Backyard Astronomy for Beginners
By Michael Miller
The boxes make such wonderful promises. View Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in your own backyard! See the rings of Saturn. Get 750X magnification!
At first blush, a telescope seems like a great gift for a child. It presents an opportunity for your child to actually learn something, as opposed to having their faces buried in electronics.
Unless you’re prepared to spend a worthy sum on a quality piece of equipment, these toy telescopes will provide endless hours of frustration and disappointment.
There are plenty of reasons for this, not the least of which is the poor quality of the equipment and the steep learning curve of actually getting good enough with the telescope to see what you want in the night sky. Most people dive in with both feet and find they’ve wasted $80 and squelched any interest their child might have had in astronomy.
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. There are some steps you can take to get your child and your whole family into astronomy. If you want equipment to help foster the future astronomer in your children, consider buying a pair of binoculars.
Most importantly, $80 buys you much better-quality binoculars than you’ll ever get from an $80 telescope. Their field of vision is bigger so it is easier to see objects and they’re easier for a child to use than a telescope.
Telescopes have little margin for error when aimed at a target in the sky and children cannot resist the temptation to grab the scope as they try to look at an object. This will almost certainly knock the object out of the field of view, and your child will quickly lose interest.
You will obviously sacrifice magnification with binoculars. You will not see spectacular views of Saturn’s rings through binoculars. But at least you’ll be able to train your binoculars on your target, something that is very difficult on a telescope.
When looking into binoculars, you should settle for reasonable magnification (10X or 12X). Anything higher can be extremely difficult to hold steady. The second number in the binocular’s specifications refers to the field of view. The bigger the number, the more area you will see through the binoculars. You’ll find a good pair of 12X50 binoculars are well-suited for backyard astronomy.
Nothing can substitute for taking the time to learn naked eye astronomy. You probably already know how to find the Big Dipper. You need to add Orion, Taurus, Leo, Cassiopeia and Scorpio to your list of objects you can identify by sight, as they will aid you in finding other interesting targets.
Armed with binoculars and knowledge of where to find Cassiopeia, you’ll be able to locate the Andromeda Galaxy, for example. If you have good eyes and dark skies, you might not even need the binoculars to see it. But it is spectacular through good binoculars, and in fact better than looking at it through a telescope, since you can’t see the whole galaxy through a telescope.
Binoculars also offer great views of the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades, the Beehive Cluster and several other interesting objects.
As far as the planets, Jupiter will be an easy target that offers some interesting viewing, as binoculars will let you easily see the four largest moons orbiting the gas giant. Viewing Saturn will at the very least reveal an egg-shaped object, though at times you might actually see the rings in better detail depending on viewing conditions.
The other huge benefit of binoculars is mobility. Setting up a telescope for viewing can be a production in itself, and transporting one in a vehicle to a nice, dark viewing area is troublesome.
If your child does ask for a telescope this Christmas, consider talking them into a good pair of binoculars to get started, so you can really learn astronomy. You’ll be able to gauge your child’s interest without investing in something that ends up being useless.
Michael Miller is a former journalist who worked for more than eight years as a reporter at the Leader Times in Kittanning. While he has been out of the news business for more than a decade, he continues to write in his spare time, focusing on historical fiction, science fiction and other interesting topics.