Sparkling jewels revealed in night-sky binocular tour

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February1, 2006

February is my favourite month for enjoying the night sky. The long, dark mid-winter evenings combine with a rich array of easily recognizable constellations and other starry delights to evoke feelings of "Wow!" everywhere I look.

And my favourite means of taking in this heavenly panorama is nothing more complicated than a good pair of binoculars.

Take the Pleiades, for instance. This legendary star cluster is nearly straight overhead between 8 and 9 p.m. during February. To the naked eye, it appears as not much more than a fingertip-sized smudge with five or six faint stars. But turn a pair of binoculars on it, and Wow! That little "smudge" reveals itself as a diamond brooch of dozens and dozens of stars set against black velvet.

Or look to the southeast of the Pleiades, where Orion the warrior sports a belt of three stars in a line. The naked eye can just make out a sword hanging down from the belt. But train a pair of binoculars on that sword and it sparkles with detail. And if you're away from the light pollution of street lights and headlights, you may see a hazy area around the middle of the sword; this is the Orion Nebula, a birthing place of stars.

Edmonton coffee companion Bruce McCurdy is an award-winning popularizer of the night sky. For the past 20 years, he's been a volunteer at the Telus World of Science Observatory, where he guides visitors on tours among the stars. I wrote Bruce the other day and asked his thoughts on binoculars for astronomy.

"I am often asked by visitors to the observatory what telescope I recommend for novice stargazers," he responded. "My answer is automatic: the best starting telescope is a pair of binoculars. I used binos for five years before acquiring my own telescope, and still use them frequently today because they do some things my scope can't."

Here are eight advantages of binoculars, according to Bruce:

  1. Binoculars are relatively inexpensive, a decent pair selling for as low as $100. "An acceptable starter telescope will cost five or 10 times that amount," he wrote.
  2. They're compact. "Unlike many amateur-class telescopes, binos don't occupy half a car, so are the ideal companion for family vacations and such. I keep an old pair in my trunk for unexpected observing opportunities."
  3. They're multi-purpose. "Many folks already own a pair for use at concerts, sporting events, bird-watching and the like, but have never thought to use them for observing the night sky. Certainly the decision to purchase a pair can be justified on their multi-use capability, and they are far less likely to gather dust in a closet than an inexpensive and inadequate department store telescope."
  4. They're easy to assemble. They come from the factory ready to use.
  5. They're user-friendly. Simply point and look.
  6. The image is right-side-up. "The sky is oriented the same way in binoculars as one sees with the eye, whereas images in telescopes are typically mirror-reversed or inverted."
  7. They cover a wide field of view. "Typical binoculars will reveal a circle of sky some five to seven degrees in diameter (roughly the distance between adjacent stars in the Big Dipper). Telescopes are generally restricted to much smaller fields of view." Therefore, Bruce wrote, binoculars are more suited to "scanning the whole sky, learning the constellations, and observing extended objects like the Pleiades, the Andromeda Galaxy or especially our own Milky Way."
  8. They're a great learning tool, if you should later acquire a telescope. "Binos have roughly the same field of view as the finder scope on a telescope," Bruce wrote. "Experience with binoculars is therefore a great aid to one's efforts in pointing a telescope, which to the uninitiated is like trying to find a needle in a haystack."

Bruce recommends binoculars in the 50 mm aperture range, such as 7×50 (seven power magnification, with a 50 mm front lens for light-gathering ability). "Some of the modern compact binoculars are fine in bright daytime lighting conditions," he wrote, "but at night the more light-grasp the better." (I personally own two pair: a lightweight 7×42, and a more powerful but heavier 15×70.)

Bruce offers the following tricks for stargazing with binoculars: "Fix your eyes on the target and adjust the binoculars to where you are looking; hold them by the ends of the barrels for better stability; and anchor your elbows on a car roof, balcony rail, or the like."

With Bruce's advice in mind, then, take your binoculars out under a dark, cloudless sky and look up. You'll see not only Orion and the Pleiades, but craters on the moon and countless stars and clusters of stars beyond your wildest imagination.

And enjoy!

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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