This article was contributed by David Baumgartner as part of a local series on astronomy.
The other day I ran into a young man who was interested in astronomy. Let’s call him Dan. He had many questions. One of which was about binoculars. He mentioned that his dad offered to let him use his small but very good set for him to gaze the night sky with. He said that he made fun of his dad’s offer because they were so small and didn’t think they would work very well. I got thinking about the article I wrote awhile back called “Why Binoculars?” It was evident that this young fella hadn’t read it. So I thought maybe this would be a good time to revisit the topic.
With all the huge telescopes, equipment and accessories that one has to choose from today, why would one even want to use binoculars? So why even bother with those light, easy to handle, wide field, store anywhere and less expensive binoculars? I guess I just told you why.
And don’t forget one of the best reasons to use binocular: two eyes are definitely better than one when it comes to viewing the skies. Your power of resolution and the ability to see faint objects are improved dramatically when using both eyes. Next time you are out in your backyard on a clear night, try this test: cover one eye and notice what faint stars you can see; then uncover the other eye, you can actually see more stars with both eyes than you can with one. They say (not really sure who “they” are, but they seem to know a lot) you can see about 10% more when viewing with two eyes.
I often have classes from different schools come by to visit and look through my new 8” telescope. I usually start out by showing them the sky with my 20×80 binoculars first. But you don’t have to have a large pair, you would be surprised what you can find with a small pair if you know where to look. So here they are standing in line waiting to take a peek through the binoculars when all the time they are thinking to themselves, “why are we bothering with this when we could be looking through the big telescope?”
Well, they do eventually get to use the big one. But I must admit, I get just as many “wow, look at that” from the kids looking through the binoculars as I do from them looking through the 8” scope. The best advantage the binoculars have over a large telescope is the large area the binoculars can cover in one view. Take the Andromeda Galaxy for instance. This is the farthest object we can see with the unaided eye, being some 2.2 million light years away. I can barely begin to get the entire galaxy in my view with the large telescope, the object is just too big. But with the binoculars I can see the Andromeda Galaxy in its entirety. And what a sight it is.
There are many other fascinating things to see through binoculars, such as open star clusters, the moon, planets and so much more. With my 20×80’s I can see four of the moons of Jupiter, and watch them each night change positions. And our moon, why it almost looks like you can reach out and touch it.
What about the sun? You are now saying to yourself, “is he crazy?” But yes, the binoculars are fine instruments for viewing the sun. However, before looking at the sun, take this warning:
Do not look directly at the sun, not even for an instant!
Without proper safety precautions, permanent eye damage, and even blindness, can result.
The best and easiest way to view the sun is to use your binoculars to project an image of the sun onto a piece of white cardboard. It is fun to check daily to see the movement of the sun spots as they circle around the sun. Sometimes there are none to be seen, such as it is right now.
You understand now that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy the evening skies. If you don’t have a pair of binoculars, maybe your dad has a pair he might let you use, or maybe a friend. You could ask me if you could use mine, I probably would say no unless I was there with you. I never have been one to share. Living with four brothers, if I loaned them anything there would be a good chance I would never see it again. Whoever they belong to, make sure you take care when using them, or you may not get the chance to use them again.
So there you are. Two eyes are better than one, along with portability, affordability, and the ease of operation makes binoculars a very simple and enjoyable tool to use when viewing the heavens.
Well Dan, thank you for all the questions and I hope I answered the one about small binoculars. I must admit though that bigger is better when it comes to binoculars. And with that in mind, Christmas is coming up. Maybe this is the time to have a talk with Santa about a bigger pair.
Thanks again Dan.
Happy Holidays and clear skies.
Things to look for in December:
Dec. 7: Moon passes 0.5° south of asteroid Vesta
Dec. 7: Last quarter Moon
Dec. 12: Moon is at perigee (224,795 miles from Earth)
Dec. 12: Moon passes 0.8° north of Venus
Dec. 13: Geminids meteor shower peaks
Dec. 14: New Moon
Dec. 16: Moon passes 3° south of Jupiter
Dec. 16: Moon passes 3° south of Saturn