Astronomy With Binoculars

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M81 galaxy

Looking at stellar objects doesn’t always require a telescope. In a few cases, it requires no optical aid whatsoever! Finding those dim, pesky constellations on a clear dark night, gazing at the planets, or even seeing the Milky Way can be satisfying. However, there may come a time when you desire to see more of the beauty that the heavens have to offer.

Buying a telescope isn’t as easy a process as it would seem. It costs a fair chunk of change, and some research is recommended to get the right one for your personal preferences. Thankfully, there’s an easier, more cost-effective solution. Binoculars can work wonders for beginning stargazers and the budget-minded. In fact, if you’re looking to get into astronomy and viewing deep space objects, binoculars will provide an excellent foundation, and will take a great deal of frustration out of using a telescope if and when the time comes. Let’s take a look at some of the things you can point your binoculars at…

Moon in last quarter phase
Moon in last quarter phase, image taken by me

The obvious first choice is the Moon. The Moon is visible in the night sky the majority of each month. Gazing at the Moon with binoculars is a treat for those who have never seen the Moon with optical aid before! The best time to look at the Moon is when it is in its phases, not when it’s full. The shadows on the Moon during the phases will allow you to see craters and mountains much easier. If you get a simple Moon map, easily found online (or shown in one of my previous articles “Fly Me To The Moon!”), see if you can spot and identify some of the lunar features, such as the large “seas”, mountain ranges, and even large craters. It will be educational and fun!

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Hyades and Pleiades star clusters

Next up are the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters. The Hyades is shaped like a large “V”, forming the horns of the bull in the constellation Taurus. The Pleiades is a small, kite shaped cluster. Both are near each other, and both are visible to the naked eye, which will give you easier reference. They may seem unimpressive to the naked eye, but binoculars will reveal a multitude of stars in both clusters that can’t be seen with eyes alone. You won’t be able to see the nebulous features in the Pleiades with binoculars, but you will get to see the nearest open star cluster to Earth!

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Messier 13 globular cluster

Another star cluster worth looking at with binoculars is the Great Globular Cluster M13 in the constellation Hercules, visible in spring and early summer months. It will appear as a large, fuzzy star in binoculars, with some individual stars near the edge being possible to see. There are several globular clusters like this, but because it’s so large, it’s easier to find, and unmistakable in binoculars. These globular clusters are stars that are all gravitationally bound to each other, and some may even be held together by a black hole. M13 is a great target to aim your binoculars at, and you’ll get to see a unique sight only optical aid can show you!

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Andromeda Galaxy

You can even see galaxies with binoculars as well! The easiest to spot is the Andromeda Galaxy. Located between the constellations Pegasus and Cassiopeia, the Andromeda Galaxy is huge! Binoculars will show a large, cloud-like object that will fill the lenses. Not too much detail can be made out with binoculars, as a large telescope will be requied to see dust lanes and spiral arms. Still, you will have the chance to see the Milky Way’s nearest galactic neighbor. And, keep in mind that it took the light from that dim cloud around 3 million years to travel to your eyeball.

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M81 and M82 galaxies

Another set of galaxies for the eagle-eyed observers are the M81-M82 pair, located above the bowl of the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper is out all year long, so it’s possible to spot these galaxies on almost any night, given a clear, moonless, dark sky away from city lights. These galaxies are amongst the most distant objects you can use binoculars to spot, at around 12 million light years away. M81, the larger and brighter of the pair will appear as a small, cloudy smudge. M82, the edge-on facing galaxy will be a challenge to find in binoculars, looking like a dim, smudgy line. Both of these galaxies are close together, and are neat to see, since viewing galactic pairs in binoculars are a rare occurance.

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M44, the Beehive Cluster

Finally, for our eagle-eyed spotters, there is the open cluster M44 located in the dim constellation Cancer, which is visible in the late fall to early spring. M44, known as the Beehive cluster is another target of opportunity for those using binoculars. It gets the name “Beehive” because all the stars look like a swarm of bees. It shows up very well in binoculars, and is fairly large as well. Unfortunately, to find it, you must find Cancer, and that is no easy task in the modern age thanks to light pollution from our cities. Cancer does lie within the ecliptic, and so may be spotted when a planet, such as Mars or Jupiter is passing through, making the task of finding M44 much easier. If you’re feeling inspired, check this star cluster out! It definitely won’t disappoint!

There are plenty of objects to see in the night sky, only requiring a dark night and a pair of binoculars. Using binoculars to find the larger and brighter objects will help you know where to look with a telescope, but most importantly, will allow you to see things you’ve never seen in the night sky before! So on a dark night, if you’re looking up and wondering what all is out there, grab a pair of binoculars and scan the sky with them. See what you can find, and maybe you’ll see something amazing that you never even knew was up there!

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