Observing the Moon: Lunar Atlases

Jack Kramer

Few amateur astronomers would explore the night sky without ready access to a competent star atlas or planisphere. Yet it's surprising the number of observers who look at the moon with little, if any, idea which features are in view. There are several maps or reference works that provide varying amounts of information about our satellite. Here are a few that are available from sources that sell astronomical literature.

Atlas of the Moon, Antonin R√ľkl, $34.95 - This is the granddaddy of them all -- it includes 76 highly detailed, hand-drawn maps of the near side, along with brief descriptions of the features. There's also a number of close-up photos. If you're accustomed to looking at a photograph, the drawings will take some getting used to; however, they are so well-detailed that many of the features stand out better in this format. This book is well recommended to the experienced observer as a companion for a high-magnification trip to the moon.

Exploring the Moon Through Binoculars and Small Telescopes, Ernest H. Cherrington, $14.95. There is probably as much text as illustration, and it goes into considerable detail on the features visible in each phase. Orbital mechanics and geology of the moon are also covered, along with the history of selenography (lunar mapping). High-contrast, full-surface photos are included for the different phases, as are close-ups of selected features, some of which are from the space program. Various far-side features are also covered. The only drawback is the lack of detailed photos on more of the major features. For those who want to learn more about our moon, this book is an excellent choice.

Welcome to the Moon, Robert Bruce Kelsey, $11.95. This book focuses on 12 specific areas and supposedly covers only those details visible through telescopes of 41/4-inches or smaller. The text provides a very lucid and readable introduction to lunar observing, with some good advice on using the telescope. Unfortunately, the drawings included are rather crude. And the photographs are all so over-exposed and/or out of focus that in a couple of cases, arrows point to features that are virtually invisible in the photos! Though this work is aimed specifically at the beginner, they will be particularly the ones frustrated by the poor illustrations. Moreover, on some of the features covered, the author completely overlooks interesting details that are easily seen in a 3-inch telescope. So why limit yourself? For $3.00 more, the Cherrington book is a better choice.

Moon Map, Sky Publishing, $2.95. This is a bifold map of the full moon. With an image size of only 101/2", minute detail is difficult to see, but it's a handy map to stick in your telescope case so you can find your way around. A key helps identify named features. The neat thing is that it's available in two versions -- the traditional south-up orientation and flipped left-to-right for SCT and refractor users. My major objection is that the image of the moon is light-blue-on-white; black-and-white would greatly improve legibility.

Official Map of the Moon, Rand-McNally, $6.95 - This single-sided map is a mosaic from photos taken at a number of observatories, along with an extensive key to named features. The image size of over 36" presents a wealth of detail and provides an important adjunct to lunar observing. As with any folded paper map of this size, it's very awkward to use at the telescope, and the unfortunate choice of colors (blue-green-on-white) makes it difficult to distinguish some fine detail. If only this were as legible as my old worn-out Lick Observatory black-and-white photographic map (which is now out of print)! It's also oriented as seen in the sky, not in your telescope; that is, with north up and lunar west to the left.

So there are some of the options. Obviously, none are perfect, but a lot depends on the extent to which you want to explore the moon. At the very least, you should have a lunar map of some sort, while a book-type atlas will provide many suggestions of things to observe and details about the points of interest. You'll probably find that a book on observing the moon will prompt you to observe our satellite more often -- to become a regular "lunatic"!

Published in the January 1998 issue of the NightTimes