People often mistakenly believe that you need a high-end telescope before they can begin exploring the night sky. But the truth is that all you need is a good set of binoculars and knowledge of where to look.
With a simple pair of binoculars for astronomy, you can learn the heavens without the steep learning curve (or expense) of a telescope.
Best Binocular Targets for Beginners
The number one best target for a beginner with a new set of binoculars is one that’s visible with just your eyes and is always around.
That’s the moon! You won’t have any trouble finding it in the sky, and it offers various sights as it goes through its phases. Plus, its proximity to Earth allows you to make out details you can’t on other celestial objects.
The trick to viewing the moon is to start your lunar observations at the lunar terminator, this is the name given to the line where dark meets light. Shadows on the moon’s surface are long in this area, which makes it easier to determine geographical features on the moon, such as ridges, valleys, mountains, lava beds, and craters caused by crashed meteors.
With our neighbor being available for at least half of the nights in every month, the moon is an excellent option for binocular astronomy.
The Planets You Can See Through Binoculars
The moon isn’t the only celestial body you can spot with your binoculars. It’s also possible to bring the bright planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn into focus, affording yourself a more detailed view than you can with the naked eye.
Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system, and you can see it without a telescope or binoculars. You can make out four of Jupiter’s moons with binoculars by identifying four points of light rotating around the gas giant. You can spot Jupiter not only at night but during dusk and dawn, and you can track the paths of its ‘Galilean moons‘ over several days.
After Jupiter, you can spot Saturn year-round. Regretfully, it can be difficult to spot its signature rings. Depending on the power of your binoculars, Saturn will appear as an oval shape. That oval shape is an indication of the planet’s rings. You might also spy Titan, which is Saturn’s largest moon. This speck of light might be easier to see than the rings.
Of course, we can also see Venus and Mercury with binoculars. Both of these display a crescent shape, like the moon, but binoculars can only really tease that out of the Venusian disc, and then only when it’s at its closest to our planet.
Seeing Double Stars With Binoculars
After you’ve had your fill of the moon, Jupiter, and Saturn, you might be wondering what else there is to view in the sky. The most obvious answer, of course, is the stars themselves.
You may have already had your breath taken away by the number of ‘invisible’ stars you can suddenly see with binoculars, but did you know that some stars we see as singular points of light are actually two (or more) stars very close together? These are known as “double stars.”
Double stars are one of the best astronomy targets for binoculars. Binoculars can help you distinguish two stars that are closer together and even allow you to discern some that are different colors more easily. This detail is not available to the naked eye.
Mizar is the Big Dipper’s most famous star, a bright light in the handle that’s visible without a telescope or binoculars. However, when you utilize binoculars, you can see that Mizar is composed of two stars, there’s a companion called Alcor one-third of a degree away.
Star Clusters With Binoculars
Binoculars make for the perfect tool for viewing star clusters during the hours of darkness. Star clusters, as the name suggests, are groups of stars that are gravitationally bound together. They can be globular – more densely packed – or open. And they can contain hundreds of stars.
We’ve written about looking at the fabulous Pleiades, but the famous double cluster in Perseus, NGC 869, is a prime target for your astronomy bins. By starting at the horizon line, look halfway up in a northwestern direction until you spot the obvious ‘W’ shaped constellation of Cassiopeia.
Looking at the upper left over the constellation, you can spot a cluster of stars. That’s the double cluster in Perseus. Without your binoculars, you may have thought this was a brighter spot in the night sky and a simple part of the Milky Way.
As the description suggests, there are two clusters of stars there. The first is Perseus, and the other is known as Chi Perseus.
If you turn your astro bins toward the constellation Taurus, you can spot the Hyades cluster, one of the brightest and easiest star clusters to decipher. Your binoculars will reveal several individual stars in loose cluster of more than 300.
Which Nebulae are Visible in Binoculars?
With a good set of binoculars, you can even make out nebulae, also known as clouds in space. These come in dark and light. With the naked eye and a dark sky, you can just about make out the Orion Nebula, an indistinct space cloud visible on Orion’s sword.
This may not appear interesting until you break out a set of binoculars and get a better look. With them, you’ll make out individual stars and be able to see how their light affects the gas cloud, causing a glow in space.
The Lagoon Nebula can be found in Sagittarius and is a cluster that can be difficult but isn’t impossible to spot with a pair of binoculars. What’s fun about this one is that if you adjust your gaze and move over to the right, there is yet another nebulae. This one is called the Trifid Nebulae and is easier to view in areas with less light polluting the sky.
Be warned though, nebulae aren’t known as ‘faint fuzzies’ because of their glaring brightness. While binoculars reveal more than your eyes, these faint wisps of light are often out of their reach.
Seeing Galaxies in Binoculars
We’re located in the Milky Way galaxy and even though the next-nearest galaxy is millions of light-years away, your binoculars can help you can spot our far-flung galactic neighbors.
Below Cassiopeia, you can point your binoculars at a fuzzy shape in the night sky. That’s the galaxy Andromeda, our closest neighbor in the solar system. By looking in the area of Andromeda, you can spot two other companion galaxies. See our full guide to observing the Andromeda galaxy (M31).
Galaxies M81 and M82 can be witnessed near Ursa Major and are also a challenge to view with binoculars. However, if you’re located in the northern hemisphere, you’ll have a chance to see them every night as they’re always present there.
These may be difficult for you to spot with your binoculars, but catching a glimpse of these pieces of the universe is worth a shot and is an excellent learning experience.
Searching the Galaxy
Does picking up a pair of binoculars leave you with a feeling of excitement? It should!
The universe is a vast and interesting place and binoculars are an inexpensive but genuinely useful way of getting introduced to the awesome wonders of astronomy.
If you aren’t sure where to look to buy your own set, try checking out these binoculars to see the astronomy targets from your backyard.