For people just learning their way around the sky – or those that need to look up an astronomical object – skywatching accessories are a tool that provide quick references. They give information such as when the sun is setting, where the major constellations are, or details about astronomical objects such as planets, moons and galaxies.
Some accessories are more suited to beginners, while others help with intermediate or advanced astronomical buffs. Read on for some tips on how to pick the right accessories for you.
Star Maps/Star Wheels
The first tool for any amateur astronomer is knowing where things are in the sky. The constellations change depending on where you are located and what time it is. A person looking at the summer sky in the northern hemisphere would see a mostly different sky in winter, depending on where they are facing. Southern hemisphere stars are completely different than northern hemisphere stars because you see a different portion of the sky in the two hemispheres.
All of this makes star maps important, because they show us where the constellations are – depending on where you're standing and at what time of year. The average star map for the northern hemisphere assumes a latitude of 40 degrees north, so it's good to know your latitude to know how much the stars will change. More advanced star maps let you adjust for date and time, which will make it easier to find stars in the field. Large star maps are ideal as they show you more stars and objects.
Some star maps are more tailored to following objects in the sky, such as the planets. These are published every year and plot the days of the calendar against the movement of the planets and the rising/setting of the sun. They are a good, quick guide to knowing what's happening in the sky on a particular date, but will become outdated every year – requiring another purchase.
These are built for the more advanced stargazer. Once you know where all the major constellations and objects are located, the next step is to use binoculars or a telescope to observe things such as galaxies, nebulas (gas clouds) or star clusters. But when is it best to see each one? What equipment will give the best view? How do you locate these objects relative to other spots in the sky? A sky atlas will give you all of that information.
Sky atlases tend to include more detailed star charts that assume you are using a pair of binoculars or a telescope for navigation. So instead of showing the entire sky, they will just show a small swath of it that is a few degrees in diameter. Within that swath, objects are located as well as their relative distances from each other. That way, somebody using a telescope can easily navigate from one spot to the next.
The stars slightly shift over time due to a phenomenon known as precession, which occurs as the Earth's axis moves around the sky. While this process takes tens of thousands of years, sky atlases can become slightly outdated in a decade or two (depending on how finely they plot the sky). Most amateurs don't need to worry about this level of detail, but if you have a serious interest in astronomy with large and advanced telescopes, it may be worth it to buy newer sky atlases once every few years.
Sky atlases generally come in a few forms. Books are good reference guides for sitting at home and planning out your stargazing ahead of time. In the field, they can still be useful, but it's likely you'll want to spend less time reading and more time observing. You can also bring along large laminated charts that show you where objects are located. While these charts can be bulky in the field, rolling them up with an elastic makes them slightly more portable to carry along with your telescope or binoculars.
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