Many countryside enthusiasts own a pair of binoculars. What better way to appreciate the diversity of the UK’s scenery and wildlife? But as night falls, don’t put them away – why not point those binoculars skywards and take in some of the amazing celestial gems on offer this winter?
Binocular observing is the next step on from naked-eye astronomy. Lightweight, portable and easy to use, binoculars open up a whole new world of stargazing without breaking the bank.
It’s worth planning your observing evening. Binoculars can become heavy quickly, so arranging a list of targets to spot will make your observing evening far more efficient and rewarding. Refer to a star atlas or stargazing smartphone app to find the location of the objects you want to observe and make a note of them before you head out. Don’t forget your red-light torch, as reading your list in white light will spoil your night vision.
What to spot
Start with the moon. This is an easy target and you’ll be amazed by the detail you pick out in our satellites craters, rilles (narrow ridges) and mare (lunar seas). These distant features will appear as if within touching distance.
Pointing your binoculars at individual stars in familiar constellations like Orion or Andromeda will reveal the brightness of these distant celestial objects, but delve a little deeper and you’ll soon discover star clusters.
In December, open star cluster M34 is a great target between the constellations of Perseus and Andromeda, while January is a great time to see the Meissa Cluster conveniently located at the head of Orion.
Moving on from star clusters, another spectacular sight to observe through binoculars are galaxies and nebulae. As a beginner, try aiming your binoculars at easier to spot objects, like the Andromeda galaxy. This smudged oval with a bright centre is a spiral galaxy very much like our own Milky Way. The Orion nebula, a star forming region just below Orion’s Belt, is another great target and this gaseous mass can be resolved through binoculars.
When to spot it
The planets take on a whole new lease of life through binoculars. In December, although small in the night sky, you should be able to make out Mars’s ochre hue. In January, keep an eye out for Saturn at the end of the month, although a telescope is needed to resolve its rings, you should be able to appreciate its rich golden colour. February is all about Jupiter. With the king of planets at opposition, a pair of binoculars will reveal the four largest of the retinue of moons that orbit it, Io Europa, Ganymede and Calisto.