When an Astrophysicist Needs a Star Map

Stars of the Northern Hemisphere, Ashland Astronomy Studio

Imagine the scene: I’m having a romantic walk on a clear night with my wife along the beach. We see a brief flash of light and Deb says, “Hey, a meteor!” I then proceed to tell her that most meteors are actually no bigger than a grain of sand and they originate from comets, even though she already knew that. Feeling quite chuffed with myself that I was able to describe a nugget of atmospheric dynamics in 2 minutes, Deb then points up again and says, “There’s Orion. What constellation is that one?”

“Um. I have no idea,” I reply, feeling less smug. “I know how those things work, but I don’t know what they look like.”

I don’t own a telescope (yet) and I only took one course in university on practical astronomy, everything else was astrophysics. So the sad thing is that I know how stars work — from the nuclear fusion in their core to coronal dynamics (the latter of which I did my PhD in) — but if anyone asked me to point out a constellation or the location of a star… I wouldn’t have a clue.

Sure, there are the old favorites, like Orion, the Big Dipper (or Plough) and bright Polaris, but my expertise in night sky viewing is pretty limited. Although I’d usually refer any astronomy-related questions to BBC astronomy presenter (and Discovery News writer) Mark Thompson, I’d love to learn more. So, firstly, I needed a star chart.

Luckily, a few weeks ago, I received a random email from Erik Anderson from Ashland Astronomy Studio asking whether I’d like a copy of his company’s new star map poster. Being eager to boost my pitiful knowledge of the constellations, I jumped at the chance. Soon after, my poster arrived through the post.

Now this is where things got really cool. Although Erik had titled his email to me “Star Map with Exoplanet Hosts,” I’d forgotten about the “exoplanet” part. On the clear, yet detailed Ashland star map, all the major constellations and stars are plotted, along with the time of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere) they can be seen. But also, there’s a symbol representing the hundreds of stars that are known to have exoplanetary systems orbiting.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been referring to my newly-framed star map, and can now confidently point into the sky, not only identifying the constellations but also some stars that possess exoplanets. Only last night, I pointed up in the general vicinity of the star 61 Virginis (near the blue giant Spica) and said, “That star has 3 worlds orbiting it.”

I’m not sure if Deb was overly impressed with my exoplanet knowledge, but I was happy to be smug again.

Although it’s only a very small part of an astronomer’s tool kit, a star map is essential. Although you can get apps for your iPhone, you can’t beat a poster that isn’t only functional, but also looks very attractive on your office wall.

The very cool Ashland Astronomy Studio Star Map can be purchased from Amazon.

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15 responses to “When an Astrophysicist Needs a Star Map

  1. I am really amazed by the apps available on smart phones that reveal the constellations you are looking at by holding it up to that area of the sky.  It does not replace the map but can be an excellent companion when you are walking below the stars.  Pocket Universe, SkyWatch Planetarium, Star Walk, Star Chart, there are dozens of great astronomy apps for the iPhone & Android smart phones.  There is also Exoplanet which is a daily updated catalog of all discovered extrasolar planets.

  2. I’ve got a planisphere.  I’d rather use this month’s chart from skymaps.com – it’s free. There’s a list of stuff to look for as a bonus.

    Palm stopped selling non-phone devices. Dumb.  But “Planitarium” on the palm does pretty much everything i need.  It’s not free, but cheap, and upgrades are free.

    I use the free programs: Stellarium (Windows, Mac, Linux), Celestia (Windows, Mac, Linux), and kstars (linux).  Of these, i use kstars the most.

    The Orion XT-10i ($700) – a 10″ Newtonian Dob is the largest scope that fits in every car, sets up in under 3 minutes, and has a computer locator (push-to). The cheaper xt8i and xt6i are smaller versions.  I found that the computer was more teacher than crutch. YMMV.

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