Friday, February 4, 2011

Binocular Astronomy

Even now, in the middle of a 1960s-like winter, the dedicated naturalist can find something of interest to observe. In this case, we need to look up.

Winter constellations are of much interest and fortunately, the “seeing,” or quality of the wintertime air and sky is conducive to stargazing. And while no special devices are necessary, a decent pair of binoculars helps immensely.

I use a 10 X 50 set that cost less than $100 and has superb optics. This power and field of view are perhaps better suited to celestial observing than any other configuration. However, any binoculars are better than none, so if you have a set kicking around in cabinet or closet, by all means give them a workout.

I have practiced my astronomical chops for long enough now that I know when and where to look for interesting objects. One of my favorite sights are star clusters and right now, the constellation Auriga, high in the east in mid-evening, contains at least three good binocular objects.

These look like round, fuzzy swarms of bees. In fact, they are clusters of countless stars, bound together as a system and traveling through the universe together.

Of course the biggest and most extraordinary sight now is the Great Nebula in Orion, in the middle of Orion’s Sword. It’s a naked-eye sight but it really comes to the front with binoculars, a dazzling picture.

And while I can’t say stargazing in February is not without risk of some discomfort because of cold, I was outside last night for a half-hour of observing and the temperature held at a steady 0 degrees. And I wasn’t troubled by the cold. That’s because it was a still night. Even a slight breeze makes stargazing somewhat dicey.

But that’s one reason why binoculars work so well now. Here’s the key.

First, figure out what to look at and where. I suggest going to and checking our their weekly sky report. You can also download sky maps designed especially for your area.

Next, dress warmly, don hat and gloves and step outside. It takes a little while to cool down, even on the coldest night. Try and steady your binoculars (rest on something, even a broomstick with a board on one end will work) and home in on the nearest cluster, double star or binocular-visible galaxy (the Great Andromeda Galaxy will soon be in prime position in early evening).

Finally, I bought a folding beach chair for binocular viewing. By sitting down in this comfortable seat and supporting my binoculars with my elbows, I get a very steady picture, interrupted only by my heartbeat.

Binoculars make it easy to bundle up, quickly step out for a bit of stargazing and just as quickly, dart back in again to warm up. Telescopes don’t allow of this kind of instant action.

So do a bit of studying. Wipe off those old binocs and try some stargazing. But be warned. It’s a fascinating hobby, one likely to get you hooked for a lifetime of outdoor nighttime entertainment.

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