Despite the fact that I bought my telescope five years ago, I consider myself relatively new to astronomy. Mainly because of the myriad of alignment challenges that I’ve had over the last five years, I feel like I’m starting fresh, albeit with more knowledge than most enter the hobby. I’ve done some basic starhopping, attended numerous RASC meetings, gone to star parties, done some outreach. You know, got my feet wet.
As a RASC member, I also get the annual RASC Observers Handbook. Yet for the last five years, it’s been hit or miss with me whether it was useful. In 2015, I dove deep, and did a review (A newbie’s guide to the RASC Observer’s Handbook 2015) based on being a complete noob and how I found the contents. 2016 was okay, flipped through. In 2017, I didn’t even open the plastic wrap around it until a few weeks back when I got the alignment issues solved.
This year, I wanted to go hard core on the guide as part of my 50by50 challenge. The 2018 edition arrived two weeks ago, and my basic intent was to read it cover to cover. I know, I know, it’s part field guide, it’s not meant to be read cover to cover. Yet I wanted to know what was in it so that I could go back and dive into sections when I needed them. Here’s what I found…
One of the biggest and most obvious challenges for an Observer’s Guide of this range is trying to hit a target audience of RASC members that combines newbies, solid amateurs, semi-professional astronomers and photographers, and outright astro-physicists. That is a huge spectrum of potential users, and there is virtually no way to write a single text that will fit all four stops on the spectrum. Yet, for me, a newbie alumni potentially, I found some quirks that bothered me.
One thing that bothers me is a number of website errors in URLs. Don’t get me wrong, the web changes every day, and trying to keep up to date on a series of links is a no-win battle. That’s true of almost any publication that is linking to publicly available information. Sites change their structure, move some files, and voila, a dead link. And I have this site which deals with dead links all the time.
But that’s not this type of error. Most of the links haven’t changed, and they are already up to date on the RASC main site. Just somehow they got edited before they went to print, and they no longer work. On page 10, there are some recommended readings, atlases and software links, and there is a link to an article by Andrew Franknoi. Except the link takes you to a generic entry portal for the magazine that the article is in, and it was only by other google searching that I luckily chose the right issue. However, later I was on the RASC national site for the 2017 guide, and the link was there. So I clicked it again, and it worked, took me right to the article. So between last year and this year, someone edited the URL for no apparent benefit. In the same section, there is a reference to Sky Safari being available on the desktop which was news to me. So I surfed and couldn’t find it. Until I realized that yes it was available on desktop, but only Mac. Would have been good to know before wasting time looking for something that doesn’t exist. Later on page 15, there are a list of selected internet resources. Some good ones in there, a standard list that appears every year. Which URL is wrong? The one for the Observer’s Handbook. On the site, it is rasc.ca/handbook; on the list, they called it rasc.ca/observers-handbook. Which doesn’t take you to the handbook, it just throws an error. Really? They got their OWN url wrong?
Page 16 starts with an article about using the handbook for teaching purposes, and I really like the resources they have for the Night Sky (page 17) around constellations, when they’re visible, and even just a list of them.
Page 25 has “observable satellites of the planets” and I’m very excited by the list. I’m sure some variant was in previous handbooks, but I’m adding it to my observing target list for 2018. Equally, page 38 has information on observing artificial satellites too.
Optics and Observing
Pages 49-59 are all about magnification, telescope parameters, night myopia and exit pupils. I read the articles twice and I was more confused than when I started. At the end of page 53, there are some examples, and it probably should have aimed to get there a lot faster. Ideally, and I may be missing some huge variables, they would take some basic types of scopes and give ranges…like for the Schmidt-Cassegrains that range in aperture from 4″ to 8″, or maybe even 11″, they could use basic eye piece sizes (32mm, 25mm, 20mm, 15mm, 10mm, 8mm, 4mm), show the magnification that goes with that, and add the exit pupil. Then use shading in the table to show the different ranges that are good combos. Then do the same for refractors, reflectors, dobs, etc. Heck, if they want, they could add in seeing quality to eliminate most of the “high magnification” values that are more theoretical than practical, unless you have near-perfect skies. I’m going to look for better explanations online. It is clear they know their stuff, it just doesn’t come across as very user-friendly to understand.
After the challenge of the first ten pages of the section, I was excited to see the updated article on binoculars that is included in some form annually. And so it has the great info on page 60 about what you can see, i.e. without needing a telescope, you can see a lot. Unfortunately, when it comes to practical information, the only pair it recommends is the Canon 10x42L with image stabilization. Sure, I agree it is a superb instrument. And for the almost $1500 it costs, I would expect that. I’m not sure why that pair is relevant as the majority of people buying are people who didn’t have $1000 for a scope or even $700. The reason there’s a market way less than that is because that is what people can afford. Much more useful would be some indication of the entry-level astro models with 2-3 examples, and then maybe a small jump up before going all the way to the wallet breaker.
By contrast, no pun intended, the filters article on page 64 is awesome. Great combo of basic info about all the different types of filters. Having recently experienced for the first time the benefits of the Ultra Block and an Oxygen III in viewing the Veil and Orion Nebulae, I was inspired to branch out more with this article.
Skipping over a few articles of limited resonance for me, I came to the one on Weather Resources. I think this article has appeared before, but I was struck on page 76 that it is incredibly outdated. It talks about the effects of fires in B.C. in 2002 and 2003 having implications for viewing far away, but so did the ones in 2015 and again this year. This year could be forgiven for being excluded due to time constraints in publishing, but we have much more recent examples than 2002. But where I just about lost my sh** was on page 77 when I read:
The popular Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes do not come with cooling fans and they are known to suffer from internal turbulence, especially at large apertures. Only a few advanced amateur astronomers will have the courage to add fans to those telescopes. Any telescope, and particularly the Schmidt-Cassegrains type, should always be brought outside to cool it down at least two hours before the observing session. Better yet is to keep a telescope permanently outside in a backyard observatory.
The bold and italics are added by me. I don’t have a problem with the cooling info for SCTs. I do however have a huge problem with such a strong economic bias creeping into a field guide for observers. Just like with the previous article on binos, albeit written by a different author.
First of all, not everyone lives in a house to even have the chance to have a backyard. Lots of people live in apartments and condos. Second, separate from that, many wouldn’t have the money to build a whole separate observatory in their backyard or the space to do it, or even the lines of sight to make it useful, even if the skies were dark enough where they live. Third, this is in a paragraph about SCTs. Why are SCTs so popular? Because up to 8″, they’re highly portable. But sure, the best object is to go out and buy a house so you can have a backyard to put a SCT in your personal observatory. There’s a reason a lot of the people doing that are retired…they have retirement and savings, and have the time and resources to do that. Most Canadians don’t. I’m extremely fortunate to have a good job, and above average disposable income, and I don’t have the extra money to move to darker skies and build a personal observatory. I wouldn’t expect an article in a field guide to actually piss me off, but this one did.
Moving on, we come to light abatement, and there is a great chart on page 84 about star parks and dark sky preserves in Canada. Except for some reason, the chart is organized by reverse chronological order of when they were created — not by GPS coordinates, not by province, not by closest city, just by reverse chron. I suppose it shows history, but most people would want to know where they are in Canada…so why not put a map with a date next to it? I don’t get it.
I’m all the way to page 85 before I start hitting the mother lode. Alan Dyer’s deep-sky observing hints. Which starts with planning. Page 86 has Paul Markov on the observing logbook, and while I didn’t use the RASC default one (side note — the URL for this was wrong too, again one of RASC’s own links (!), although I did find it eventually on the national site), I found enough in the Markov article and elsewhere to design my own. I’m not quite finished with a couple last minute additions and tweaks, and adding a bunch of static info up front, but I’ll print and bind it in coil when I’m done so I’ll have a nice half-sheet size notebook.
Kathleen Houston has another inspiring article on sketching, and I confess I was a bit underwhelmed. Even though I have no ability whatsoever for drawing anything, I love the premise. Enough so that my logbook has a space for each observing to draw in, if I so choose. I figure if I put it in, I have the option; if I don’t, I’ll never do it. So it’s in for now. But I think what would make this article “sing” more is some actual practical examples. Like a few pictures with a corresponding simple sketch beside each one. To actually show people what we’re talking about, rather than pages of prose. After all, the whole point is that a picture/sketch is worth at least a couple hundred words, isn’t it?
I was a bit disappointed with the astrophotography primer, and maybe that isn’t fair to the author. It’s an almost impossible task to describe at any level of detail that will make the masses happy. But for me, the part that bothered me was around the afocal imaging and a rather basic / negative treatment of it. If anyone has doubts about the quality of imaging with a smartphone, check out Andrew Symes on Twitter. Based in Stittsville, he has some amazing planetary shots. All with his iPhone and Nexstar 8SE with Alt-Az mount. None of the equipment that people are supposed to use to do AP. And he’s getting amazing results.
The Sky Month by Month
Okay, I confess. My eyes glazed over reading this section, which admittedly is the meat of the book. Many people might buy it just for these chapters. A great overview of each month, all condensed down to 26 pages. Yet, I can’t help but feel there is something missing. Like Letterman doing a top 10 list for each month. Or maybe even just the top 3. Three things that are UNIQUE to that month. The best time all year to see Saturn. Or a fantastic view of some DSO that will be high in the sky with little distorting atmosphere between us and them. Or a meteor shower. January for example has 42 events listed for the month. Even if you go with the bold ones, there are 17. Sure, I can guess which ones are better. Hello, lunar eclipse! But it would be great for people to have almost a “basic” option, a “medium” option, and a “challenge” option for each month.
Page 122-146 has a lot of information, and while some of the lunar stuff is interesting, I confess I feel like the entire chapter is a year too late. I don’t remember if 2017 had such a chapter, as I said I just opened it(!), but there was a reason to have it this year. Without the solar eclipse in N.A. driving interest, I feel like the whole chapter is overkill. Even with a lunar one this year to aim for…
I love this section. Maybe in part because I want to do the Lunar certificate for RASC sometime, and I think the moon is undervalued as an accessible target for people.
For me, the entire handbook is “made” just having the info from Bruce McCurdy on lunar observing starting on page 158 as it is perfect for me. Relative shifts per day (p. 158), Canadian content (p.160), the Hadley Rille (p.161), and the lunar certificate (p. 161) are all great elements for the coming year.
Like the previous chapter, I am interested in this one as I have a solar filter. I don’t however have a solar scope. Which means what I can do is kind of basic. But it’s a start. And I can do it during the day. Kim Hay’s article on page 186 on solar observing is a bit more basic than I would like, would have been good to have a bit more detail like the moon article. Oddly enough, I found Roy Bishop’s article on Sky Brightness at midnight the most, ahem, illuminating. While fairly basic, I hadn’t thought of the night wind-down in terms of times and horizons, partly as I’m more constrained by sky glow of suburbs that don’t start to taper off until after 10:00 and often 11:00 or 12:00 anyway.
Planets and Satellites
Pages 211-240 cover the seven planets and is probably the most useful section in the short-term. Like the Month-by-Month section, I wish it was a bit clearer as to when the best viewing was, as some of the descriptions are kind of “on the one hand, this is good, but on the other, this is not so good”. Give me a date or a month, people! Break it down! I have what I *think* it means, but honestly, I have no guarantees I’m reading it right. But I took a LOT of notes in the margins.
Dwarf and Minor Planets // Meteors, Comets and Dust
I was going to skim read these two sections, I confess, as I’m usually in the city glow, not a dark sky, and I have an 8″ SCT. Which means my chances of picking these ones out are quite low in the beginning. Maybe later when I know what I’m doing, and I’m at a dark site, I might have a chance. But I’m willing to pick the best night of the year to try for it, and if I can time that for a dark sky viewing, I’ll go for it. I’m optimistic that some day I might get to it, but maybe not 2018.
The star section, pages 270-306, should be the simplest in my view, and yet I find the various lists confusing. First we have named stars, that seems simple enough, 85 stars whose names I have seen. Then there’s a list of the brightest stars. Equally simple, I thought. It even says there are 286 of them. Great. Except it organizes by the technical name, not the known name, so Mirach is Andromeda B. Umm, okay. Fine. I guess that makes sense. And then we have the 50 brightest stars by magnitude. WTF? Why wouldn’t you just combine this with the list of 286? Presumably they’re on the list. Couldn’t that REALLY detailed table have a column to identify it’s rank out of 286? Then there’s a list of nearby stars. Okay that makes sense too. Wait, a separate list of “easily observable” nearby stars. Okay, colour me confused. No wait, I haven’t got that far yet — I still have double stars, multiple stars, and carbon stars, before I get to coloured double stars. Not to mention variable stars and expired stars. I see lots of LONG lists, and not much of a guide to filtering them other than to do the 50 brightest or the easily observable nearby ones. It would be great if they were organized by season though. Not sure how I’m going to use much of the lists unless I can download the e-version.
The Deep Sky
Unlike the stars section, the deep sky section is just richness personified. I love all the lists and I want to do them all:
- Deep Sky Selection – From Near to Far;
- Open Clusters
- Globular Clusters
- Messier – by season
- Finest NGC Objects – by season
- Dark Nebulae
- Deep Sky Challenge Objects
- Deep Sky Gems – by season
- Wide Field Wonders
- 40 Optically Brightest Shapley-Ames Galaxies
- The Nearest Galaxies
- Galaxies with Proper Names
The RASC Observers Handbook 2018 has a huge amount of material that is useful to multiple users across the spectrum. And for me personally, there are a lot of things that I will try and turn into useful target lists for various nights. But there are some editorial and tone issues in a few places that made it a less than positive initial engagement with the guide.
Let’s see how it does in the field.