Beginner’s Guide To Binoculars

Before you consider buying expensive equipment for viewing the wonders of the night sky, binoculars are one piece of equipment every amateur astronomer should have.

Many beginners to astronomy (especially around the holiday period) are sometimes dead-set on getting a telescope, but many aren’t aware that a good pair of binoculars can outperform many entry level telescopes for a similar cost, or much less.

Binoculars are simplicity in themselves — maintenance free, instantly available for use and very versatile, as they can be used for daytime, or “terrestrial viewing” just as well. It is difficult to say the same for with most telescopes.

Go into any photographic store, or website that sells binoculars and you will be met with literally hundreds of different makes, types and sizes – confusing for the beginner, but with a few pointers it can be easy to choose.

Credit: astronomybinoculars.com

So how do you choose a pair of binoculars that will give good results with astronomy?

When choosing binoculars for astronomy, the only variables you need to think about are size of the optics and weight.

Too small and they won’t be powerful enough or let enough light in; too big and heavy means they are almost impossible to use without a support or tripod. Beginners need to find a pair of binoculars which are just right.

The key is to get as much light into the binoculars as possible without making them too heavy. This will give sharp views and comfort when used.

Size and weight come hand in hand, the more light gathered, the heavier the binoculars will be.

All binoculars are measured or rated by two numbers, for example: 10 X 25 or 15 X 70. The first number is the magnification and the second number is the “objective diameter” which is the diameter of the objective lens and this determines how much light can be gathered to form an image.

Credit: Halfblue Wikipedia

The second number or objective diameter is the most important one to consider when buying binoculars for astronomy, as you need to gather as much light as possible.

As a rule of thumb, binoculars with an objective diameter of 50mm or more are more suited to astronomy than smaller “terrestrial” binoculars. In many cases a larger objective also gives better eye relief (larger exit pupil) making the binoculars much more comfortable to use.

For the beginner or general user, don’t go too big with the objective diameter as you are also making the binoculars physically larger and heavier. Large binoculars are fantastic, but — again — almost impossible to keep steady without a support or tripod.

Celestron Skymaster 15 X 70 Binoculars

Good sizes of binoculars for astronomy start at around or just under 10 X 50 and can go up to 20 X 80, but any larger and they will need to be supported when using them. Some very good supported binoculars have objective diameters of more than 100mm. Theses are fantastic, but not as portable as their smaller counterparts.

Binoculars are one of the most important items a new or seasoned astronomer can buy. They are inexpensive, easy to choose, use and will last a very long time.

Enjoy your new binoculars!

Stunning New Timelapse: Tempest Milky Way

It’s been a summer of storms across the US, and timelapse photographer Randy Halverson has taken advantage of it! Randy alerted us that he’s just put out a new video following his incredible Plains Milky Way timelapse from earlier this year. His new one is “Tempest Milky Way” which features the storms and skies of the Midwest US. Randy said he wanted to combine “good storm and star shots,” but that the opportunity doesn’t come along very often. “The storm has to be moving the right speed and the lightning can overexpose the long exposures.” But Randy’s photography and editing prowess shines in “Tempest Milky Way.”

A few things to watch: Look for a Whitetail buck (briefly) at the 1:57 mark (“It was caught on 20 frames, and was there for about 10 minutes. It was only 50 yards from the camera, dolly and light,” Randy said.)

At about 2:28 an airplane flies under the oncoming storm.

At the 3:24 mark, a meteor reflects on the water of the small lake. Look for many other meteors in the timelapse, too.

This is a wonderful video, augmented with great music, not to be missed!

See more at Randy’s website DakotaLapse

The Perseids: Why is There a Meteor Shower?

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Every year from late July to mid-August, the Earth encounters a trail of debris left behind from the tail of a comet named Swift-Tuttle. This isn’t the only trail of debris the Earth encounters throughout the year, but it might be one of the most notorious as it is responsible for the annual Perseid meteor shower, one of the best and well-known yearly meteor showers.

Comet Swift-Tuttle is a very long way away from us right now, but when it last visited this part of the Solar system, it left behind a stream of debris made up of particles of dust and rock from the comet’s tail.

Earth encounters this debris field for a few weeks, reaching the densest part on the 11th to 13th August.

The tiny specs of dust and rock collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, entering at speeds ranging from 11 km/sec (25,000 mph), to 72 km/sec (160,000 mph). They are instantly vaporised, emitting bright streaks of light. These tiny particles are referred to as meteors or for the more romantic, shooting stars.

Perseid meteor shower
Perseid meteor shower

The reason the meteor shower is called the Perseid, is because the point of the sky or radiant where the meteors appear to originate from is in the constellation of Perseus, hence Perseid.

When the Perseid meteor shower reaches its peak, up to 100 meteors an hour can be seen under ideal dark sky conditions, but in 2011 this will be greatly reduced due to a full Moon at this time. Many of the fainter meteors (shooting stars) will be lost to the glare of the Moon, but do not despair as some Perseids are bright fireballs made from larger pieces of debris, that can be golf ball size or larger.

These amazingly bright meteors can last for a few seconds and can be the brightest thing in the sky. They are very dramatic and beautiful, and seeing one can be the highlight of your Perseid observing experience.

So while expectations may be low for the Perseids this year, keep an eye out for the bright ones and the fireballs. You will not be disappointed, even if you only see one!

Join in on twitter with a worldwide event with Universe Today and Meteorwatch.org just follow along using the hashtag #meteorwatch ask questions, post images, enjoy and share your Perseid Meteor Shower experience.

Coming Soon – Night Shining Noctilucent Clouds

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Soon you may see an eerie spectacle on clear summer nights if you are located at latitudes between 50° and 70° north and south of the equator: Noctilucent Clouds.

These ghostly apparitions are a delight to see and are quite rare. It is incredibly difficult to predict exactly when they will appear, but we do know they should begin to appear soon.

The season for Noctilucent Clouds (Noctilucent = Latin for “Night Shining”) starts early June and continues into late July. They are seen just after dusk, or before dawn and an apparition can last around an hour.

These mysterious clouds, with their bizarre tenuous wispy shapes reminiscent of ripples in sand or the changing surface of a pool of water, spread like a glowing web across the northern sky. Colours can range from brilliant whites, with tinges of blue, pink and orange.

Formed by tiny ice crystals, they are the highest clouds in the Earth’s atmosphere, located in the mesosphere at altitudes of around 76 to 85 kilometers (47 to 53 miles) almost at the edge of space.

They are normally too faint to be seen, and are visible only when illuminated by sunlight from below the horizon, while the lower layers of the atmosphere are in the Earth’s shadow. Noctilucent clouds are not fully understood and are a recently discovered meteorological phenomenon, only being recorded for about 120 years.

Noctilucent clouds can only form under very restrictive conditions, and their occurrence can be used as a guide to changes in the upper atmosphere. Since their relatively recent classification, the occurrence of noctilucent clouds appears to be increasing in frequency, brightness and extent.

There is evidence that the relatively recent appearance of noctilucent clouds and their gradual increase, may be linked to climate change. Another recent theory is that some of these bright displays come from particulates and water vapour in the atmosphere left over from Space Shuttle launches.

How can you see them? Over the next couple of months look north during dusk and dawn and try and spot this mysterious and elusive phenomenon. They are best seen when the sun is between 6 and 16 degrees below the horizon, and seem to occur more frequently in the Northern hemisphere than the Southern.

Good luck!

Noctilucent clouds over Blair, Nebraska, USA. Credit: Mike Hollingshead

Stunning Aurora Videos

If you weren’t lucky enough to be in the right place or the right time to see any of the aurora produced by the Sun’s recent spate of activity, skywatchers around the world have started posting videos online of some really spectacular Northern Lights. Above, is the view on August 4, 2010 from Telemark, Norway. Below are more sights, also from August 4, from Latvia and Risør, Norway. These videos were posted on CitizenTube, a newsy version of YouTube.
Continue reading “Stunning Aurora Videos”