06Aug2017

No Telescope? No Problem

Skywatching

Ask any amateur astronomer and they’ll tell you they always have a pair of binoculars handy

As hobbies go, astronomy has a tough reputation. Too hard and too expensive is what I often hear. People imagine the way to start is to buy a telescope. Wrong!

The easiest and best way into astronomy is actually with no telescope at all. Go grab those trusty binoculars. They are, in effect, twin telescopes! In fact, binoculars offer some clear advantages over the traditional telescope, especially when being used by kids. Binoculars are lighter and require no assembly. This means it’s easy to take advantage of any clear evening sky. Just throw the binocular strap around your neck and away you go.

Binoculars have a wider field of view than a telescope, so it’s easier to search the sky, and if you stumble across a comet or a large constellation, the wide view makes them easier to see and track. For family whale watching or sporting events, your binoculars win out again. Trying doing that with a telescope!

Binoculars are usually labelled with two numbers, such as 7×50. The first number tells you how much your binoculars will magnify everything, the larger number indicates the lens size in millimetres. These are perfect for basic astronomy and make for great “leave in the car” telescopes.

With just the power of binoculars you should be able to spot caters and cracks on the lunar surface and dark grey flat plains known as ‘seas. For the best view of lunar craters, look along the daylight side of the terminator, the line between the dark side of the moon and the sunlit side.

A tripod steadies binoculars

Ask any amateur astronomer and they’ll tell you they always have a pair of binoculars handy. You may not be surprised to know I have 14 telescopes, but on field nights my trusty 10×50’s are always nearby.   Here’s a tip. To hold your binoculars still buy a special clamp to attach them to a camera tripod, or simply duct tape them on as a temporary measure like I do when in a hurry. Such a difference!

On clear nights you can watch satellites pass overhead. The biggest and brightest are visible even with the naked eye, but a good pair of binoculars will let you see even more satellites in the night sky.

To find out which satellites pass over your location, including the Space Station, and when to see them, visit heavens-above.com, select your location, and check predictions for several listed satellites.

Catch Venus, the ‘evening star’ low in the western sky at sunset. You can also use your binoculars to see bright Jupiter high overhead and its four largest moons. A good rule of thumb about identifying planets is that they don’t twinkle! Stars often twinkle.

Stars close to the horizon twinkle more than stars overhead because the light travels through a thicker layer of air, causing interference and wobbling. If you want to know if it’s going to be a good night for observing follow this simple rule.

Check stars halfway up the sky. If they twinkle a lot stay home, it’s gonna be a lousy viewing night.

Under a very dark sky you are going to realize that stars come in a remarkable range of colours and brightness. Just pan across the sky and soak it in. On a clear dark night, away from glaring lights, you can usually see about 3,000 stars with the naked eye. With a modest pair of binoculars, you can see about 100,000.

Ah Aussie skies in Winter, you can’t beat ‘em. So, don’t be lazy and just read astro mags, get outside and look into the skies with your own eyes. After all that’s what they are there for right?

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Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Stanford/Hlavacek-Larrondo, J. et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA
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