…continuedStargazing, Family Style
Touring with Binoculars
A good target to begin with your binoculars is the Moon. It offers the best views of any object in our solar system, simply due to its proximity to Earth. Because of this, it’s a natural draw for anyone with even a slight interest in the sky. Without any equipment at all, you and your clan can watch the changing phases from night to night. When the Moon is very “young,” just two or three days after new, have a friendly contest to see who can spot the slender crescent hanging low in the sky after sunset.
As twilight deepens, you’ll often see the dark side of the Moon aglow with sunlight that’s been reflected off Earth’s clouds and oceans an effect called earthshine. Binoculars or even the simplest telescope can reveal craters, mountain ranges, and lava-filled seas. From one evening to the next, different features will reveal themselves with the slow rising and setting of the Sun across the lunar landscape.
A great group activity is to have each person draw a sketch of the Moon as it looks to him or her through binoculars or a telescope. This is something especially well suited to younger skygazers, and comparing the drawings after everyone has finished should be pretty amusing! But it also helps develop good observing skills too. Note that while binoculars show a normal (magnified) view, most telescopes turn the Moon and sky upside down or flip it as though you’re looking into a mirror.
During summer, you'll have the best area of the sky to browse with binoculars. At that time in the south, the heart of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, awaits you. This dense river of stars is a great place for a celestial hunt with binoculars. Begin low in the south with the constellation Sagittarius and its easy-to-spot Teapot, complete with “steam” rising from its spout. The steam contains the bright Lagoon Nebula, which in 8×50 binoculars shows up as a small cluster of stars with a diffuse glow surrounding it. Above this you should see a second glow, the Trifid Nebula.
Use your binoculars to follow the Milky Way upward, toward the northeast, and you’ll pan across many bright star clouds, dark nebulas (clouds of dust and gas that block the light of the stars behind them), and star clusters. Many of these are charted in the Messier catalog, a list of 109 objects compiled by Charles Messier in the 1700s so he could avoid mistaking them for comets. If you have a star chart that plots the locations of Messier objects, a fun project is to see who can locate the most Messier objects in binoculars in one evening.