by Serge Brunier with photography by Akira Fujii
Having made my monthly run to my local Border’s Books, this big, brand new book caught my attention among the other Astronomy books. Covered in cellophane and being the only sample, I decided to pay the $49.99 without so much a look inside. The gorgeous full frontal picture (yeah!) of the Antares region in Scorpius with the big words, "The Great Atlas of the Stars” was all I needed to see.
But the name of Akira Fujii, also on the front cover, cinched the deal. Fujii is famous for his constellation photographs, having captured all 88 constellations from his observatories in Japan and Australia. The back cover explained that this book would show 30 of Fujii’s constellations chosen by Brunier as the most beautiful regions of the sky. The back cover also provides a breakdown of how the book is designed, complete with transparency overlays, object highlights, and pictures of major stars, clusters, nebulae, and galaxies in the region. Spiral bound and rather large, my first impression was that this book was trying to be a set of star charts using real photos, especially when you consider that the book is only a bit smaller than my deluxe SkyAtlas2000 and the spiral binding allows the pages to lay flat. But this book is much more than that, and a little less.
I will start with my negative impression(s) of the book in an effort to get the shortest paragraph of this review out of the way first. The book only shows 30 constellations of the night skies. I would like one three times as thick with all 88 constellations. I’d pay three times the price for it too.
Now, on to the positives, but please do not count this as a paragraph.
The method seems kind of obvious. You take a beautiful, colorful, full constellation astrophoto and you overlay it with a clear transparency that labels key stars, objects of interest, and constellation outlines. So the choice is yours. You can find the objects in the photograph yourself given descriptions and individual close-ups on the previous page, or you can “cheat” by looking at the photo through the transparency. Or when using the "Great Atlas” while observing, you could write notations on the transparency with a transparency marker that you could erase at a later time. Some of the things you might consider marking on the transparency might be observation notes, field of view indicators for starhops, or for the creative, your own constellation lines. How often have we all felt compelled to mark up our $50 star charts only to fear ruining it?
Or you can use the “Great Atlas” for the information it provides. Interested in observing some challenging doubles? Brunier highlights several of the best. Care to discover some good objects to observe with binoculars? Brunier indicates some of the best objects observable under pristine, non-light-polluted skies. Feel like reading some information about some interesting objects that you didn’t know about, like 14 Herculis and its Jupiter-like planet or the location of the farthest galaxy known to mankind in HDF4-473.0? Brunier’s got you covered.
Perhaps you’d just like the perfect coffee table book. Along with the Fujii constellation photos, the book shows some of the best pictures from the hobby’s most celebrated astrophotographers. Images vary in size from the many thumbnails that go with the object descriptions, to full, two page centerfold spreads (yeah!) of some of the most majestic sites in the night skies such as the Omega Centauri cluster, M104, Orion nebula, and the Magellanic clouds as shot by David Malin. With it you get star listings, observation advice, a glossary and index.
But the real treasure of the book comes with the feeling that the reader gets when looking at the constellation photography. Never have I studied photographs as intensively as I did in this book. It is easy to become lost in them, much the way I always lose myself in the real thing. After a while, I got the feeling that I only needed a magnifying glass or a microscope and I’d be able see 51 Pegasi’s planet myself, which the book actually highlights and circles on its transparency sheet for Pegasus as a point of interest.
So we begin to see the real intrigue with “The Great Atlas of the Stars.” Though not a substitute for the real thing, this is as close as it gets in two dimensions. Instead of battling the cloudy skies, this book gives this experienced observer a chance to view the skies from my coffee table if I so desire. And for beginners, it is a learning experience ready to happen, minus the inevitable frustration of first-time observations under the big sky. However, using this book under the big sky will enhance your enjoyment of it, regardless of who you are.
Though not a true star chart, and certainly not a substitute for my SkyAtlas, it does make a perfect charting tool for beginning astronomers while being beautiful and informative enough to allow even seasoned veterans to appreciate its offerings. It is a must-have book for all levels of backyard astronomers, if not a picturesque masterpiece.
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