Best Night Sky Objects for Binoculars

Posted by Kelly on January 30th, 2013

M44, Venus and Moon

The Beehive Cluster is a dim patch to the left of Venus and the Moon in this photo by John Chumack.

Observing nights are few and far between during winter where I live. Not only is it unbearably cold, it is usually cloudy, too. So on an evening that has temperatures above freezing, it’s worth hauling the telescope out for clear skies or stepping out with binoculars on partly cloudy nights to jump from target to target.

With bright comets predicted to light up our skies this year, it’s an especially good time to locate those binoculars. You can get a peek at the comets in advance and be ready to track them as they enter the range of unaided eyes. March will be the prime month for the first comet of the year, but while you’re waiting for Comet PANSTARRS, there are a number of other good targets outside right now.

Here are some of my favorite binocular objects:

The Moon – To be fair, it’s also my favorite object to view with just the eyes or a telescope. It’s bright and attracts everyone – from kids to those who don’t know anything else about the night sky. What makes it great through binoculars is that the dark and light portions really begin to pop and the terminator allows the moon to look three-dimensional as the mountains and craters come into focus. Concentrate on the brightest, whitest, most prominent crater, Tycho, in the moon’s southern hemisphere. Trace out the rays where debris has been splashed across the surface.

Planets – Jupiter is probably the best planet to watch through binoculars because you can spot its four largest moons circling the disk. Uranus and Neptune can be spotted in binoculars too if you have a finder chart or know just where to look. On March 12 we get an aid for finding Uranus as Comet PANSTARRS whisks by it over the course of a few hours. It will be a challenge though because this will occur soon after sunset. That same night a slender crescent moon will be just to Uranus and the comet’s right.

Double Stars – Summer is a better season for double star targets, but for beginners in the Northern Hemisphere there’s always Mizar and Alcor, a circumpolar pair located at the bend in the handle of the Big Dipper. These two stars can be resolved by the unaided eye if you have good eyesight. Try it with binoculars and see what differences there are between the stars in brightness, size, and color.

Star Clusters – The well-known Pleiades is a cluster best viewed through binoculars because a telescope cannot capture the wide expanse of the group. Another cluster, the Beehive Cluster in the constellation Cancer, is also visible in winter and spring at magnitude 3.4 and looks like a fuzzy patch with the eyes alone. The Beehive Cluster, also called M44, was one of the first objects Galileo studied with his primitive telescope, revealing more than 40 stars. How many can you see with binoculars?

There are certainly other objects that could be added to the list, such as nebulae or galaxies and other transient objects, but the above items are enough to get you started. Get comfortable observing with binoculars and you’ll be ready for when Comet PANSTARRS zips into view.

One person has commented

DavidGordon said,

Full Frame


This is Sirius!

I have always been intrigued by the flashes of red, green and blue that Sirius emits. This is actual enhanced HD video of Sirius as it set in the western horizon as seen from Golden, Colorado on 2/08/13.

I had noted an interesting phenomena with unfocused binoculars prior. So I manually defocused the image to make it large in the frame as possible. The diamond shape is an artifact of that defocus. I don’t understand how that shape occurs.

Nor am I sure how the variegated color forms within the visuals of the star. The color is completely random and different as a snowflake in every permutation. These are real, unadulterated emissions from this most brilliant neighbor star.

The raw video of the star was digitally zoomed into 400x in Adobe Premiere and given high contrast and brightness. The colors are natural to the star and nothing is added to the image artificially. The footage is slowed to 25% of real speed. I have panned the frame digitally to keep the star centered in the full frame video and the star moves in the motion clip.

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