“They will see us waving from such great heights
‘Come down now,’ they’ll say.
But everything looks perfect from far away
‘Come down now,’ but we’ll stay.” -The Postal Service
Whether you’re under urban, city skies, where only a few dozen stars are visible on a clear night, or beneath some of the darkest skies on Earth, the Universe is out there, and you can get started discovering it, right now, for yourself. You can have yourself, as Bishop Allen would sing,
When the Moon sets and the neighbors turn off all their lights, I can get skies that are darker than purely urban skies: maybe all the way down to (lower is better) a seven on the Bortle dark-sky scale.
But even with only the most major constellations and asterisms visible, there’s still plenty to see, even in the city, if you’re interested in exploring the night sky. Darker skies will only net you more (and fainter, dimmer, and more diffuse) objects, of course, so you’ll want equipment that will be versatile. Normally, people just starting to take an interest in it have a large number of things they want, some of which they don’t even realize they want. What are they?
- You want something relatively inexpensive, because no one wants to blow a lot of money on something you’re not even sure you’ll like.
- You want something that’s quick easy to set up and take down, so that you’ll use it often, even late at night, when you’re tired and/or unmotivated.
- You want something where the optics are high-quality, because you want to see out into the Universe, not a scratchy, blurry haze.
- You want something with a lot of light-gathering power, capable of seeing as much as you can for the skies that you have.
- And, let’s face it, you want something that’s durable, because you never take as good care of your stuff as you wish you did.
So, what would I recommend to a beginning skywatcher? I gave some general advice once before, but let me share with you the best astronomy present I’ve ever, personally, bought for myself.
This is my preferred tool for checking out the night sky, no matter where I am: a pair of Celestron Skymaster, 20x80mm binoculars. These are versatile — both for people who do and don’t wear glasses — and they meet all of the criteria above.
- They’re cheap, costing only about $100 if you shop around.
- You’ll also need a (not included) tripod. The crummy $40 one I bought at Circuit City five years ago is just fine for this, but this is really the upper limit (in weight) that a cheap tripod like this can handle.
- Some lying liars will tell you that you can do just fine without them, but they’re no longer with us because they’ve burned to a crisp from the fires that engulfed them, originating in their pants. Why do you think it has a built-in tripod mount?!
- The 80mm number in that title refers to the diameter of each light-gathering lens, which means these binoculars (when you use both eyes) have the equivalent light gathering power to a 4.5″ telescope!
- The optics are multi-coated and the telescope is water/weather resistant, which is very good, but not quite the best. If you want to pay a lot more, you can go for fully-coated optics, and/or a waterproof pair, but for this price point you’re not going to find better.
- Finally, setup takes only about 10 minutes, including focusing. The lone exception is that for some pairs (mine wasn’t one of them), collimation is a problem, which requires you to either fix them yourself (with an eyeglasses screwdriver), send them in to Celestron, or take them into a camera shop. If you do have this problem, it’s a one-time-only fix.
And finally, the 20x magnification (what that first number means in binocular-speak) is enough to see some amazing things! The last time I took them out was Sunday night, which was unseasonably warm and clear. Yes, I got to see the color of some of my favorite stars, as well as the pink/red disk of Mars. But there were a few highlights that I wanted to share.
Saturn, bright and yellow in the night sky, has rings that are actually distinctly visible through these binoculars! I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to see them, but when I had it centered in the field of view and truly focused the binoculars properly, the nearly edge-on rings came into crisp view, and it was my first time seeing them with my own, personal equipment!
As far as stars go, whenever the Big Dipper is prominent, you owe it to yourself to check out the second star from the end of the handle: Mizar. It’s not only a binary star system, with the bright star Alcor also present, but there are many other, fainter stars there as well! Even with my lousy, fairly urban skies, I was very clearly able to see the third brightest star in there, which marked only the second time in my life I’d ever seen it, and again, the first time I’d found it on my own.
And last of all, there’s the brightest object that isn’t named the Moon in our current night sky.
Venus! Currently in its crescent phase, you’ll be able to watch Venus’ crescent progressively shrink and shrink over the coming 5 weeks, until in early June it actually transits in front of the Sun, for the last time until 2117!
So if you’ve got an interest in the night sky, but not a lot of time, money, and not even necessarily good skies, there are still some amazing sights just waiting for you. The question is what are you waiting for; the Universe is yours to explore!