Sand and Stars

Welcome to the world of binocular astronomy

Simulated view of the Pleiades in a pair of 10×50 binoculars. DSS image

After observing the universe through a telescope at Sutherland, most people assume that if they want to continue enjoying the wonders of the night sky they must invest in an expensive and high-tech telescope. However, the truth is that all you need is a decent pair of binoculars. Even avid amateur astronomers with a houseful of telescopes will have at least one pair of binoculars at the ready every session.

Every major class of celestial object can be viewed in binoculars. Softly glowing clouds of gas and dust…  clusters of hundreds of sparkling stars… mysterious dark nebulae… distant galaxies… Jupiter’s four Galilean moons… ancient balls of stars almost as old as the universe… glittering Milky Way star fields… the Magellanic Clouds… the Moon… double stars… and many objects, such as the Pleiades and Hyades clusters, are best seen with binoculars because they are too large for the smaller field of view of a telescope.

Although telescopes may offer more spectacular views, binocular astronomy has a quality that gives you a direct connection to the night sky that’s hard to achieve through a telescope. And because you use both eyes instead of just one, this gives a definite feeling of depth-perception or a three-dimensional effect.

A pair of binoculars actually trump a telescope in many ways: They provide instant observing with minimal effort – you simply grab ’em and head outside. They’re much more affordable. They are ridiculously easy to use. They show a right-side-up image (which makes locating objects easy). And they offer super-relaxing observing – what could be more relaxing than lying back on a lawn chair exploring the universe and seeing unimaginable treasures?

But above all, stargazing is a pursuit that allows one to ponder the universe, the meaning of time and indeed, life itself. For instance, you can turn them to the globular cluster Omega Centauri – a glittering snowball whose stars, around 12 billion years old, are almost as old as the universe itself. That means they were already middle aged when our Sun and Solar System was born. Their light set out across the universe 16,000 years ago – when the woolly rhinoceros was still roaming the earth – and that light (and all the time and history it carries) has just entered your binoculars and ended its journey on your retina.

There is no doubt: stargazing through binoculars is an immensely beautiful and fulfilling experience.

Great Orion Nebula in 10×50 binoculars
DSS image

This is a simulated view of what you can expect to see if you point 10×50 binoculars at the Great Orion Nebula (under dark skies). Naked eye, it appears as a fuzzy star lying in the middle of Orion’s sword.

In the binoculars it reveals itself as a massive star-birth cloud of gas and dust, the colour of moonlight, in which stars are being born. Two sparkling open clusters lie to either side of the beautiful glowing nebula. (The view will appear smaller and less bright under light polluted skies.)

Orion’s 3 Belt Stars in 10×50 binoculars 
DSS image

Naked eye, the three glittering stars that make up Orion’s famous belt are stunning. But look at them through a pair of 10×50 binoculars and the field of view fills up with stars!

You are actually seeing an open cluster called Collinder 70, which is made up of the three belt-stars and about 80+ that wind themselves in gorgeous long chains around the three brilliant supergiants. Absolutely gorgeous!

Binoculars for stargazing

Magnification power is a critical factor for binoculars when it comes to stargazing. 10×50 binoculars are a good choice, providing a solid combination of both magnification (10x) and aperture (50mm). Models which offer a lower magnification (7x and 8x) are also perfectly suitable for stargazing. A pair of 7×35 is about the minimum acceptable for stargazing. Larger binoculars (15×70 and larger) will allow you to see more with your binoculars but they are impossible to hold steady by hand and will need to be mounted on a tripod. However, looking through binoculars mounted on a tripod is difficult when you want to look directly above you.

Holding binoculars steady

The biggest problem is holding binos steady so that the stars don’t dance around wildly. Firstly, hold the barrels right at the end, so that your hands are braced around your eyes. Now try bracing yourself against a wall or tree. Or propping the binos on a fence or chair back. Or lying on your back and balancing them on your cheekbones. It will reduce the dance to a small wiggle in time with your heart beat. Balancing them on an up-turned broom works very well as well. Remember that you’ll want to be able to sustain your viewing positions for some time. A position that is fine for half a minute wil make your arms very tired (and more shaky) very quickly after that.

Locating an object in the sky with binos can also be pretty tough. The best way is to first locate the object with the naked eye. Then, without taking your eyes off it raise your binoculars slowly to your eyes. If the object isn’t in the field of view it will be close by and a small scan around will locate it.

Dark adapt your eyes

When you first go outside you will only see the brightest stars. You need to “dark adapt” your eyes, which simply means giving them a minimum of 10 minutes or so to make the chemicals that allow you to see better in the dark. The longer you give them to dark adapt the more you’ll see. And of course don’t look at bright lights once your eyes are dark adapted – you will instantly lose your dark adaption.

The Moon photographed by Apollo 17 crewmen on their way home to Earth in December 1972. Image credit NASA
Beware the Full Moon

Not because the werewolves are out but because it floods the night sky with light which washes out the stars. Go stargazing when there is no Moon or at least just a thin crescent. (Unless of course, it’s the Moon you are observing with your binoculars – the Moon’s ever-changing face is absolutely fantastic for binocular observers.)

Copyright © Susan Young 2023