For all of the breathtaking objects the night sky has to offer, astronomy seems like an inordinately expensive hobby to get into. Telescopes don’t come cheap – especially if you want a good one – and this leaves many people feeling like they can’t really get the most out of the hobby. Although you can obviously explore in a lot more detail with a powerful telescope, there are plenty of cool things you can see with nothing other than a good pair of binoculars. There are specialist astronomy binoculars, but you’ll still be able to get some good results with even a basic pair, spotting planets, nebulae, star clusters and even another galaxy.
"Get yourself outside under the stars if it’s clear, pull up a deck chair, and scan the star clusters, nebulae, and even see other galaxies with your binoculars. Their lower power makes them just perfect for objects such as the larger open clusters, giving you great views and of course as you get to use both eyes, providing almost a 3D view."
Binoculars make finding objects in the sky much easier than with a telescope (which you need to spend quite some time getting to grips with), but it’s still better to start with something easy. One of the huge benefits of observing the Moon is that you can do it virtually any time. The best time is when the Moon is a quarter “full” at most – more light reflecting off the surface of the Moon obscures some of the most interesting detail.
Try to pick out some detail where the light part of the surface and the dark part meet. Have a look at Google Moon or a surface map (see Resources) and try to spot some of the features when you go out observing – Neil Armstrong took his “small step” on the Sea of Tranquillity.
Mizar and Alcor
Find the plough (Ursa Major). This is always visible in the northern hemisphere, and the two stars on the outside of the “bowl” point to Polaris, which is roughly in line with the North Pole.
Look for the point where the handle “bends” – this is a double star which initially appears to be a singular one. Through binoculars, Mizar and Alcor can be clearly distinguished, and you should also be able to make out that Mizar itself is a binary star system, composed of Mizar A and B.
The Orion Nebula (M42)
Orion – the celestial hunter – is another of the most easily identifiable constellations for people new to astronomy, and is best seen in the winter months. The three-star “belt” across the centre has a “sword” below it, also composed of three stars.
The central of these “sword” stars is not actually a star, but a huge, luminous cloud of gas where new stars are born. Through binoculars, you should be able to make out the trapezium of stars towards the centre, which feed energy to the vast clouds of gas.
Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
The Andromeda Galaxy is the closest astronomical neighbour of the Milky Way, which makes it fairly easy to spot around summer and autumn. You can find the galaxy easily if you can locate the “Great Square” of Pegasus.
Find Alpheratz in the corner of the square, and note the two “chains” of four stars which break off from it. Count two stars down – to Mirach – on the lower chain, and locate the corresponding star on the other chain. Hop from Mirach to this second star (Mu Andromedae), and then move the same distance in the same direction again to find the galaxy.
Jupiter and its moons
Jupiter the biggest planet in our solar system, and despite its distance from the Earth it’s one of the brightest objects in the sky. You can see Jupiter at many times throughout the year (see Resources for a guide to its position), and it’s generally easy to spot thanks to its brightness.
If you keep your hand steady, you may be able to see the “Galilean” moons, Io, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. Galileo tracked these moons orbiting around Jupiter, thus proving that everything in the universe didn’t revolve around the Earth – which was the accepted scientific view of the time.
Between June and October, the constellation of Cygnus the swan is visible in the northern hemisphere. The “head” star of the swan, Albireo, is one of the most famous double-stars in the night sky.
If you get it in your field of view, it reveals itself as a double-star, with the yellow-red Albireo A being brighter than the blue Albireo B. The colours won’t usually be too obvious, but under good viewing conditions (and with better equipment) they can be made out more clearly.
Another planet which can be viewed through binoculars is the gas giant Saturn, with its iconic ring system. How well you’ll see it depends on the viewing conditions and the quality of your binoculars.
The rings might look bulbous and undefined (when Galileo first saw them he said the planet had “ears”), but they should come out more clearly with most modern equipment.
The “Seven Sisters” or the Pleiades is a collection of stars known as an “open” globular cluster. It can be found by following the line of Orion’s belt up and to the right, past the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus and a little further out.
You should be able to see between 20 and 30 stars under good conditions, and binoculars provide an excellent view of the cluster.
Hercules globular cluster (M13)
This is one of the most famous globular clusters, and gets more amazing the clearer your view and the better your observing equipment. Through most binoculars you’ll see a fuzzy, swarm of stars, but the individual stars probably won’t be visible. In reality, there are over a million stars packed into this tight region.
You can find it by using the “Hercules keystone” in the centre of the Hercules constellation. If you can’t locate the four stars, look around a third of the way from Vega to Arcturus to find it. The cluster is located between Eta and Zeta Herculis, on Arcturus’ side of the keystone. It’s visible throughout the summer months in the northern hemisphere.
Dumbbell Nebula (M27)
To the southwest of Albireo in Cygnus, you might be able to make out a faint constellation called the “Little Fox” or Vulpecula. The Dumbbell Nebula might not be the easiest object to spot, but it’s visible if you have a good pair of binoculars.
It’s easiest to find if you look to the north of the tip of the constellation Sagitta, which looks like an arrow. Like the Orion Nebula, this is a dense cloud of gas in a star-forming region.