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Wayne Mitchell - Deep Space Atlas (Second Edition)  @psychohistorian.org

Wayne Mitchell - Deep Space Atlas (Second Edition)

posted: 3555 days ago, on Tuesday, 2010 Jun 01 at 23:03
tags: astronomy, deep sky, books.

The Story behind the Atlas and my History of Star Gazing

Star Gazers Deep Space Atlas, Outdoor viewing.
A5 (210x150 mm)
270. Laminated covers and varnished inner pages.

Companion website:

"Look up and discover the mysterious
cosmic gems we all deserve to see!"

Astronomy has inspired me since the age of about five. At Christmas, my parents would take me outside to see "Father Christmas's reindeer-drawn sleigh" passing over, appearing as a moving star high above the roof tops. Of course I believed them, not knowing that the "sleigh" was actually a satellite. My father would also point out stars like the Three Sisters (Orion's Belt) of the Orion constellation and the Pleiades.

After receiving a pair of 7x35 mm Zenith binoculars at the age of eight, a gift from my dear grandmother, I would peer through the binoculars at the sky above and was fascinated to see so many stars. "Why are there so many and what were they actually? I would ask myself.

A few years later Halley's Comet appeared. During this time my grandmother, who was living on a remote farm about 30 km north of Brits, allowed me to use her larger pair of binoculars to view the snowy comet. She erected a stretcher bed in the garden to enable me to gaze up more comfortably at the comet and star-studded Milky Way. The sky was extremely dark and I gazed up in wonder. Those were exciting evenings, evenings which captured my interest for a lifetime to follow.

Several years went by during which I would regularly gaze up at the sky and also read articles on astronomy related matters. Shortly after finishing school I purchased an attractive book on astronomy. I read this book thoroughly and became familiar with phrases such as "White Dwarf" and "Planetary Nebula". This book also contained some very basic star maps but I did not pay much attention to them; lots of little black dots on a page seemed very uninteresting. I preferred to just browse through the colourful pictures of the planets and stars instead. About two years later I took the same book out of my cupboard. On one star map I noticed a single small "squiggle" which I had always thought of as a misprint of a star symbol. Soon afterwards, I read an article while browsing through books at a book shop, which stated that the galaxy, M31, in the Andromeda constellation was the furthest object visible to the naked eye. It then dawned on me that the "squiggle" on the star map was in fact a symbol used to indicate the location of M31. I still remember the excitement; I would probably be able to see this galaxy! That is when I pursued my first deep space object. I used my 7x35 mm binoculars and after a careful search with the aid of the star map, I found the galaxy. It appeared as a small, elliptical smudge of light, but that was exciting enough for me. This was the first time that I had observed a galaxy other than just looking at photographs of these magnificent objects in a book. I had always assumed that any galaxy was only visible when viewed through a gigantic telescope like those erected upon mountain tops.

Using the star map for the first time was rather tricky. It did not have direction markers and horizon lines; nor did it have any reference times or dates. All that I could do was match the star map to the sky by making use of the brightest stars as a reference. I did not know the names of any stars except for Sirius (I learned that Sirius was the brightest star in the sky during a visit to the Johannesburg Planetarium while I was in primary school). Nor did I know the location of a single constellation and I was not even sure if the Andromeda constellation would be visible during the time of my observation.

In finding M31, my interest in the night sky grew. I committed myself to learning the names of a few stars, beginning with the brightest ones and progressing to fainter ones. The constellations Crux, Canis Major, Canis Minor and Orion soon became familiar patterns. At the time of writing this article I had another look at the first star maps which I had used; the first time I had looked at them in about 10 years. I can honestly say that I have no idea how I managed to learn anything about the night sky with them!

I had somehow come to know the positions of the planets Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Venus. I had a fair idea which planets were which, based on the visual descriptions and information given in various articles. Mars appears like a red star and Venus is the brightest and so forth, and I kept track of the motion of these planets as the months progressed. I would also peer with wonder into the Milky Way with my binoculars; brighter patches of starlight still remained a mystery. During this time I had no idea that detailed star maps were available. I had never seen them in book shops or perhaps I just did not make a conscious effort to look for them. Several months later I noticed a few commercial telescopes in the window of a little shop in Pretoria, but they were ridiculously expensive - even the smallest telescope. "One day", I thought to myself...

About two years later it finally happened; I purchased my first astronomical telescope. A senior colleague, Mr. Greeff, noticed me reading the Astronomy magazine (of course during my lunch break...). Coincidently he was also interested in astronomy and mentioned that he had a telescope which he did not use. On impulse I asked if he would be willing to sell it to me. To my delight he offered it to me at a price I could not refuse and promised me he would bring the telescope along the following day.

The next day was an absolutely thrilling experience, a dream come true! The telescope was the same size as the one which I had seen in the shop window two years earlier. The brand was Intras, a 114 mm Newtonian reflector telescope on a wooden tripod. It seemed huge! That was probably the longest day of my life; I could not wait to use it the same evening. As mentioned, I had learned the positions of the brighter planets and the Orion Nebula, which would all be visible that night - all the more reason to hurry home. That evening, after aligning the finder scope, I pointed the telescope to what I presumed was Saturn (a bright yellowish "star"). A tiny little disc and encircling ring confirmed my suspicion. I was ecstatic and then pointed the telescope towards Jupiter. Yes, it was Jupiter; a tiny little twin striped disc slightly larger than Saturn and four tiny "stars" arranged in a straight line, which are Jupiter's four Galilean moons. I ran inside to share the excitement with my wife and quickly returned to the telescope to gaze again at these celestial wonders. I pointed the telescope to stars at random. One star caught my attention; I could see two stars instead of a single one. At first I thought that an optical error was the reason, but it was not. I did not realize at the time that I was observing Alpha Centauri, the most famous double star in the southern sky. This was also a "discovery"; there are pairs of stars that are in orbit with each other. Other stars also have companions although not as bright.

A few weeks later I purchased a brilliant little star book which included more detailed star maps than the ones I had initially used. I studied the book intensely, getting to know what would be visible with the aid of my new telescope. A few evenings later I was viewing galaxies. The galaxies M65 and M66 in the Leo constellation were the first, and they both shared the same field-of-view.

A couple of months later we enjoyed a week's vacation at a game lodge near Lydenberg. Of course I had brought the telescope along and erected it on the balcony of the chalet. That night the sky darkened to a velvety black. The stars shone like diamonds and it was a perfect night for star gazing. I studied the star map next to the telescope in the light of a flickering candle (a red-light torch is the correct thing to use, but I did not know this at the time). The constellations were vividly noticeable. I was used to searching for them in the artificially lit urban sky. After observing a few clusters, I searched for the Ring Nebula (M57) in Lyra, my first attempt at observing a planetary nebula and a fair challenge, since I did not know what to expect in terms of its visual appearance and I was only using a magnification of 40X. Later that evening I pointed the telescope to the Andromeda Galaxy, which was actually visible to the naked eye! This galaxy and both of its companion galaxies were visible in the same field-of-view, a truly remarkable sight. It was almost 4 a.m. when I pointed the telescope to the Pleiades and the Orion Nebula. What a sight! The views were breathtaking and absolutely amazing! It was one of the most exciting and adventurous evenings of my life. I must add that not only is viewing the stars exciting, but simultaneously listening to the abundant sounds of nocturnal animal and bird life. I was not the only crazy one up all night!

For the next two years I viewed many more celestial objects at various dark sky locations. My little telescope had been pointed to most of the Messier and other brighter celestial objects as well as a few dozen NGC objects. There were hundreds of other objects to view, but they would require the use of a larger telescope, so I had no choice but to be content with what I had at the time. Up until then I had been a solitary observer. One day, my mother suggested that I join a society of people who had similar interests. I had no idea that there actually was such a society. Browsing through the telephone directory, I cannot remember exactly what I found, but was directed to the telephone number of the well known Louis Barendse, the celebrity of the radio talk show "Sterre en Planete (Stars and Planets)" on Radio Sonder Grense (RSG). I left a message on the answering machine and a few days later my call was returned. I remember feeling really excited about the phone call; I had been introduced to the Pretoria Centre for the Astronomical Society of South Africa. I received a faxed copy of the society's newsletter with directions to Christian Brothers College, their meeting place and observatory.

Well, I arrived at the observatory, but there was no-one there! I waited for about an hour, and still no-one arrived. I read the newsletter again - I had come on the wrong Friday! I simply had to wait until the following observing evening. Notwithstanding, I boldly approached a group of gentlemen chatting around an erected telescope and asked them "What are you looking at? One chap said "Theta Carina" and for moment I was confused; I did not know of a Theta Carina, but only of an Eta Carina. So I replied "Eta Carina? The reply was "Theta Carina, Eta Carina is over there". Then I realized that there was still much to learn. The gentleman was Michael Poll (the most learned person of the night sky that I know), who realized that I was a first time visitor to the observatory and warmly welcomed me to the society. This was an exciting start to a new level of astronomy. I could not wait to attend the following observing evenings. There was always something new to "discover" and star gazing with these enthusiasts was so much more exciting. Everyone shared their passion and knowledge of the stars.

I had by now exhausted the capabilities of my first telescope and it was time for a larger one. I had already done research on telescopes of various apertures, but the particular size telescope which I was after was very expensive. I had also realized that enquiring about the capabilities of telescopes from particular retailers was not the wisest thing to do; they would sell you anything. Before I obtained my 114 mm telescope I was assured by a retailer that an even smaller telescope would "see" the moons of Saturn in as much detail as I could view the Earth's Moon, which is far from the truth! I enquired about pre-used telescopes from several members of the society, those who had more experience, and was referred to Charles, a retired gentleman who had a telescope for sale. It was a 200 mm Schmidt Cassegrain, a very expensive model. Charles told me that the telescope was incomplete and that it had been exposed to the heat of a fire in his garage, but he invited me to look at it anyway. When I arrived at his house he was waiting at the gate. The first thing he said was that I should bring my car closer to the house in order to load the telescope. On the step by the front door was a pile of metal pieces, wires and books. Charles clearly assumed that I intended to buy the telescope, but he had not given me a price for it yet. I did not know what to think, but was really expecting to pay several thousand rand for it. My first impression of this pile of parts was not too optimistic, but then I noticed that the optical assembly had all of the dust covers in place. I removed the covers from the army green and flame scarred tube. The lenses were surprisingly clean and they appeared to be in a perfect condition. Charles assured me that the optics were probably still fine. This was a promising sign, but only a star test would prove the telescope's worth. I said that I would take the telescope and asked what it cost. He was only too happy for me to have the telescope for less than R500! For a moment I did not believe him, but realized that he was quite serious. This was just too good to be true! My dream had come true. I kept looking back at this new "toy" on the back seat of my car while driving home; it was rather difficult to focus on the road in front of me!

Later that evening I tested the telescope. The optics were in very good condition, not perfect at high magnification, but more suitable for low to medium. For the next few weeks I was pre-occupied with the refurbishment of this new "toy". I built a rotary base and steel tripod and painted the optical tube and fork assembly. The motor, still in its original wrapping, was functional. The telescope was not computerized, but capable of tracking celestial objects (counteracting the rotation of the Earth). During this time I received a call from Charles who had found a box full of telescope accessories, the type needed for astrophotography. It felt like Christmas! I then acquired an old Olympus OM1 film camera and performed astrophotography. This was no easy task, but I did succeed in capturing some spectacular images of nebulae. I used the telescope extensively for the next two years and observed all the objects which I had previously observed with my first telescope, only in greater detail. With the aid of this telescope I had made some new "discoveries", such as the explosive bulges produced by the star Eta Carina and globular clusters like the Omega Centauri cluster, which are resolvable into hundreds of tiny stars.

During this time I joined the society's committee, presenting several talks and participating in public viewing evenings. A few members of the society and I attended a public speaking course which raised my level of confidence. I then presented talks and sky tours at schools and lodges. It was fulfilling to share my passion with others.

During this time I became involved in the telescope retail business and moved up in size to a 250 mm Dobsonian type telescope. This was a brilliant telescope; a simple design, superb optics and easy to use. I did not have any interest in computerized (GOTO) telescopes and had become used to searching for celestial objects with the aid of a star map. I felt, as I still do, that using a computerized telescope where all one does is push buttons and the telescope finds the objects for you, does not allow for an observer to learn the sky. It also takes the fun out of star gazing. However, this is just my opinion and GOTO telescopes do have their advantages.

I sold telescopes from my garage, which I had revamped into an office. People usually enquired when buying a telescope, "Are there any books that I may buy to use with the telescope? I could only recommend the books which I was using, but they were not readily available or were not quite so easy for beginners to use. That is when I thought of supplying a good book to sell along with the telescopes. Then, by chance, I was chatting to someone at the little print-shop up the road from my house about the books that I wanted to sell. The shop owner was already familiar with my passion for the stars. She had printed several astronomy-related flyers and business cards for me. She suggested that I write my own book. I remember staring at her for a few seconds, deep in thought. This was a good idea! I returned home and gave it some serious thought. I had used several types of star maps and would combine the best features of each type into one atlas. Of course the biggest challenge would be to find a way to accurately plot thousands of stars, without using already existing star maps, to avoid copyright violations. After several weeks of painstaking and patient experimenting, I finally developed a method to plot stars at their relative positions to an accuracy of almost one hundred percent. This was just the beginning of what was to be a huge and time- consuming task; each star, object symbol, label and constellation line had to be plotted and drawn, one at a time. It was a "drag and drop" process, not "copy and paste". The atlas also had to be user-friendly. I had to figure out a way to ensure that no stars were left out. Also, several more stumbling blocks occurred along the way, but they seemed easier to overcome. I practiced at first with the Scorpius constellation and once I had gained enough confidence that my method would work, it was time to begin plotting the constellations in alphabetical order, beginning with Andromeda. For the next few months I worked intensely to plot several thousand stars. Plotting the non-stellar objects (eg. star clusters, nebulae and galaxies) was the next step. A decision needed to be taken on how many of these objects I would include on the star maps. I decided to cater for users of telescopes up to 300 mm in size, the size of the telescope which I currently use. Observers with these sized telescopes usually search for visually challenging objects. Telescopes this size had recently become more readily available and at a reasonable cost. It would be pointless to clutter a star map with objects that would be invisible to all but very large telescopes.

During my observing evenings over the last few years I had made observation notes on an electronic diary. I described the objects in terms of visual appearance, angular size and brightness. I had made these notes while using four sizes of telescope, 114, 200, 250 and 300 mm and learned to determine the visual limit for objects through each telescope. These descriptive notes were of significant assistance in helping me to decide on the magnitude limit for the celestial objects to include in the atlas.

Although most star atlases included celestial coordinates and lines of declination and right ascension, I did not find them particularly helpful, and regarded them as clutter. They would be useful for locating comets or asteroids from a set of given coordinates, but these objects may also be located by using nearby stars as a reference. The only line which I thought may be useful was the ecliptic line; the line near which most of the planets are located. My aim was not to clutter the star maps with unnecessary information, hence my reason for only including faint stars within the constellation boundaries of each detailed star map. A star map that is cluttered with information generally appears overwhelming or complicated for beginners.

Then something unforeseen happened. My laptop became dysfunctional. I was in a state of panic, but fortunately I had made backups. All my base work had to be restructured and a few days later I resumed the pace.

About six months had already passed and I had set myself a goal to complete the atlas by December. That goal quickly proved unrealistic. I was working on the atlas every evening after returning home from work and on weekends from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. I hired a gardener to allow me more time to work on the atlas instead of using precious time to mow the lawn. April may be a more realistic goal, I decided, in time for Scope-X, the annual telescope exhibition, but this too was unrealistic. I may have finished the atlas if I had quit my full-time job or if there were more hours in day, but even so, I had developed severe headaches from sitting at the computer for prolonged periods. These headaches were progressively reducing the length of time that I could spend in front of the computer and I knew that I was pushing myself to the limit. What can I say - I underestimated the amount of work required to compile this atlas. I often thought to myself that I was crazy; who in their right mind would draw thousands of dots and symbols (the entire night sky) one at a time? Perhaps I was crazy, but nevertheless persisted until the atlas was complete. At the same time, it was comforting to know that after completing each star map, it looked just like I had envisioned it. I had not even begun to think of a title for the atlas until I was busy with the last constellation, Vulpecula. Probably the most exciting part of writing the book was adding my own "Author's Notes" to it. This is where I could share the excitement of "discovering" new celestial gems.

It was not until about June that the first edition was complete and ready for the first print run, a year later. I had worked on the atlas every day for a year, except for one week during the December holidays. Regrettably, I did not have the atlas formally edited before the first batch was printed. I had approached the South African Astronomical Observatory to "review" the atlas, but I had made one rather big mistake. What I actually meant to request was just some commentary to include as an endorsement, as well as some editing. The book was reviewed, as asked, and the review published in the MNASSA circular. When I received a copy of the review I was rather discontented; there was nothing that I could do, since all the MNASSA members had obviously already read the review as well. I knew that there may be errors, but this was entirely my fault. I knew absolutely nothing about publishing and had misunderstood the true meaning of the word "review", hence the fair criticisms in the MNASSA review. I must add though, that there were also encouraging and complimentary points in the review, so all was not lost. I knew what to correct for the next print run. Only one hundred copies had been printed. From the beginning I had structured the atlas in such a way that all I needed to do was to hit the "print" button.

On the topic of printing, to find a printing shop that could print the atlas, pages almost entirely covered in black ink, was not easy and somewhat discouraging. The printers' copy machines would get jammed or were not able to print jet-black pages. I began to think that the atlas could not be printed and I was concerned, but did not lose hope; other star maps had been printed before. It was a great pleasure to finally meet a person who understood exactly what I wanted; there were several specifications which they had to adhere to and of this they were capable. It was no ordinary printing job. A couple of weeks later the book was completed and I was due for a break, or so I thought... There was still plenty of room for improvement which I progressively implemented before each print run.

My initial idea for the atlas was to introduce it to members of the society (Pretoria Centre for ASSA) and to offer a copy to telescope buyers. These were people who had already gained some experience in star gazing, but there was also a keen interest shown in the atlas from beginners. Although I thought that beginners would find the atlas easy to use, they generally did not. I had to explain how to use the atlas and this was often too much for a beginner to grasp at once. By this time I was rather desperate for a break and did not resume any astronomy-related activities for several months. What was enjoyment had become endurement.

Then one day... it was time for change! I initially thought to simply add more All-Sky Maps to complete the original set, but while I was busy compiling and improving these maps, one idea led to another. What was to take only a few weeks, eventually took a year. I decided to compile a new edition, one that would significantly assist the beginner while still retaining the content of the first edition. My idea was for the atlas to work for the observer and not for the observer to work with the atlas. I then constructed the Quick-Sky Tables. Any person, beginner or expert would benefit from them. These tables would direct an observer to the correct star map for their observations. The observer would not have to search for the correct star map. Constructing the Quick-Sky tables was a tedious exercise. At times I was lying flat on my back outside on the driveway between midnight and 4 a.m., holding my laptop out in front of me while staring at the sky. Since these tables were to be a key feature, I had to ensure they were accurate.

While star gazing, one often asks the question "What is the Milky Way and a shooting star? This is why explanations for these terms are included in the Atlas. The Milky Way is a broad subject, one that a person could write an entire book about, but the general idea of the explanation provided is to show readers how large our Milky Way really is. Then of course, there had to be detailed explanations on how to use the atlas, as compared to the very brief explanations included in the first edition.

Just when I thought I had completed the new edition, I decided to include the Sky Tours. I felt that a beginner would appreciate some assistance in finding at least one interesting object in order to get them started. These tours would instruct an observer, step-by-step, in finding a celestial object on their very first night under the stars. In doing this, beginners would hopefully be encouraged to continue their quest in finding more objects at their own pace.

I am confident that all levels of astronomy enthusiasts will benefit significantly from this edition. Beginners may, with ease, casually gaze up at the starry heavens and find the constellations, while experienced observers may now use their telescope to its full potential.


1. Comments to the first edition (2009 July 29)

nothing more to see. please move along.

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