appear in Kendal’s WH Smiths) I’ll review them all in one post, but I wanted to give a heads up that the one I found most useful and practical last year is now available: the Astronomy Now 2017 Yearbook, shown above, with a snoring Peggy beside it for scale.

I loved this guide last year because it was very well put together, lavishly illustrated, and the text is written so informally and chattily, with honesty and humour missing from other guides, that reading it was like having an astronomer friend there explaining things to you patiently, at your own pace. I said last year that its simplicity makes this the most useful guide for beginners of all the guides available, and that seems to be the case again this year, although obviously I can’t say that for sure until that Sky At Night guide is out.

The Yearbook follows a familiar format – a chapter for each month, with a sky chart showing the positions of the Moon and planets, plus notes on sights and events on view in the night sky. There are also features on space missions, planets and astronomy.


One special thing this guide has going for it is its charts and illustrations drawn by AN’s artist Greg Smye Rumsby. They are simple and realistic, uncluttered with too many lines, labels and symbols, which means they show what the sky actually looks like when you’re looking out for conjunctions, etc.


So, if you want to know what’s going to be on view “up there” in 2017, now’s the time to get out there and buy yourself a Guide or a Yearbook. Full review to follow when they’re all published.


The End is Nigh…

Today’s a very important day for everyone interested in space exploration, as the Rosetta Mission comes to an end… actually, it doesn’t, not really. True, the ROSETTA spacecraft will “land” on the comet and be switched off, ending the flown part of the mission, but in a sense the mission will continue for years, probably decades, as scientists use the enormous amount of data collected by the orbiter and lander to make new discoveries and learn more about comets and our solar system. So, although it will be sad when we hear that ROSETTA has fallen silent – and if we feel sad just try and imagine how gutted the people who have spent so many years working ON the mission will feel – and well all miss our daily updates from Comet 67P, let’s celebrate the mission’s incredible achievements so far, rejoice in the way the mission’s fantastic Outreach team has inspired so many people – not just scientists, but musicians, poets and writers, young and old, across the whole world – and look forward to the fantastic discoveries which will follow in the years to come.
But the end is nigh for ROSETTA. It has taken its final NAVCAM images, and the final set of commands has been sent to it from Earth. There’s no going back, In a few hours, after studying it for so long, just like PHILAE, ROSETTA will become a part *of* Comet 67P, never to be see again – at least not until another spacecraft visits the comet in some far future year and photographs it lying there on the surface. But the comet will continue to whirl around the Sun, and in the future, when it’s visible in the sky, we’ll all look at it, through our own telescope eyepieces or on the screens of our laptops, tablets and phones, and remember how ROSETTA changed our view of comets forever. And send it a heartfelt “thank you”. 🙂

The Sky At Night Magazine Planisphere


The new issue of The Sky At Night magazine comes with a free planisphere, shown above being checked-out by Peggy (who regular readers will be aware is always the first to any astro books or equipment that comes through my door)  and it’s really nice.


As you can see, it’s not as big as the largest most popular Philip’s planisphere, but it’s larger than the smallest, and still easy to read. Its “star disc” is detailed, crowded with all the bright stars and their constellations labelled, as well as the best-known asterisms and deep sky objects – but it avoids being too crowded. It’s well made too, light and colourful but not garish.


They’ve done a great job, so congratulations to Pete Lawrence for putting it together.

But is there any use for a planisphere – which doesn’t even show the positions of the Moon and planets – in this digital age, when you can tour the night sky in all its glory with Stellarium on your laptop and zoom in on the wonders of the night sky with just a pinch of your fingers, using one of the countless astronomy apps available for your phone or tablet?


I think so, yes, because a) they’re just fun to use, b) they’re easy to slip into an observing bag, c) they won’t run out of power just when you need them, and d) they really do help you learn the whole sky, by seeing how everything “fits together”.

So it might be thought of by some as doing astronomy “the old fashioned way” but personally I think that’s a good thing. As much as I love all my digital gear, and recommend astro apps to beginners who come to my talks, there’s still joy for the absolute beginner to be had from simply standing in a field with a planisphere and a torch and spotting stars and their constellations by turning that plastic disc, lining up the date and time, looking at the window and having a light-bulb come on above your head with a DING! as, for the first time, you match some of the little dots on the planisphere with some of the twinkly dots in the actual sky… and in that magical only-happens-once moment your life changes, and just as surely as if you’d stepped through that wardrobe door into Narnia a new world opens up for you.

I’ll definitely be recommending this planisphere to beginners while this issue of the mag is available. So, go get one: They’ll fly off the shelves, I’m sure!

Golden rock…

Another beautiful martian view, courtesy of Mars Science Laboratory… (click to enlarge)


Panorama stitched and processed by Stuart Atkinson, using original images Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Malin Space Science Systems