As summer slips in autumn and the days grow shorter, the nights get longer. This makes the next six months or so a great time to explore the night sky. While many novice astronomers may think buying a telescope is the best first step in star gazing, I would argue that a good pair of binoculars should be given serious consideration.

THREE POINTS, AZ - APRIL 2:  Binoculars belonging to Jim Pinkerman, of Mesa, Arizona,  hang from his neck along with his Minutemen ID card at his checkpoint April 2, 2006 in the Sonoran Desert in Altar Valley 45 miles south of Tucson, Arizona. Approximately 100-150  volunteers from several states came to Arizona to participate in the third month-long action near the U.S. and Mexican borders searching for those entering the country illegally. Minutemen are also stationed near the border with California, New Mexico and Texas. Chris Simcox, the leader of the Arizona Minutemen, announced that there are now 7,000 registered Minutemen throughout the U.S.  (Photo by Jeff Topping/Getty Images)

If your passion for astronomy has brought you to a place where you are ready to spend money, then please hear me out. I will be writing about choosing a good ‘1st telescope’ in another article this week. But let us consider a few things first.

Number 1, where do you live? Are in or near a major city? If you answer ‘Yes’ then I have bad news for you. The odds are you will have many issues with ‘light pollution’. City street lights and those from residential and commercial property will obscure many of the fainter objects in the night sky, such as nebula and comets.

Number 2, how money are you willing to shell out for your new hobby and let us also consider Number 3, how much time are you really going to be able to allocate to the hobby? Telescopes come in many flavors and price ranges. More on the specifics of that later in my next article. But if you live in or near a large city, say 100,000 people or more, then light pollution will effect the performance of all but the very large and more expensive telescopes. Even this category will almost be wasted due to light pollution.

Binoculars are a great way to ‘get into’ the hobby of astronomy without blowing your budget or wasting time, and space. I usually keep a pair of 7×50 ‘night glasses’ in the trunk of my car. They’re handy things to have around, especially when the unexpected happens.

First, permit me to give you a quick course on Binocular 101. Binoculars are composed of three sets of optics, an pair of Objective Lenses, a set of prisms, and a pair of Ocular Lenses. When we say 7×50, what we are referring to is the magnification, 7x, and the size of the Objective Lenses, 50 millimeter. The basic shape and design of the binocular is based on the type of lenses and prisms used.

Binoculars rated at 7×50 are called ‘night glasses’ because they do work very well at night. This is due to the ‘exit pupil’, which we get by dividing the Objective Lens diameter by the magnification. So 50/7 = 7.14mm. A new born infant is said to have a pupil diameter of about 7-8mm, whereas an older adult may have 5mm or much less. The larger the exit pupil, the more light is gathered. This is why larger telescopes are often called ‘light buckets’. The whole idea is to be able to secure as much light as possible.

This is where we should also discuss the advantages of ‘coated lenses’. There are a variety of treatments to coat a lens for improved light gathering. The differences range in improving the transmission of light through the system from 5% to as much as 35%. In a refractor telescope, the sort Galileo used, there are only two optical surfaces involved in the process of getting light into your eyes. With a Newtonian reflector telescope, we have at least three surfaces. With some binoculars, you have as many as ten surfaces to contend with, so having coated optics is even more important. We tend to lose some light at each surface, so coating helps reduce the loss of light.

Binoculars are great for viewing everything from comets to the Moon and planets. Star clusters and other faint objects, like galaxies are even possible in dark, rural skies. Binoculars offer a wide field of view, which makes eye strain less of a problem. They are convenient, easy to store, use and if coated with rubber armor, quite capable of taking a beating. A decent pair of binoculars will cost between $150-200. You can also get accessories, like a tripod and a mounting device so you don’t have to hold them. Of course, if you feel you MUST spend lots of money, some binoculars can cost as much as a telescope, some even are gyro-stabilized.

So before you run out and buy a telescope that will most likely wind up gathering dust because they are either too heavy and complicated to use regularly, or too small to provide a really good viewing experience, consider buying a decent pair of binoculars first. They are handy and easy to use, and you’ll get far more use out of them. Not only for star gazing but also for sporting events and the odd UFO sighting, too! I may share a couple stories about that another time.

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