The Story of the Planetarium by William Firebrace

Most of us can recall a childhood visit to a planetarium: the sense of anticipation, the room darkening, the stars coming up, and the voice of an astronomer. In the planetarium, the wondrous complexity of the cosmos combines with entertainment in a theatre of the night.

But how and where did the planetarium originate? What kind of simulation of the solar system and the universe does the planetarium produce? How does the planetarium mix theatre with science? And how has it changed with developments in astronomy?

Star Theatre explores the history of this unique building, designed to reveal the universe around us on an ever-expanding scale. It traces its historical origins from the early precedents for the planetarium to its invention in Germany in the 1920s, its developments in the USSR and the United States, its expansion across the globe at the time of the space race and the evolution of the contemporary planetarium in the recent period of startling astronomical and cosmological discoveries.

This concise, well-illustrated history will appeal to the planetarium lovers as well as those interested in astronomy, architecture, theatre and cinema.

You can find out more and purchase a copy of the book by CLICKING HERE.

There is a 20% discount for anyone ordering the book via the Starlight Nights website. To obtain the discount, readers need to enter the code THEATRE20 at the Reaktion Books checkout, accessed via the above link.

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Sky and Telescope


This section of the Starlight Night website relates to Sky and Telescope magazine and to its immediate predecessors The Sky and The Telescope.

It was while preparing a PowerPoint talk to present to my local astronomical society (and to other societies if they felt the urge to watch and listen) that I decided on the theme of speaking on several different astronomy-related topics (such as the Naming of Minor Planets; How to Pronounce Halley; the Saga of Sidus Ludoviciana; How to Pronounce Uranus; and so on). This would be presented under the general title of Astronomical Scrapbook and I thought it would be a neat idea to include something on the early history of Sky and Telescope magazine. After all, it has (as far as I can tell) a longer and more interesting ancestry (if that is the correct word) than any of the other currently-available popular astronomy magazines. In addition, the title Astronomical Scrapbook was inspired by the long-running feature of the same name, written by the late Joseph Ashbrook (1918-1980) and which adorned the pages of Sky and Telescope for many years.

The original intention was to have a short (around 10 minutes) section of the talk devoted to this particular topic. However, to say that was an ambitious idea is an understatement. As I began to research the early days of Sky and Telescope I realised that this particular section of the presentation would need to be of at least 15 minutes duration, then half-an-hour, then an hour . . . you can doubtless guess the rest. . !


I am now working on a full talk (with possible/probable updates and follow-up talks) relating to the early history of the magazine. I received a great deal of help with useful information for the talk from members of the current staff of Sky and Telescope, although it soon became clear to me that I needed to obtain as many of the early issues as I could. This would allow me to read through them and to follow the story chronologically, gaining information for the talk (and becoming even more inspired) as I went on. Sky and Telescope kindly printed my letter requesting pre-1960 back issues in the January 2018 edition of the magazine. This produced a flurry of replies, the upshot of which is that my own collection is nearing completion!


One of those who responded came forward with the suggestion that I become a collection and distribution point for early issues of the magazine. After all, it seems that there are many out there who appreciate the important role that Sky and Telescope has fulfilled over the years since it first appeared way back in November 1941. This seemed like yet another good idea, hence this section of my website being devoted to the project.

If you have any issues of Sky and Telescope (from the mid-1960s back) or any issues of either The Sky or The Telescope that you no longer require, please feel free to get in touch with me and we should be able to sort something out with a view to taking them off your hands. Similarly, if you are an issue or two short of being able to complete your collection, please let me know. Your request can be published on this website and, who knows, you may strike lucky!

The success of this project depends on you, the reader, so if you can help, please take the time out to do so. Your feedback is welcomed and I look forward to hearing from you. . .



I currently have spare copies of the May 1946, June 1946, July 1946 and September 1946 issues of Sky and Telescope. All four appear to be complete and in fairly good condition. The front and back covers of the July 1946 issue are complete but loose at the bottom, although still secured to the magazine with the top staple. These are all available at a low cost, which simply reflects what I paid for them myself. Postage will be extra. If any of these are of interest please contact Brian on and put ‘Sky and Telescope Back Issues’ in the subject line of your email.

The June 1943, November 1945 and November 1949 issues of Sky and Telescope are needed to enable someone to finally complete their collection! Can you help? If so, please email me on and let me know! Thank you!

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Yearbook of Astronomy 2017 – Reviews

Admittedly, as an amateur astronomer I never paid much attention initially to Patrick Moore’s Yearbook of Astronomy. Having recently done what many wannabe armchair astronomers do and purchased a few second hand copies (I now own copies of the 2014 and the 2015 editions) I am starting to realise, after a browse through them, that this may well have been my loss.

I think the biggest issue is that many of us believe, once the year they represent is past, that that is it. However you would be mistaken! These nice little gems are packed with interested articles and essays which are quite often as current today as when they were written. I was having a browse and was pleased to see biographies along with useful guides and essays on various topics, like ripples of time.

Of course, something had to inspire me to take a look at this potentially-lost series, and that trigger was a chat with Brian Jones.

Brian is a chap who, admittedly, I have not been acquainted with until recently but was drawn by his interesting Facebook posts containing biographies of past astronomers. I love reading this sort of thing.

As such, I decided to purchase the 2017 Yearbook of Astronomy (note that it is now the Yearbook, not Patrick Moore’s Yearbook) and it arrived, nicely packaged and wrapped I might add, not long before I began to pen this review on it. Unwrapping the book, I was impressed by the quality of this neatly bound paperback with its good quality pages.

When compared to the other Yearbooks in the series, at 136 pages long this is a little thin although, as Brian did indeed outline before I bought it, it was either that or miss a year, and it should be borne in mind that the 2017 edition was put together ready for the printer within a space of only three months! Nevertheless I can still see that quality still reins over quantity its pages including, amongst others, articles by Neil Norman on Minor Planets, Variable Stars by Roger Pickard and High Resolution Planetary Imaging by Damian Peach – so something in there for everyone!

A closer look at the sky notes shows details of the planets along with some lovely narratives on key constellations visible for the time of year. I took a chance look at the entry for April and was interested to read what it has to say on Virgo. I also took a closer look at the Planetary Imaging article by Damian Peach, which again was packed with interesting and useful information.

All in all, my first impressions of this book are it is well worth the purchase and I do urge the astronomical community to get behind this project. When Sir Patrick Moore sadly passed away, it was not just his programme the Sky at Night that needed to carry on, but many of his side projects, the Yearbook of Astronomy being one of them. I for one will be adding future editions of the Yearbook to my collection, so keep up the excellent work!

Alastair Leith

To purchase your copy of the Yearbook of Astronomy 2017 CLICK HERE:

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Win a copy of PHILIP’S STAR FINDER by John Woodruff and Wil Tirion

This competition is now closed.

The first two sets of correct answers to the competition questions were received from:

Nicholas Challoner of South Woodford, London.
David Reece-Belsey of Cheshunt, Hertfordshire.


Each of the winners will receive a copy of Philip’s Star Finder.

The questions, together with the answers, are as follows:

1 – In which constellation would you find the stars Izar and Alkalurops?
a: Boötes

2 – Which now-obsolete constellation, depicting a bird, was introduced by Alexander Jamieson and shown perching on the tail of Hydra (the Water Snake) in A Celestial Atlas, compiled by Jamieson and published in 1822?
a: Noctua (the Owl)

3 – In which constellation would you find the stars Tania Borealis and Tania Australis?
a: Ursa Major

4 – Which Greek astronomer published a list of 48 constellations in around 150AD?
a: Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy)

Prizes donated by Philip’s Astronomy, publishers of the above book. Further details of the range of Philip’s astronomy books can be found here

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SCIENCE FICTION BY SCIENTISTS by Michael Brotherton (Editor)

This anthology contains fourteen intriguing stories by active research scientists and other writers trained in science.

Science is at the heart of real science fiction, which is more than just westerns with ray guns or fantasy with spaceships. The people who do science and love science best are scientists. Scientists like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Fred Hoyle wrote some of the best-known and widely-read tales of golden age science fiction. Today there is a new generation of scientists writing science fiction informed with the expertise of their fields, from astrophysics to computer science, biochemistry to rocket science, quantum physics to genetics, speculating about what is possible in our universe. Here lies the sense of wonder only science can deliver. All the stories in this volume are supplemented by afterwords commenting on the science underlying each story.

Mike Brotherton is a professor of astronomy from the University of Wyoming who specializes in observational studies of quasars, enigmatic objects powered by supermassive black holes. He is also the author of the well-reviewed hard science fiction novels Star Dragon and Spider Star from Tor books, and founder of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers. He is a member of the advisory board of Springer’s Science Fiction book series.

In Science Fiction by Scientists we are presented with an interesting blend of situations, environments, speculations and creative trips of the imagination. As the book title suggests, the stories have a good input of science, written as they are by an assortment of physicists and physics teachers, astronomers, microbiologists, science fiction writers and an aerospace engineer which, when taken together, offers a collection of thought-provoking and speculative science fiction. The fourteen stories in the anthology comprise a good blend of science and fiction, each tale being accompanied by an afterword in which the author discusses and explains the science behind the story in question. Science Fiction by Scientists is a book that I can definitely recommend. Brian Jones.

You can purchase a copy of Science Fiction by Scientists by CLICKING HERE

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Yearbook of Astronomy 2017

It recently came to our attention that the publishers of the Yearbook of Astronomy had taken the decision to cease production and that the 2016 edition would be the last. Not wishing to see the Yearbook disappear from the bookshelves, we have taken over the task of editing it and have found a publisher for the 2018 edition onward. However, in order to maintain the continuity of the Yearbook – which first appeared way back in 1962 – we have self-published a (shorter) edition for 2017 which can be ordered using the PayPal button below. We hope that the readers and devotees of the Yearbook will understand this and support our efforts by purchasing a copy for their library . . .

Please select the correct button for the area that you want your Yearbook delivered to:

Yearbook of Astronomy 2017 (£12.99 delivered within the United Kingdom)



Yearbook of Astronomy 2017 (£16.99 delivery within rest of Europe)



Yearbook of Astronomy 2017 (£18.99 delivery to rest of World )

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cassiopeia-lowThe prominent ‘W’ or ‘M’ shaped formation of stars known as Cassiopeia graces the far northern skies and represents the mythological Queen Cassiopeia, wife of King Cepheus and mother to Andromeda, the beautiful maiden rescued by Perseus. When favourably placed, the entire constellation can be seen from locations to the north of latitude 12°S, with portions of Cassiopeia visible from Australia, South Africa and all but the southernmost reaches of South America. Cassiopeia stands out quite well and should be spotted fairly easily by observers at mid-northern latitudes.

For observers in Great Britain and northern Europe Cassiopeia is a circumpolar constellation, which means that it never sets as seen from these latitudes. A good general guide to locating Cassiopeia is to use the two end stars in the ‘bowl’ of the Plough as pointers, these being the two stars we use to locate Polaris, the Pole Star and as depicted on the chart of North Circumpolar Stars. Following the imaginary line from Merak through Dubhe and past Polaris as shown will eventually bring you to Caph in Cassiopeia from where the rest of the group can be picked out.

Cassiopeia lies within the Milky Way and the whole area in and around this group is seen to abound with stars. On a really dark, clear and moonless night you should spot around fifty naked eye stars within the group, although binoculars will reveal many more scattered across this region of sky. Although most of these stars are below naked-eye visibility, their combined light produces the effect we call the Milky Way. While not usually very clear to city-dwellers, the Milky Way can be a superb sight when viewed under a really dark and moonless sky.

Cassiopeia contains six prominent stars, the brightest of which is Cih whose light has taken around 550 years to reach us. Cih generally shines at magnitude 2.15, although this star is slightly variable and prone to sudden and unpredictable increases in brightness. Shedar, its name derived from the Arabic ‘al-sadr’, meaning ‘the Breast’, is a magnitude 2.24 orange giant star. Shining from a distance of around 220 light years, the orange tint of Shedar is easily seen in binoculars. Slightly fainter than Shedar is Caph, a white giant shining at magnitude 2.28 and lying at a distance of just 55 light years. Caph derives its name from the Arabic ‘al-kaff al-khadib’ meaning ‘the Stained Hand’, an allusion to the Eastern tradition of staining the finger-tips with henna leaves. Achird, located between Shedar and Cih, is a comparatively nearby star, its magnitude 3.46 glow reaching us from a distance of just 19.4 light years.

Marking the knee of Cassiopeia is magnitude 2.66 Ksora, the light from which set off on its journey towards us around a century ago. An alternative name for this star is Ruchbah, both names being derived from the Arabic ‘rukbat dhat al-kursiy’ meaning ‘the Knee of the Lady in the Chair’. The star Segin completes the distinctive shape of Cassiopeia. Segin shines at magnitude 3.35 from a distance of around 425 light years, the light we are seeing from this star today actually having set off towards us before the invention of the telescope in the early-1600s!



m52-in-cassiopeia-noao-aura-nsfCassiopeia plays host to a number of open star clusters within reach of binoculars or small telescopes, one of which is Messier 52 (M52), discovered by the French astronomer Charles Messier in 1774. This collection of around 200 stars shines with an overall magnitude of 7.3 and is thought to lie at a distance in excess of 5,000 light years. M52 can be found close to the star 4 Cassiopeiae, lying more or less on a line taken from Shedar through Caph, and you can track it down by star m52-finder-chart-lowhopping through the field of stars from Caph as shown on the finder chart. During your search, remember to look for a small patch of light rather than an actual gathering of stars. Once M52 is located, binoculars will reveal it as a misty cloud, although even a small telescope will bring out a number of individual stars within this fine open star cluster.


This prominent constellation was alluded to by the English astronomer Joseph Henry Elgie (right) when he was recalling his original efforts to find his way around the night sky. joseph-henry-elgieAs he informs us, a number of the constellations that he struggled to identify were rather faint and difficult to detect, although he had no problems with Cassiopeia, writing that: ‘Facing due north, and looking high upward, the gaze meets with five stars of nearly equal brightness, in form resembling a sprawling capital “W”. They make the principal outline of the constellation Cassiopeia, the Lady in the Chair. I cherish a kindly remembrance for Cassiopeia; it was the first star group I ever recognised, when, under almost heart-breaking difficulties, I was trying to learn the geography of the sky’.

Why not take time out to look for the distinctive shape of Queen Cassiopeia, and perhaps bring to mind Elgie’s wonderful comments on this beautiful pattern of stars…

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earths-of-distant-suns-michael-carrollHow We Find Them, Communicate With Them, and Maybe Even Travel There

All of us are mesmerized by the possibility of other Earth-like worlds out there. Is there intelligent like elsewhere? Can we go there? Can we at least communicate with them?

Author Michael Carroll has spent decades as a science journalist and even longer as an astronomical artist. In Earths of Distant Suns, he asks what we can gain from identifying these Earth analogs spread across the Universe. Based on the latest mission results, and supported by the author’s artwork, this book explores the possible lessons we may learn from exoplanets. Potentially, for example, we could learn more about our own climate. Also explored are the possibilities of communication between, or even travel to, these distant yet perhaps not so dissimilar worlds.

As the number of known Earth-like objects continues to grow, the author takes us closer to these ‘pale blue dots’ so far afield. Recent discoveries by space telescopes such as Keck, the Hubble and Kepler, as well as more sensitive ground observatories, are laid out. These findings have fired the imaginations of the general public as well as scientists. Speculation about alien worlds is no longer left to the realm of science fiction!

You can purchase a copy of the book by CLICKING HERE

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astronomer-gazing-at-the-milky-wayThe Milky Way is visible as a faint pearly band of light arching across the night sky and is created by the combined glow of stars scattered along the plane of our Galaxy’s disc as seen from Earth. Deriving its name from its ‘milky’ appearance, it is easily visible to the unaided eye under clear, dark skies and any form of optical aid will show that it is made up of many thousands of individual stars producing the effect which is beautifully captured in this image.

We live in one of the arms of a large spiral galaxy we call the Milky Way Galaxy, the Sun and its planets (including Earth) being located around half way out from the centre. The Milky Way is actually our view of the Galaxy looking along the main galactic plane. The pearly glow we see is the combined light from many different stars and is visible as a continuous band of light stretching around the celestial sphere.

Although the vast majority of these stars are too faint to be observed without optical aid, their combined light produces the glow that can be seen crossing the sky. The dark patches superimposed against the backdrop of the Milky Way, and which are well captured in this stunning image, are areas where light from distant stars is blocked by regions of dust which are found scattered throughout interstellar space.

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Win a copy of POCKET GIANTS: ISAAC NEWTON by Andrew May

isaac-newton-pocket-giantsThis competition is now closed.

The first two sets of correct answers to the competition questions were received from:

James Fulton of Wootton Wawen, Warwickshire.
Victoria Bennett of Horbury, West Riding of Yorkshire.


Each of the winners will receive a copy of Isaac Newton – Pocket Giants.


The questions, together with the answers, are as follows:

1 – What were the forenames of Isaac Newton’s parents?
a: Isaac and Hannah

2 – What relation was the Rev William Ayscough to Isaac Newton?
a: Uncle

3 – In what year did Isaac Newton take up his post as Warden of the Royal Mint?
a: 1696

4 – On what precise date, and where, was Isaac Newton buried?
a: 4th April 1727 in Westminster Abbey


Prizes donated by The History Press, publishers of the Pocket Giants series. Further details of the Pocket Giant books can be found here

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