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Astronomy: Binocular Objects for Fall

9-9-11 Astronomy
A waxing crescent moon is an ideal time to observe the lunar landscape with binoculars. Credit: John Chumack.

Binoculars are a logical stepping stone for people who have already been stargazing without any optical aid but are not quite ready to purchase a telescope. Many people already have an old pair of binoculars lying around the house, which will work just fine for some basic objects.

The easiest object to find and see detail on through binoculars is, of course, the moon. The best time to observe the moon is in the two weeks after new moon and before it hits full phase. This is when the moon is visible right after sunset and you can see the play of light and shadow along the terminator, illuminating craters and mountain ranges.

Planets are another good target for a pair of binoculars, and at the moment Jupiter is rising late in the evening in the east, the finest of the planets for binocular gazing. Jupiter will be easy to spot, as it will shine brightly as if it were a plane until you realize it’s not moving. Jupiter should appear as a disk-shape and not a point of light like a star. You may even be able to detect some of the four Galilean moons dimly circling the planet. The tough thing about observing through binoculars is holding them steady, so try propping your elbows up on a deck railing or lying back in a lawn chair.

The Pleiades star cluster is also rising in the east these evenings, just a bit later than Jupiter. The Pleiades is one of those objects that looks better through binoculars than through a telescope because of its large size. A telescope will cut off some of the stars, while binoculars will allow you to see the hundreds of stars that make up the “Seven Sisters”. The handful-plus of stars that you can see without optical aid in the Pleiades look a bit like a tiny dipper.

Just a bit north of the Pleiades and higher from the horizon are the constellations of Cassiopeia and Andromeda. Veteran observers can easily aim their binoculars at the spot in the sky where the Andromeda Galaxy resides and pick up its slightly brighter gray against the dark background. It almost appears as a tiny, indistinct cloud. For those who have never seen the Andromeda Galaxy before, though, finding it first through binoculars instead of a telescope is quite a challenge. Use the right “arrow” part of Cassiopeia’s “W” shape to guide you to the galaxy.

Read more about observing with binoculars.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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