A Guide On Looking Through Binoculars For Stargazing
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Looking through Binoculars are actually a powerful tool for stargazing and astronomical observation. Using binoculars for exploring the sky is becoming increasingly popular as users realize the many benefits of choosing binoculars instead of a bulky telescope for beginning the process of entering the world of astronomy. Binoculars make astronomy more convenient, more accessible, and more spontaneous.
Staring up into the night sky has always inspired curiosity, wonder, and the desire to know more. While we often think that the right tool for exploring the mysteries above us is a big telescope, the good news is that a pair of binoculars can be an even better choice. Surprisingly, binoculars can offer a number of advantages that make them superior to large telescopes! In fact, binoculars actually consist of two smaller telescopes that are joined together to provide stereo images to your eyes.
Binoculars have three main benefits over telescopes: cost, ease of use, and portability.
Instead of making a big financial investment in a complex piece of equipment like a telescope that may be challenging to set up and learn to use, binoculars provide an easy and immediate low-cost entry point into the fascinating world of stargazing. The affordability of binoculars also means that unlike a single telescope, more than one set of binoculars can be purchased so that stargazing can become a fun, communal activity for more than just one person at a time.
Ease of use
A major plus to binoculars is that most people are more comfortable using both eyes when looking up into the skies, as opposed to having to squint through a telescope. As a result, binoculars are far more appealing for longer bouts of stargazing. With a more comfortable and natural feel, binoculars are also great for families with older children interested in exploring the world of astronomy. Binoculars also give viewers a wider view of the sky than a telescope, meaning that users are much more likely to easily spot celestial objects of interest. Due to this wider view, binoculars also give viewers a better sense of patterns in the sky, or how objects lie in reference to one another, as opposed to just focusing on one object, like a telescope. Finally, because of their design, telescopes often show the image upside down or reversed as a mirror reflection, which makes interpretation of the object more confusing.
Telescopes are large, heavy and need to be set up on a stand, making them impractical for stargazing during outdoor adventures such as overnight camping trips, or other expeditions away from home. Binoculars are easy to pack and bring along for use on short weekends away, or even during international travels, and also have the advantage of serving more than one purpose.
Picking the right pair of binoculars:
The main thing to consider when choosing a pair of binoculars for stargazing is the size of the front lenses, which determines how much light enters the binoculars.
The specs of the binocular will tell you a lot about their capabilities for sky gazing. The specs will indicate the field of view in either yards or degrees, if in degrees, you can calculate 52 feet for each degree to understand the capacity. For understanding the magnification power, the first number provided is the magnification above the naked eye, and the second number is the diameter of the large lenses at the front of the binoculars in millimeters. So, a “25 x 70” binocular provides 25 times the magnification of the object viewed by the naked eye, and achieves this with front lenses that are 70 millimeters in diameter. However, one thing to keep in mind is that the more magnification, the dimmer the object being viewed. A good baseline pair that combines portability, cost, and ease of use would be a 10x50 pair of binoculars, although both less powerful and more powerful binoculars can also be used for stargazing.
For astronomy, the bigger the front lenses the better, as larger lenses will allow the most light into the binoculars, and allow for spotting fainter objects in the night sky. The front lenses of binoculars are called “objectives” while the small lenses you look directly through are called eyepieces. The lenses work together to let light in and direct it toward your pupil. This “big aperture” of the objective lens is the most important element of a binocular that will be used under low light conditions, although of course the overall quality of the optics used in the binocular will affect the level of detail in the sky that is visible as well.
If you plan to stargaze with children who cannot hold a heavy pair of binoculars, or are interested in longer periods of viewing the night sky, it may be worth selecting a pair of binoculars that have the option of being mounted onto a bracket and tripod when desired. You can tell if binoculars can be attached to a bracket by looking for a mounting screw receptacle that allows you to secure the binoculars safely and securely to a bracket setup.
Optics and ISB
Other features you may want to look for are “coated optics” to ensure high contrast views and brightness of image, and “ISB,” meaning image stabilized binoculars. ISB binoculars are more expensive, but the added value is that the binoculars will compensate for the movement of your hands and create a more stable image without further effort on your part.
A great example of an affordable pair of binoculars appropriate for stargazing is the Celestron SkyMaster Giant 15 x 70. The brightness of the image and the quality of the optics distinguish this pair as perfect for night sky use, as well as use on land. It only weighs 48oz and is highly portable and able to fit in one hand for short spurts of time, but can also be attached to a tripod. This pair features the wide aperture that is most recommended for stargazing purposes. With 15 times magnification, this option works well for galaxies, star clusters and comets. Those hoping to view planets should invest in a pair that is slightly more powerful.
A final feature to consider is whether you get a lot of rain in your region. If so, protect your investment by selecting a pair of binoculars with waterproofing, so that a few drops of rain do not ruin an otherwise worthy night of stargazing!
First to the moon and then beyond...
The first stop on any viewing tour of the skies will be the moon. A pair of binoculars will reveal the details of the visible features of the lunar surface, such as craters and lava plains, the dark areas called “marias.” One of the main craters visible at the bottom of the moon is called Tycho, and is distinguished by white rays that extend from the crater. Even when the moon is in the waxing phase, when it looks just like a crescent sliver, binoculars will reveal the rest of the moon's face, illuminated by light that bounces off the Earth. One good technique to try is scanning the line that indicates day and night -- this line is called the “terminator.” Along this line, the features of the moon will be most distinct.
The lunar “seas” are another great feature to try to identify. Major lunar marias are Mare Tranquillitatis in the northeast and Mare Nectaris and Mare Fecunditatis in the southeast. Other highlights to search for are the Apennine mountain range and giant crater Copernicus in the northwest, and then the Clavius crater in the southwest.
Viewing planets with binoculars
One of the most tantalizing prospects of amateur astronomy is learning more about the planets. Saturn and Jupiter are the two planets most easily sighted looking through binoculars, and each should be visible under the right conditions with a steady hand. Saturn and Jupiter are two of the brightest planets which are visible even with the naked eye and make obvious movements through the sky. For this reason, they have been popular since ancient times.
Sky charting apps will help locate both Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky – some apps are specifically tailored to track one planet. Some good apps to try are Jupiter Guide, Sky Safari 5, Gas Giants, and Sky and Telescope.
Jupiter is the largest planet, and therefore the easiest planet to spot in the night sky. To find Jupiter, seek out the constellation Gemini the Twins, where Jupiter will have a yellowish shade of color and will be especially bright. Using binoculars should reveal the four moons of Jupiter surrounding the planet: Ganymede, Europa, Io and Callisto. These moons will look like four pinpricks of light that encircle Jupiter. One fun challenge is to monitor the location of the moons as they are constantly shifting around Jupiter, changes which should easily be visible during the course of several nights of observation.
Another benefit of seeking out Jupiter is that you do no have to wait until total darkness in the sky to look for this planet. Jupiter’s brightness allows it to be seen in twilight (and even daylight!). If you do try to spot Jupiter in daylight, look out for a very pale disk, but take special care not to point your binoculars directly at the sun.
The second largest planet in our solar system, Saturn is a spectacular planet to view when looking through binoculars – if you hold the pair very steady you should be able to identify an orb, though it may appear slightly more oval than circular. Using binoculars alone, it is usually difficult to see Saturn’s faint rings, and this may be a challenge depending on the magnification power of your binoculars. One easier target is Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. In order to find out where to look for Saturn, use an app or chart to identify where Saturn will fall based on the date you are observing the sky.
Viewing inside and outside the galaxy with binoculars
Looking through binoculars, the intricacies of the Earth’s Milky Way Galaxy can be revealed – and viewers can go even further, catching glimpses even beyond the Milky Way.
Our home galaxy, the Milky Way is a rich zone for exploration. Using binoculars, you will get an even better understanding of the astronomical formations that are our neighbors in the Milky Way. The first step is to find a truly dark night sky – meaning you need to travel far from any light pollution from cities or towns. Pick a moonless night for superior viewing conditions. The Milky Way was visible in olden times from almost any location, however the conditions of light pollution from modern technological development have hidden the Milky Way from proper observation in many cities and suburbs. To get oriented towards the Milky Way, turn your attention to the glowing arc that should reach from the southern to northeastern horizon. Expect the glow to be faint and white, with slight shadows and mottling. You will not be able to see colors in the Milky Way because of the distance, all the shades will appear in shades of grey.
A good starting point for more detailed observation is to head left from from the bright star Deneb, and get further immersed in the fascinating features of the Milky Way. The Milky Way provides a trove of treats for observation. Other great features are the North American Nebula and the Messier 39 open star cluster. The North American Nebula is named because it resembles the North American continent, and the easiest area to spot is the region of “California.”
Some additional areas that are worth observation include:
Look for the dark nebula within the Cygnus constellation, which falls near the star Deneb, to the right and below.
Messier 13 Globular cluster
This cluster is also known as the Great Hercules cluster, and amazingly, it contains over 300,000 ancient stars. Binoculars will reveal the wonder of this cluster, which can be found along the western edge of Hercules.
Also known as the Sagittarius star cloud, this star field is a wonderfully rich star field and can be found near the center of the Milky Way. Many nebulas can also be spotted, including Eagle, Trifid, Omega and Lagoon.
Constellations of Cassiopeia and Hercules
Looking for the constellations of Cassiopeia and Hercules will give perspective as to Earth’s position within the spiral of the Milky Way – as you look towards the northern arc of the Milky Way you will see that the stars are more distantly interspersed as opposed to being more tightly clustered if looking towards the denser areas near Sagittarius.
Beyond the Milky Way
With binoculars alone, it is possible to spot galaxies and features even beyond our own Milky Way, such as the Andromeda Galaxy and its satellite galaxies M110 and M32!
In order to achieve the goal of seeing the Andromeda Galaxy, the key is to find a particularly dark and moonless night and a viewing location with very little light pollution. You also need to be willing to stay up a bit late!
The first step is to locate the Andromeda Galaxy in the eastern sky below the Cassiopeias.
The Andromeda galaxy, or M31, will look like a tiny bit of white fluff – but this galaxy is almost twice the size of the Milky Way and can be found 2.5 million light years away from our planet. A trillion stars make up this tiny piece of fluff, which helps make it visible even to the naked eye.
With binoculars however, you will see more detail, and the long, oblong shape of the Andromeda galaxy will become visible, as well as distinction between the bright core of the galaxy and the fainter edges. You can also see that Andromeda is a bit asymmetrical: the northern part of the galaxy will appear more robust and puffier, while the southern segment will appear less distinct. The oldest starts are tightly compacted into the bright core of the galaxy, which is referred to as the “bulge.”
M110 and M32
Going beyond Andromeda, you should also be able to make out the two companion galaxies that flank it, M110 and M32. M32 is the brighter of the two companion galaxies, and can be found by identifying the three 7th magnitude stars that are near the Southern end of Andromeda. The furthest north of these stars will point towards M32, which will be slightly less bright. M110 is across from Andromeda past the bright side of the nucleus. M110 will not be very distinct and may look more like a haze as you first identify it.
While Andromeda is better known, there is also another visible galaxy in this region: the Triangulum Galaxy, also called M33. The constellation Triangulum, or Triangle, is the beacon used to find this galaxy. You can also look directly below the Andromeda galaxy and look 15 degrees southeast of M31. The Triangulum Galaxy is slightly farther away than Andromeda. It is 2.7 million light years away, and is a spiral galaxy.
Looking through binoculars, this galaxy will be egg shaped and appear fuzzy. Like Andromeda, there is a brighter bulge in the center of the galaxy, but unlike Andromeda, the Triangulum Galaxy contains a relatively small number of stars, at just about 40 million.
Summer binocular targets for astronomy
Summer is an especially ideal time to take the binoculars out for a run, as astronomical observation can be paired with camping or hiking in areas where there is little light pollution and you can have the darkest and clearest views of the sky.
Using apps like the previously mentioned Sky Safari 5, you can find objects that are great targets for sighting during the summer months.
The Big Dipper
We might think of the Big Dipper as a constellation, but it is actually called an “asterism,” meaning that the Big Dipper is an identifiable shape that is visible. It is actually part of the larger constellation called Ursa Major. The Big Dipper is a familiar sight but can be enhanced by viewing through binoculars. The stars Mizar and Alcor are particular highlights. While you are in the area, check out the Little Dipper as well. The naked eye, you will usually not be able to see all seven stars that make up the asterism of the Little Dipper, but with binoculars you should be able to spot them all.
The Summer Triangle and Coathanger
After getting the hang with the familiar Big Dipper, expand your horizons by searching for the asterisms the Summer Triangle and Coathanger. In the earlier part of the summer these will be identifiable by sweeping the eastern part of the night sky. Deneb, Altair and Vega are the stars forming the Summer Triangle, while Coathanger is nestled between Altair and Vega and consists of a bar with a hook.
Despite the fancy name, this double star is unimpressive to the naked eye, but with binoculars, its full appeal can be revealed. Epsilon Lyrae can be found in the constellation of Lyra, identifiable near Vega, a bright star. Epsilon Lyrae has the nickname “Double Double,” referencing its stars Epsilon1 and Epsilon2, which themselves are also double stars! With binoculars you will be able to see the split of Epsilon1 and Epsilon2, but not necessarily all four stars.
This article has covered the basics of exploring the night sky using binoculars. Ranging from why to use binoculars and which pair of binoculars to select, through what types of astronomical features are best suited for observation when looking through binoculars, we have reviewed the main strategies for taking your sky gazing and astronomical identification to the next level through the use of binoculars. As a result, familiarity with the features and landscape of the sky can transcend what is visible through the naked eye alone.
Hope that these tips will provide for many nights of enriching, exciting viewing of the skies above! Happy star hunting!
All my best,