Getting Started with Astronomy Binoculars

Once you've chosen and set up your binoculars, you're almost ready to start looking at the night sky. Before you do, though, you need to understand what you're looking for and what you hope to achieve. It's very important to know what you can and can't do with binoculars and what they're most useful for. Here's the deal:

Binoculars are not about seeing details in individual objects. Although a good pair can show you some features of the Moon, that's about the only time you'll see such details. You won't see the Rings of Saturn or the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. You probably won't even see the planets as disks—they'll just look like bright stars. To get close views of planets you'll need a telescope. Binoculars are for a different type of view.

The main purpose of binoculars is to see more objects at the same time and more context, i.e. a wide field of view showing where things are in relation to each other.

Let's have a look at the Southern Cross constellation (technically called "Crux"). The first image below shows what Crux looks like to the naked eye in average viewing conditions—you can normally see five stars. The second image shows the same thing as seen through a pair of 10x50mm binoculars. You can see a lot more stars.

The Southern Cross (Crux) with the naked eye
Crux as seen with the naked eye
The Southern Cross (Crux) with binoculars
Crux as seen with binoculars

You must understand that what you see with your naked eyes is only a small fraction of what is actually there. Because your eyes can only gather a certain amount of light, you can only see the brightest stars. Your binoculars can gather much more light and show you some of what you're missing out on.

At first it's quite confusing seeing all the extra stars. It takes a bit of practice to match what you see with your naked eyes to what you see through the binoculars. Try it yourself with different constellations around the night sky. You don't need to know the names of the constellations—just find some obvious groups of stars and see what they look like through the binoculars. In some cases it will be easy to match the binocular view with your naked eye view; in other cases you'll have a hard time figuring which stars in the binoculars are the ones you can see with the naked eye. Keep practicing.

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