The Novice Astronomer: Telescope vs. Binoculars

There's something amazing about looking up into the night sky and seeing all the possibilities out there among the stars. (Image:  wikimedia  /  CC0 1.0)
There's something amazing about looking up into the night sky and seeing all the possibilities out there among the stars. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

There’s something amazing about looking up into the night sky and seeing all the possibilities out there among the stars. It lets us know just how small we are when we look at the big picture, but even those of us with perfect eyesight find it hard to pick details out in the night sky. Can you get away with a pair of binoculars, or do you need a good telescope to get the most out of your nighttime observations?

Choosing binoculars

Binoculars are useful for spotting birds at a distance, watching the stars, and watching the football game from the top of the stadium, but what should you be looking for in a pair of binoculars if you’re going to use them for stargazing?

First, consider the perspective. The larger the perspective rating on a pair of binoculars, the wider an area you’ll be able to see. This might make it a little harder to focus on distant objects, but at the same time, it can make it easier to target specific objects, like planets or even the moon during an eclipse.

Binoculars are useful for spotting birds at a distance, watching the stars and watching the football game from the top of the stadium, but what should you be looking for in a pair of binoculars if you're going to use them for stargazing? (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Binoculars are useful for spotting birds at a distance, watching the stars, and watching the football game from the top of the stadium, but what should you be looking for in a pair of binoculars if you’re going to use them for stargazing? (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Next, ask your eye doctor about the size of your pupil the next time you make an appointment. Binoculars have varying “exit pupil” sizes — the small discs where the image forms before you see it. The size of your pupil changes as you age. Children have much wider pupils in the dark than adults do. If you’re using a pair of binoculars with too large an exit pupil, you won’t be able to see as well.

Finally, the most important thing you need to consider is power. Are you trying to count the rings of Saturn with your binoculars or just get an idea of what the night sky looks like for the astronauts? Lower power binoculars will look more like a spacewalk — and they are usually infinitely smaller and more portable than the more powerful options. The high-power binoculars will likely be larger and may require a tripod to use them correctly.

Binoculars can be an excellent option for casual stargazers — they don’t typically require a lot of preparation or any specialized training (or math!) to use. They might not have the power of a telescope, but there are plenty of celestial wonders that you can spot with just a pair of binoculars — like a newly discovered comet!

Binoculars might not have the power of a telescope, but there are plenty of celestial wonders that you can spot with just a pair of binoculars — like a newly discovered comet! (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Binoculars might not have the power of a telescope, but there are plenty of celestial wonders that you can spot with just a pair of binoculars — like a newly discovered comet! (Image: pixabay / CC0 1.0)

When it comes down to it though, everyone has their own opinion on the best brand, model, and specs for binoculars. It might take a bit of trial and error to find the one that works best for you.

Choosing a telescope

If binoculars aren’t helping you see enough of the cosmos, it might be time to invest in your first telescope — but how can you pick the best one for you out of the hundreds of different brands and models on the market?

Less is more, at least when it comes to telescope power. You might see a telescope at your local supercenter that claims to have the highest power or can show you the furthest reaches of the universe. Chances are, though, you’re going to either end up with fuzzy images at the highest level of magnification, or you won’t be able to keep your target in your scope’s field of view.

If binoculars aren't helping you see enough of the cosmos, it might be time to invest in your first telescope — but how can you pick the best one for you out of the hundreds of different brands and models on the market? (Image: Steve Elliott via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

If binoculars aren’t helping you see enough of the cosmos, it might be time to invest in your first telescope — but how can you pick the best one for you out of the hundreds of different brands and models on the market? (Image: Steve Elliott via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cheap department store telescopes often come with equally cheap tripods or stands that make it difficult to stay focused on your target. If your telescope shakes if you look at it wrong, you’re never going to spot Jupiter or Venus when it makes its way across the night sky.

Once you’ve chosen your telescope, take the time to learn its particular idiosyncrasies. Start with the lowest magnification eyepiece until you learn to find your target in the night sky, and then swap out for something more powerful. Start with something simple — the moon is a good target for beginner telescope users to hone in on, and spotting the individual craters on the face of the satellite for the first time is an incredible experience.

Choosing a…camera?

This might not be the best option for everyone, but there is one camera that is quickly gaining a reputation as a sky watching tool because of its unreal zoom. Videos keep popping up online of photographers using their Nikon P900 cameras to zoom in on the moon and even follow Saturn across the sky. It says something about quality when you can zoom in on the rings of Saturn with just a camera!

Sure, the average sky watcher isn’t going to spend $600 on a camera just to watch the sky, but for celestial pictures, this Nikon just can’t be beat.

Whether you choose a pair of binoculars, a telescope, or a camera, the night sky has many exciting things to show you. No matter what happens here on Earth, we should always keep looking toward the stars.

Megan-Ray-NicholsThis article was written by Megan Ray Nichols. If you enjoyed this article, please visit her page Schooled by Science.

 

 

 

 

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