Explore the solar system with binoculars

EarthSky often gets asked about what gear you need to see stars and planets in the night sky. Just a simple pair of binoculars will do it, said Stephen J. O’Meara, author of a new book called Exploring the Solar System with Binoculars.

Stephen J. O’Meara: With your binoculars, you can monitor in a safe way sun spots. You can observe craters on the moon. You can see all the major planets, rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter. There are meteor showers and the occasional comet that can grace the sky, artificial satellites going overhead, the space shuttle or the International Space Station. There are asteroids to see.

One thing to look for this summer of 2010, said O’Meara, is the planet Venus.

Stephen J. O’Meara: You’ll be able to look to the western sky and where the sun sets, and once it gets dark, about a quarter of the way up the sky, you will see an immensely bright planet. And it’s only going to become more and more prominent as the months go on. It’s always riveting.

The next Venus / moon event is July 14

O’Meara encourages anyone, even if you’ve never tried it, to go outside, look up, and explore the night sky.

Stephen J. O’Meara: If you don’t know the sky, in a way it’s beneficial because I can’t tell you how beautiful it is just to look up in wonder, to see the chaos of the night sky, to know that it’s intangible. To know that something grander than ourselves is out there.

In case you feel overwhelmed by the stars in the night sky, Stephen O’Meara has some tips to help guide you.

Stephen J. O’Meara: Everyone thinks that you have to buy a telescope to start out, in order to learn the sky. And that is just so wrong. In fact, even after 50 years of observing, to tell you the truth, what I enjoy most is just using naked eye and binoculars. You begin this way because it’s just so simple to use. It’s just so marvelous to take in all that you see in one sweeping glance.

Top tips for using ordinary binoculars for stargazing

Mr. O’Meara told a story he remembered from his early experiences skywatching.

Stephen O’Meara: I was out in my back porch with my telescope, and I had a next-door neighbor. Anytime it was clear, he’d come out, turn on the porch light, stick his head out the door, look at me, look up at the sky, “it’s the same sky, hasn’t changed.” And then he’d close the door or go back inside. And I had to laugh because it is just so wrong, because the sky is changing. It was Thoreau who said the sky is like a book, it’s constantly turning a new page. And each day that passes the night sky moves progressively toward the west, inch by inch, slowly turning. Even over the course of one night you can watch the entire vault of the heavens turn overhead. It’s just something amazing, and that’s what becomes overwhelming. Because of these small motions, people become disoriented, because they go outside in January, and see a bright star in the southeast. Well, a month later they go look for that bright star in the Southeast and it’s no longer there. It’s actually moved up closer to overhead, and they don’t understand why.

June 28, 2010

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