Every once in awhile, I’ll get an email from someone curious about getting into amateur astronomy, but with no idea where to begin. More often than not, it’s from someone with a crappy telescope who’s trying to salvage some utility out of a bad purchase/gift.
The truth of the matter is that most telescopes either cost a lot for automated, easy-to-use features, or require a lot of time and effort to learn to use them properly.
But lets say you’d like to start exploring the skies, and need some help with where to begin. If you’re like most people, and not sure how seriously you’re going to be about it, you’d probably like to do this with:
- Very little time invested,
- Very little money (i.e., less than $100),
- Very little clutter, and
- Very little hassle.
A noble aspiration, to be sure. What would I recommend to you?
Yes, seriously, a simple pair of binoculars. With a decent pair of hand-held binoculars, you can — if you figure out where to look — see the following things:
The International Space Station! This is an actual image taken with a digital camera through a pair of binoculars, and is what you’d see with your eyes through them. What else?
Other galaxies! You’ll also be able to see, if you look at M33 (above), why they used to call them “Spiral Nebulae” before they knew what they were.
Stars! Not only will the number of stars you’ll be able to see in a dark sky go from about 3,000 to about 100,000, but many stars, like Alberio (above), will be resolvable into their binary pairs! Alberio is particularly neat, because the two stars are both different colors and different sizes!
And that’s without even looking at our own Solar System, which you absolutely must do if you’re going to take a look at the night sky.
First off, even with a lousy pair of binoculars, you can see craters on the Moon! (Although probably not as many as are above.) You can also see things that it took astronomers hundreds of years to find — like Uranus and Neptune — just by finding out where to look. But there are three spectacular things that the Solar System has, that may make it worth investing in a tripod and a slightly better pair of binoculars. What are they?
1. Jupiter’s Moons! You can see Jupiter’s four Galilean Moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto) through a reasonable pair of binoculars during good viewing conditions. Sky & Telescope has a great interactive applet about observing the Moons, which you should check out if you want to know which ones you’re looking at.
2. Saturn’s Rings! No kidding. You can not only see Saturn’s Rings, but if you’re lucky (and I have never been so lucky with binoculars), you can also see Saturn’s giant moon, Titan, one of the only moons in the Solar System with an atmosphere. But the most spectacular thing in the Solar System that you can find with binoculars?
3. Mars’ Polar Ice Caps! During the right time of the year, and when Mars is close enough, you can see the Polar Caps on Mars, as seen above through a pair of binoculars!
So, what should you look for in a pair of binoculars if you want to do this? Every pair of binoculars has two numbers, like 5×10, 7×35, 10×40, or 16×80. The first number is the magnification. If you’re going to start out, a 7x magnification is probably pretty good, but anything higher than that and most people can’t hold it steady enough with their hands. A few people can hold a 10x steady, but you’ll definitely want a tripod if you go up beyond that.
The second number is the light-gathering power, or the diameter of the binocular lens. There is a huge difference in light-gathering power between some of these. A 35 mm aperture pair of binoculars is twice as powerful as a 25 mm pair, but a 50 mm pair is twice as powerful as a 35 mm pair and a 70 mm pair is again twice as powerful as a 50 mm pair! The trade-off? Weight. Pretty much anyone can hold a 40 mm pair of binoculars steady, it takes a bit of practice and finesse for a 50 mm pair, and if you’re going to go above 50 mm, you’ll want a tripod.
Just starting out? Never done this before? And interested in seeing as much as you can? Get a cheap pair of 7×50 binoculars. You can pretty easily find a pair for about $60, and less if you shop around. Want to splurge a little bit? Go for a 10×70 (or a 16×80) pair with a tripod. These are way easier and more convenient than telescopes, and a good pair of binoculars can get you further and farther (and can do it much faster and cheaper) than a mediocre telescope. You can find (older) advice here on buying binoculars, an angry rant against binoculars, and an excellent resource for binocular astronomy.
Want to know where things are? A star atlas would be nice, but — honestly — google sky can show you where everything you want to look at is for free. And if you’re too lazy to look anything up, just point and look; the bright, unblinking points of light are planets, the ones that move slowly and evenly across the sky are satellites, and the dim, dusty trail is the Milky Way. You might be glad you got out and looked!