The Binocular Advantage

by Robert Frith

Most of us cannot afford a telescope. The cost of eyepieces, filters and other telescope accessories can easily steer one to a less expensive hobby. However, most households already have the fastest optics in astronomy … binoculars.

Fast as in setup, covering expansive sky, and finding objects by star hopping. Also, using the alt-azimuth, spinal-cranial drive system is much easier than using a telescope. While telescope users are polar aligning, the binocular astronomer is already well into an observing session. Image quality rivals well made refractors but at a fraction of the cost. Some astronomical objects are preferable in binoculars (i.e. NGC 7000, M33) since low light contrast in telescopes can be difficult, especially when using higher magnifications. Galaxies, asteroids, nebulae, double stars, star clusters, eight of our nine planets including four satellites of Jupiter are all within reach of the binocular observer. Scanning the terminator of the moon reveals individual craters and some of the higher mountains. With a dark sky, the naked eye can detect around 3,000 stars. With a pair of 7×50 binoculars you can see around 150,000 stars. Many astronomical objects from the Messier and NGC list can be found with ordinary binoculars.

The advantages are not only astronomical. I use my binoculars for scouting back country ski runs and route finding in mountain terrain. In this respect they are a safety feature as well as a pleasure item. I’ve sat in the backyard and spotted a variety of bird species. Binoculars offer undisturbed wildlife viewing. Sporting events, concerts are enhanced by this affordable item.

Expect to pay between $75 and $500 (even more) for a pair of multiple use binoculars. 7×50 and 10×50 are the choice for multiple use binoculars as they offer good magnification and are at the limit of hand held binoculars. Larger binoculars offer more light gathering ability, but they require a tripod for a steady image. 10×50’s give you a 5 to 6.5 degree field of view which is perfect for loose open clusters such as the Hyades and M44. Photography shops usually carry better quality binoculars than the ones found in department stores. Before purchasing a pair, I suggest reading Chapter 2 in The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide by Dickinson and Dyer. This book is available at the Public Library (main branch).

If someone offered me to trade my binoculars for their telescope, I would do so without hesitation, but the very next day I would go out and buy another pair.