You Don’t Need a Telescope
Prior to the early 17th century when Galileo first turned a telescope to the night sky, man had been looking up in the darkness and observing the heavens. Indeed, many of the early astronomers were astrologers and priests who were well respected in their cultures and counted on to make predictions about times to plant or harvest, the health of a person, or the time to hunt all based on what was going on in the heavens.
The beauty of Astronomy is its simplicity. With nothing more than a dark sky (or one not so dark but the darker the better) a great deal of pleasure may be derived from viewing the cosmos with only our eyes. There is much to see and with the help of a simple star map or a planisphere, a connection with those priests and priestesses from ancient times can easily be made. A binocular, and not necessarily an expensive one – just the one that is in that back closet or under the bed, will definitely enhance what you can see.
To begin, there is the Moon, of course, to look at. Many of the Moon’s most prominent features can be seen easily with the naked eye. There is the “Man in the Moon” to see but that gets a little old. Try finding the “Rabbit in the Moon”, the “Yelling Grandma”, the Pirate, or the “Young Girl”. These are all patterns that we can see on a full Moon using the naked eye but only if we stretch our imagination a little bit. In a binocular, the Moon gives us breathtaking views of craters, mountains, and mare depending on what phase the Moon is in.
The many constellations (88 official ones) are best looked at with the naked eye. That’s how they were looked at by humans from the distant past and how they became “the pictures in the sky” that astronomers use today as guideposts for events and locations in the night sky. This is where a planisphere comes in handy. Sitting on a chair or lying on a blanket with the planisphere held above you, the sky will begin to make sense…the star patterns labeled on the planisphere can be seen and once you learn where the constellations are you can begin to identify some of the naked eye objects and smudges that have always been up there but most you’ve never seen.
For example, in the eastern sky in mid to late spring, Orion is visible. Orion’s three belt stars are immediately apparent…three relatively bright stars in a row and just about evenly spaced. Once you find those three belt stars you should be able to make out the sword, three “stars” hanging down off the belt. Look at the middle star closely… it’s fuzzy and that’s because it’s NOT a star but the Great Orion Nebula where baby stars are being formed! Also in Orion look at the stars that outline Orion’s body; it’s plainly evident that the bottom right star, Rigel, is blue and the one marking Orion’s left shoulder, Betelgeuse, is red. Colors indicate the temperatures of the stars.
There’s another fuzzy spot below and slightly to the right of Cassiopeia that shows up best in late summer and autumn. That is the closest galaxy to our Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy. It is nearly 2.5 million light years away from us! Did you think you could see that far?
Our naked eyes can see about 2500 individual stars on any given night in a dark place. Light pollution, especially in cities, reduces that number dramatically. When we see a stream or band of light arching through the heavens that appears to be a little like bright clouds with a sort of structure to them, well that’s a part of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. All those “clouds” of light are actually the light from millions of stars. If you have a binocular try aiming it toward the Milky Way and prepare to be astounded! And remember, those stars in the “cloud” are millions of light years away...some are many millions of light years away and the light has been in transit ever since.
By adding a binocular to your night sky viewing, you are opening up horizons that were unheard of before Galileo. Using a binocular, it’s easy to see the four Galilean moons around Jupiter. In good seeing conditions the rings around Saturn may be seen; the phases that the planet Venus goes through are readily available; and many double stars become visible and show off their colors. With a binocular, some nebula begin to take shape, many open star clusters become vividly beautiful, the Moon becomes a startling contrast of flat areas (mare), craters, and the shadows of mountains as well as the crater rays (material ejected after a meteor or asteroid struck the moon) begin to become visible. The binocular is a wonderful tool and some objects, such as the North American Nebula, look better than through a telescope!
Binocular viewing is easy to learn and do. As mentioned earlier, any binocular will work for astronomical viewing and are often recommended for a beginning star gazer. As with most things, comfort is most important when you choose a binocular to buy. Unless you have a tripod, remember that you will be holding a binocular (with two hands) for what could be long periods of time, smaller binoculars are easier to hold steady and are excellent for long sessions. A chair (or even better a lounge chair or a cushioned blanket on the ground) is an excellent choice for viewing the cosmos with binoculars. Add a thermos full of a warm drink and some sort of guide book (see short list at bottom of this article) as well as a red light and you are all set for many comfortable and fascinating hours!
If you are in the market for a good quality binocular, they are relatively inexpensive. Our astronomy store has a number on hand most of the time with a price range of about $50 to $100. Often we get deals and we’ve had superb instruments that we have sold for $30! The beauty of a binocular is that they are multi-use instruments – they can be used for bird and wildlife watching, sporting events, theater, and even whale watching! Everyone should own at least one. It is important to buy a binocular from a reputable seller since there are issues with some less expensive instruments. Our astronomers check each binocular for collimation and other quirks before they are sold. Our staff can show you how to correctly hold and focus a binocular as well.
People “do” astronomy for a lot of reasons. For many, the whole exercise of viewing the night sky allows the day’s stress and anxieties to fade away. Many new astronomers rush out and buy the latest and greatest instruments available and sometimes those just sit, covered, in a garage or living room. If you’re relatively new to astronomy, don’t get caught in that trap. Learning the night sky with the naked eye or with a binocular will enhance the hobby tremendously. For some of us, just staring skyward in the dark is more satisfying than anything else. The night sky is full of wonders. Keep looking up!
Throughout this article, I’ve mentioned “guide books.” Below is a VERY short list of a few we have available in our store. We can order just about any you might want or find online.
· 365 Starry Nights: An Introduction to Astronomy for Every Night of the Year - Chet Ramos
· The Stars: A New Way to See Them – H.A. Rey
· Turn Left at Orion: Hundreds of Night Sky Objects to See in a Home Telescope -and- How to Find Them – Guy Consolmagno
· Star Watch: The Amateur Astronomer’s Guide to Find, Observing, and Learning About over 125 Celestial Objects – Phillip Harrington
· The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide – Terence Dickinson and Alan Dyer
· Touring the Universe with Binoculars – Phillip Harrington
· Binocular Highlights: 99 Celestial Sights for Binocular Users – Gary Seronik
· Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas – Roger Sinnott
· Sky & Telescope Binocular Highlights – Gary Seronik