For viewing activities, whether bird-watching or astronomy, there is such a wealth of equipment available that it can be difficult working out exactly what you’re going to need. When it comes to telescopes and binoculars, although they are both viewing apparatus, they are actually quite distinct bits of kit – so which should you choose?
Well, the answer is actually entirely dependent on what you’ll be using it for. The obvious advantages of binoculars, for example, is their portability, which makes the ideal choice for “field” activities such as bird-watching or marine watching. In fact, such is the range of binoculars available that it is possible to achieve great magnification as well as extreme portability.
It might surprise you that binoculars also offer some certain advantages in terms of astronomy, and particularly beginner’s and “field” astronomy. Again this is in part due to their portability, meaning that they can be used quickly to observe transitory celestial events, such as meteor showers or eclipses and also due to the fact that they have a larger field of view than telescopes, making it easier to survey the sky, or view large sections of the moon, for example.
Despite these certain advantages, however, the supreme choice for astronomical viewing is surely astronomical telescopes. These are perfectly engineered to locating deep-space objects or observing the fine detail of the moon that a pair of binoculars just can’t rival. You might assume that such potent viewing capability comes at a premium, but over the last few years, top quality telescopes have become available for less than £200.
Astronomical telescopes truly come into their own when observing celestial bodies. However, although many of them come equipped with planet finding features, such as red dot finders or “goto” motors, if you truly want to be able to find your way around the sky quickly and easily you’re going to need to know were to look.
Firstly, the planets are generally going to be the brightest objects in the sky, and therefore locating, say, Venus (the morning star) shouldn’t be too difficult. Yet most of the planets aren’t even visible throughout the entire year, and for most of the year even planets like Mars or Venus are only viewable through telescopes.
When viewing Venus and Mars, the best time of year is the middle of July where you’ll see both planets in the sky at the same time; for Jupiter, look for the brightest star in the sky at the end of August; for Saturn look near to Venus during March, around dawn – the rings should be visible through astronomical telescopes.
Remember, astronomy is a very complicated business, so it would be helpful if you had a reference to hand throughout your observations, such as a star chart, and over time you will come to learn the positions of the planets, and their specific movement patterns; in a way this self-directed learning of the night-sky is one of the best pleasures of practicing astronomy and one of the definite advantages of using astronomical telescopes.
Should you crave some help locating the planets, however, a Celestron NexStar 4 SE would be a great choice of telescopes, being equipped with the latest in planet finding features and software.
The night-sky is a truly astounding place. However, much of its wonders lie just beyond the reach of the naked eye. A great and affordable solution for observing celestial objects, such the planets, is a decent pair of binoculars. Yet if you are desperate for the authentic astronomical experience, then there are a variety of high-quality beginner’stelescopes available.
Firstly, before indulging yourself with a telescope, it would be helpful if you had some clue in regards to finding your way around the night sky – otherwise you might just be stuck looking at the moon. Therefore, you should probably invest in a star chart, to learn the main constellations (by which the planets are located). Remember, when compared with the naked eye or even binoculars, a telescope has only a very narrow field of vision.
Telescopes are very technical devices, with a great deal of component parts, and therefore it can be difficult to work out exactly what you need for beginner viewing. For example, in order to find your way around the night sky a red dot finder and a motor are desirable, and these needn’t price you out of the market, with great beginner’s telescopes like the “SKYWATCHER EXPLORER-130M TELESCOPE” (a fabulous scope for the beginner and experienced alike) offering these features.
Finally, and most importantly, you should consider the viewing power of any potential telescope. Generally you should go for light gathering capability, which is more important than size for example, and is the great advantage of dobsonian telescopes such as the “HERITAGE-130P FlexTube™ 130mm (5.1″)” which has a 5.1 inch light refractor.
It was Shakespeare who once described the UK as a fortress built by nature for herself, and in regards to birdlife this seems particularly pertinent. Britain enjoys a unique panoply of birds throughout the year, serving as an important stop-gap on their migrations, or as an idyllic home throughout the year. British birdlife, therefore, is unrivalled in terms of its diversity – and all you need to enjoy it is a pair of binoculars.
As Britain is an island, surrounded by large water masses like the Atlantic, it is the ideal stopping-point for many migrating birds. It is also seasonally temperate, meaning that it is suitable for birdlife migrating away from temperature extremes.
Swallows are perhaps the UK’s most familiar seasonal visitor and can be seen from around March to October. They are easily recognisable, preferably through a pair of binoculars, by their dark-blue backs, red throats and pale under-bellies.
Other notable migrating UK birds include geese, such as barnacle geese, who emigrate to escape extremes of cold, away from places like Greenland.
As well as migrating birds, there is also a wide variety of sedentary bids, visible throughout the year. Some common types include blue-tits and robins easily recognisable by their distinct colourings (pale-blue for blue-tits and red for robins,) and a particular favourite: starlings. These are recognisable throughout the year by the blue-green mottling on their under parts, easily observable through a pair of bird watching binoculars.
Quite obviously the moon can be observed with the naked eye. However, only through a pair of binoculars or an astronomical telescope does it truly spring to life, displaying its many features and contours. In order to maximize my viewing of the moon and to observe as many of its features as possible – what steps then can I take?
Firstly, the moon undergoes some striking visual changes depending on what phase it’s in. Therefore the viewing experience will be vastly different depending on the moon’s aspect. You may assume that when the moon is full, that its features would be most observable but this isn’t the case. Although astronomical telescopes will still be able to see many of its craters, during full phase the moon is so bright that any naked eye observing will not be able to see very much detail at all. Instead, it is best (especially when observing through binoculars or with the naked eye) to observe the moon during its other phases such as at quarter or half phase, when its contours are lit more delicately.
The next thing to consider is your viewing apparatus – whilst it is possible to observe the moon with the naked eye, it is definitely more satisfying to use binoculars or telescopes. Binoculars in particular are great for observing the moon as they have a wider field of view than an astronomical telescope, and are highly portable. However, if detail is what you want, then a telescope is also a fantastic viewing tool.
For owners of astronomical telescopes or naked eye observers, 2010 promises to be a fantastic year for astronomy, with celestial events ranging from eclipses to meteor showers, ensuring that your eyes will be fixed firmly toward the stars.
Already this year there have been some dramatic astronomical events. For example, on January 15 over Africa we saw an annular solar eclipse – the first of four eclipses this year. We have also seen our first meteor shower in the form of the Quadrantids at the start of January, which served as a portent to a truly dramatic year of meteor showers.
Don’t worry though; you’ll still have plenty of occasions to use those astronomical telescopes, as some fascinating astronomical events are set to occur later in the year. And 2010 is especially notable for its eclipses, most of which won’t be observable from the UK. However, toward the end of the year, on December 21st to be exact, you’ll be able to point your astronomical telescopes toward the night sky and be able to see a total lunar eclipse – from Europe.
As well as an eclipse there will also be a chance to observe that most dramatic of celestial events – meteor showers, either with the naked eye, or through astronomical telescopes. Specifically, you can expect to see them at mid April, at the beginning of May, around August 12th , at the end of October and November, and in the middle of December – so get those telescopes ready.