Binoculars: Halfway to a Telescope
One December evening when I was 14 years old, I was playing with a large magnifying glass and happened to hold it up in line with a Christmas light at the other end of the house. Suddenly the lens was filled with a blinding glare. How could such a dim little light, I wondered, produce such a dazzle? Would it work on an even fainter light a distant streetlight, say, or a star? I ran out into the cold night to try. The results were disappointing. But my father, who came out to see me holding the magnifying glass up to the stars, suggested I try the family binoculars instead. I did, and the sight that night of Jupiter, the Pleiades, and the Belt of Orion helped start me on an astronomical path that continues to this day.
It seemed so easy! I had never realized that ordinary binoculars could be an astronomical instrument. Like most kids I knew a little astronomy from books. But observing celestial objects first-hand seemed to be something only scientists could do. As I found out in the following weeks, however, a pair of binoculars opens up endless opportunities for serious sky exploring.
Binoculars are the ideal starter instrument because they are so simple to use. You see the image right side up and in front of you. The large field of view makes it easy to find what you point at. Yet binoculars reveal many sights that most people think require a telescope including craters, mountains, and plains on the Moon, planets and their satellites, the brightest asteroids at favorable times, the occasional comet, countless double and variable stars, dozens of star clusters, and some nebulae and galaxies.
The observing and chart-reading skills you'll gain from searching out these things are the same skills needed to put a telescope to good use. But binoculars are far cheaper as a first investment not to mention being much more convenient to carry in and out and store in a closet.
In fact, a good pair of binoculars gives as much improvement over the naked-eye view as a good amateur telescope gives over the binoculars. In other words, binoculars get you halfway there but for a lot less than half the price.
These instruments are so useful and handy, yet so often unappreciated by beginners fixated on the idea of a telescope, that it's worth reviewing some of the things they can do.