This evening C. was out on the back porch enjoying the nice weather, and when I went out to say hello she pointed up at a lone bright object in the sky. “Probably Venus”, I guessed, then went upstairs to look at my astronomy software to confirm that I was right. Time to set up the binoculars and tripod to take a closer look.
Binoculars? Sure, why not. Binoculars are a perfectly good way to do some simple backyard astronomy. They won’t give you the same results as a higher powered telescope, but sometimes less magnification is good too. It makes it a lot easier to find what you’re looking for, and some objects like clusters of stars or the moon are just too large to be seen all at once in a telescope. Google “binocular astronomy” and you’ll find a lot of good information on the topic.
While we were admiring Venus from our west-facing porch, the sky was getting darker and one by one the stars began appearing. First the brighter ones; Betelgeuse and Sirius were to the left of Venus. Then the smaller ones, a few at a time. Our porch would be a great location for a telescope, except that we overlook the patch of sky where airliners are circling on approach to the airport, so there’s a lot of extraneous points of light wandering around.
I’ve had a decent telescope before, but after the initial enthusiasm it didn’t get used regularly, and I eventually gave it to a person to whom I owed a favour because his kids were interested in looking at the stars. I was more than happy to put this dust-gatherer to good use. The binoculars suit me just fine.
Last winter I enjoyed looking up at Jupiter and then Mars every night while out walking the dog. The downside of a dog is having to go out every night for a walk, regardless of the temperature. But going out at about the same time every night gave me the opportunity to watch the progress of what the ancients called the “wanderers” as they moved slowly across the sky over the period of months. The stars move as well over time, but they all move in unison. The planets follow their own paths separate from the stars, wandering against the starry background.
Mars can usually be spotted based on not only its brightness but also its unique reddish tint. Jupiter and Saturn are bright, but have less colour. Jupiter has the bonus of having moons which are easily seen through medium powered binoculars. It’s quite a thrill the first time you spot the moons, then thrilling again when you notice that a few nights later they’ve changed positions. With good binoculars you can see a hint of Saturn’s rings, but only when they’re at the correct angle. Venus and especially Mercury, whose orbits are closer to the Sun than ours, stay close to the Sun and so are always found in the west just after sunset.