Skymaps are maps of the night sky when viewed from specific locations at specific dates. The simplest skymaps are made from paper or cardboard and provide approximate maps of the sky. More complicated skymap software can produce very specific skymaps.
Amateur astronomers often use basic skymaps. These may be paper printouts provided by a local astronomy club, or commercial skymaps printed on cardboard or plastic.
A very basic skymap provides a map of the night sky in either the northern or southern hemisphere. Skymaps are circular, with the outer edge of the circle representing the horizon. As celestial objects rise and set over the course of the night, a static paper skymap only provides an approximation of where constellations appear in the night sky.
Commercial skymaps often have built-in windows and dials that can be turned to show the night sky at different times and different latitudes.
The majority of skymaps only show objects that are visible to the naked eye. Some skymaps do, however, show the location of objects that can only be viewed with telescopes.
Online Skymap Downloads
Many astronomy sites provide free skymap download programs. A skymap download allows users to enter their location and the time they will be viewing the night sky. The skymap download can then be saved and printed.
A basic skymap download only factors in location and time. More complex online skymap software allows users to determine what types of celestial objects they want printed on their skymap download, a feature enjoyed by more experienced astronomers.
Skymap Software and Skymap Pro
Skymap software is an alternative to online skymap downloads. Skymap software such as Skymap Pro allows highly detailed customization of skymaps in terms of time, location and tracking celestial objects.
Portability is another advantage to skymap software such as Skymap Pro. With online skymap software, the astronomer can only use the program with an Internet connection. Skymap Pro and other skymap software programs don’t require online access, so they can be transported out to the viewing site on a laptop for easy access.
Using skymaps is quite simple, although mastering a skymap takes a bit of practice. Unlike an ordinary map, which you look down on, you read a skymap by holding it up above your head and matching the objects on the map with their real-life counterparts in the sky.
Most maps have north at the top of the map, as do many skymaps. However, the direction you are looking in determines which direction you hold the skymap. If you are facing south, for instance, hold the skymap with the south of the map facing upwards. If the map had a “you are here” arrow, it would point to the exact center of the skymap.
Reading skymaps in the dark requires a light source. Don’t use white light: it interferes with your night vision and you won’t see as much (and it affects nearby stargazers as well). Instead, use red light. If you don’t have a red colored bulb, some red crepe paper secured over a white flashlight with an elastic band works just as well.