Wayne Mitchell - Deep Space Atlas (First Edition)

posted: 2918 days ago, on Wednesday, 2009 Jul 29 at 04:44
tags: astronomy, deep sky, books.

Author Wayne Mitchell shares his story of writing the Star Gazer's Deep Space Atlas, the first South African book on observing the deep sky.

Writing South Africa's first deep sky observing book

Astronomy has intrigued me since a very young age. Near Christmas time each year my parents would take me outside to see "Father Christmas" passing over, appearing as a moving star high above all the roof tops. Of course I believed them, not knowing that it was actually a satellite. At the same time my father would point out the Three Sisters of Orion and the Seven Sisters as well.

After receiving a pair of binoculars at the age of around eight, I would peer up at the starry sky, fascinated by the myriad of other stars surrounding the single bright, naked eye stars. Why are there so many stars and what were they actually? I would think to myself.

At the time of Comet Halley's previous appearance my grand-mother who at the time was living on a remote farm under extremely dark skies, allowed me to use her larger pair of binoculars to view the snowy comet. She erected a stretcher bed in the garden for me to lie down on in order to comfortably gaze up at the comet and star studded Milky Way. Those were thrilling and memorable evenings, perhaps which captured my interest for a lifetime to follow.

Several years passed, during which I would occasionally gaze up at the sky and read any article on astronomical related matters. At the back of one of my books were some star maps on which I noticed a small "squiggle" which I had always thought of as a misprint of a star symbol until I read an article which stated that the Andromeda Galaxy was the furthest object visible to the naked eye. Then it dawned on me that the "squiggle" was in fact the symbol of the Andromeda Galaxy. After a careful search using a star map for the first time, I eventually found the galaxy with my binoculars. The star atlas has more to say about this memorable experience. I had always thought that any galaxy was only visible through a gigantic telescope like those erected upon mountain tops.

Then it finally happened, I obtained my first astronomical telescope from a senior colleague at work who noticed me reading the Astronomy magazine. He offered me his telescope for a song.

It was an absolutely thrilling experience, a dream come true. It was an Intras 114mm reflector which seemed huge at the time. The following day when he brought the telescope to work, was probably the longest day of my life; I couldn't wait to use the telescope that evening. I had previously somehow, learned the position of the bright planets, Saturn and Jupiter and the Orion Nebula which would visible that night, all the more reason to hurry home… Then I pointed the telescope to what I presumed would be Saturn; a tiny little disc and ring confirmed my suspicion. I was ecstatic!

A few evenings later I was attempting to view galaxies; M65 and M66 in Leo were the first. To view the sky in more detail prompted the purchase of a star atlas. My first dark sky evening with the telescope and star atlas was at a game lodge near Lydenberg. The telescope was erected on the upper balcony of the chalet. I studied the star map in the light of a flickering candle, not knowing about a red-light torch at the time. Searching for the Ring Nebula in Lyra was quite a challenge that evening and it wasn't until 4am that I pointed the telescope at the Pleiades; what a sight! 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 also listening to abundant sounds of animal and bird night life. I wasn't the only crazy one up all night!

For the next two years I viewed a great deal more celestial objects at various dark sky locations before I joined the Pretoria centre of the Astronomy Society for Southern Africa. The first time I attended the practical viewing evening of the society I was warmly welcomed at first by Michael Poll who showed me a great deal more objects to view. These viewing evenings were very exiting; everyone shared their knowledge with each other. Eventually I joined the committee of the centre presenting several talks and participating in public viewing evenings. After gaining some confidence in public speaking, I presented a few more talks and sky tours at various schools and private lodges. It was during this time that I became involved in the telescope retail business.

People would ask when buying a telescope, "Are there any books I may buy to use with the telescope?" I recommended various options to them but honestly did not think that any were quite suitable for the following reasons:

  1. All the star atlases were printed in the northern hemisphere hence the constellations and related text and symbols were upside down.
  2. They were impractical in physical size, either too small for the pages to remain open once the book was placed on the table or too large and cumbersome. This becomes awkward especially when having one hand on the book and holding a red torch in the other.
  3. Physically small star atlases had related stick figures for the constellation shapes but had too few stars and celestial objects, especially for users of 200 mm or larger telescopes.
  4. Physically large star atlases did not have any stick figures which made it difficult to distinguish constellation shapes but they did have many more objects to view.
  5. Very few atlas's have white stars on a black background. From experience, a black background helps the user to maintain a significantly better dark eye adaption because far less light is reflected off the map into the viewer's eyes. Most commercially available red light torches are still too bright to effectively maintain your dark eye adaption, therefore inhibiting the viewer from effectively viewing very faint celestial objects such as magnitude 13 galaxies.
  6. Many star atlases do not give relative information about the celestial objects such as brightness, surface brightness and dimensions.
  7. The pages of the atlas would become soft when exposed to dew during those cold winter evenings.

Therefore taking the above into account, I usually used a combination of at least two different atlases' during my observing evenings. This is when I began thinking about making my own atlas. An atlas that would have the best features of several individual atlas's all in one. An atlas that I would enjoy using without any fuss. It was exciting to visualize a new type of star atlas but another thing to know how to even start putting one together. I had all sorts of questions that I needed to answers for such as:

  1. How do I plot thousands of stars without using already existing star maps to avoid copyright violations?
  2. What would be the most practical physical size to make the atlas?
  3. How many celestial objects shall I use?

During my observing evenings I had made little notes to describe the various celestial objects which I had viewed. It is always better to make notes during your viewing session, and not the following morning. Noticeable shapes within star clusters, structural features of nebulae and the visibility limit of galaxies and other objects in various telescope apertures contributed to my observing list; a list which would later play a vital role in deciding the magnitude limit of various celestial objects to include in the atlas.

Fortunately having had experience in using Microsoft PowerPoint quite extensively to do astronomy presentations, it was fairly easy to plot white dots on a black background and draw stick figures etc. After several weeks of painful experimenting and patience I finally worked out a way to plot different magnitude stars at their relative positions to an accuracy of nearly 100%. This was just the beginning of what was to be a huge and time consuming task; each star, object symbol and label had to be plotted one at a time. Then I had to figure out a way to ensure that no stars were left out. Several little stumbling blocks occurred along the way but they seemed easier to overcome. I practiced with the Scorpius constellation at first and once I had gained enough confidence that my method would work it was time to begin at the beginning with Andromeda. Finder circles, an object list in order of magnitude and authors notes would be some of the additional features. I personally did not see the need for declination and right ascension lines, only the use of the ecliptic line. The aim was to not clutter the pages of the star map with unnecessary information, hence the reason I only used faint stars within the constellation boundaries.

It was around August at the time and I had set myself a goal to have the book finished by the coming December. That goal quickly became unrealistic; I was working on the atlas very evening and every weekend from 6am until 10pm mostly and had only progressed half way by the time December came. I hired a gardener especially to allow more time for me to work on the atlas instead of mowing the lawn. All the object descriptions, stick figures and All Sky maps had to still be finished. I then thought that April may be a better goal, in time for ScopeX but this too was an unrealistic goal. Perhaps if I had quite working or there were more hours in day but even so, I had many headaches from sitting in front of the computer and staring at white dots… What can I say, I really did underestimate the amount of work required to compile this atlas. I kept hearing a little voice inside my head saying "you are crazy!" Perhaps I was crazy but persisted until the atlas was complete. At the same time it was comforting to know that after completing a star map that it looked just like I had hoped it would and would assist other fellow star gazer's to explore the night sky more comfortably. I hadn't even begun to think of a title name for the atlas until I was busy with the last constellation Vulpecula. I think the most exciting part was adding in my own little "Author's Notes". This is where I could truly share the excitement of "discovering" new celestial gems.

It wasn't until about June that the atlas was complete and ready for its first printing run. Regrettably, I did not have the entire atlas formally proof read before I printed the first 100 books, hence the minor, but fair criticism in the MNASSA book review. Speaking of printing, to find a printing shop that could print pages almost entirely covered in black ink was another stumbling block. The printers' copy machines would jam or were not able to print jet black pages. Even though I had read through the atlas several times over there were still many little errors which I had overlooked. Various members of ASSA offered to assist with the proof reading. Of course any new errors noticed by users are welcomed for my attention.

Currently I am still working on improvements which will benefit the user. It gives me great pleasure to know that there are more amateur astronomers out there who are now able to use their telescopes to their full potential. As mentioned in my atlas "Look up and discover the mysterious cosmic gems we all deserve to see!"

Also read

Book Review (MNASSA, vol 67, 216-218) by Willie Koorts

Wayne Mitchell's response (MNASSA, vol 68, 45)

Update (2010 June)

Find out more about the Second Edition of the Deep Space Atlas.

nothing more to see. please move along.