Astronomy is a fantastic hobby to take up as a family. You can learn something new alongside your children as you explore the night sky and beyond together. All you need to get started is something to help focus your gaze. The question is, what kind of instrument will be the best fit for your family? A telescope might come to mind first, but it’s not the only option. Binoculars are also effective for stargazing and can be a great budget-friendly introduction to the pastime.
What They Do
While most people think of telescopes when they picture astronomy, the truth is that binoculars can be a great choice for observing the night sky. While the magnification is smaller than in telescopes, there are other benefits to binoculars that telescopes can’t compete with, such as affordability and portability.
Experienced astronomers suggest a magnification of 10x for observing deep-sky objects, or perhaps 25x if you want to observe the moon. The other factor to take into consideration is the aperture, or lens diameter, of the binoculars. The rule of thumb for the aperture is the same as in telescopes – the bigger, the better! The bigger the lens, the more light it can capture and the more detail you can see. When choosing binoculars for observing the night sky, try to find a pair of at least 10×25, which means they will have 10x the magnification with 25 mm lenses. Check out our guide to binoculars for kids for some suggestions!
Benefits of Using Binoculars
Binoculars have a lot going for them. The most significant advantage to binoculars is probably their incredible portability. With a telescope, you need to find a clear spot to set it up, then spend time setting it up and taking it down, plus carrying it in a travel bag to wherever you’re going to use it.
Binoculars, on the other hand, require zero setups. They can be carried in a backpack or a pocket or even around your neck so you can pick them up for a quick look. All you need to do is adjust the focus. They also have a smaller storage footprint. While most telescopes fold compactly for storage, they still take up space in a closet, while binoculars can hang on a hook on the wall, taking next to no space.
Binoculars are also less expensive than telescopes. A good quality beginner telescope will typically cost somewhere in the $200 – $300 range, discouraging some people looking to get into astronomy. Below a certain price point, you also begin to see a decline in quality, which can make them more challenging to use with less than ideal results.
However, for the price of a cheaper telescope, you can purchase a pair of high-quality binoculars that will suit a beginner, giving you better value for your money. Less expensive binoculars are available, but these are typically seen as more of a toy than functioning binoculars. However, some of these models have held their ground.
For beginner astronomers, binoculars can make it easier to find objects in the night sky. With a telescope, you would first locate the object in the sky with the finderscope, but the binoculars themselves act like a finderscope, offering a wider field of vision than a telescope. With binoculars, objects are also seen right side up instead of appearing upside down or as a mirror image, which can happen with some telescopes, particularly lower-priced ones, and be confusing for young astronomers.
A good pair of binoculars can see the moon, the Milky Way, and even star clusters and distant galaxies if you know where to look without needing to make many adjustments. They are more intuitive for beginners to use. You can also purchase a tripod for your astronomical binoculars to make things even easier for young stargazers so that the binoculars will remain focused on the area in question.
Drawbacks to Using Binoculars
Although there are many benefits to using binoculars for stargazing, there are some drawbacks to consider. As mentioned above, binoculars tend to work best when used to observe a larger field of vision. Suppose you’re interested in focusing on a particular star or planet. In that case, binoculars may not be the best instrument to use as they will not provide the same level of clarity or precision that a telescope could afford. No matter how powerful your binoculars are, they will not offer the same level of magnification that a telescope can.
Additionally, binoculars don’t work as well as telescopes in pitch-black darkness. Binoculars work best when there is some illumination in the area. If you’re hoping to do some night sky photography, you might be out of luck if you’ve just got binoculars to work with.
What They Do
Think of astronomy, and you’ll probably picture a telescope. In some situations, they’re the clear instrument of choice for observing the night sky. The most important factor when using a telescope is the aperture, and even a small telescope will have a larger aperture than binoculars. A typical beginner telescope for kids might have an aperture of 70 mm; it’s more likely for binoculars to be 20-30 mm. This means that the telescope will gather several times more light than the binoculars, producing clearer images.
Telescopes are also incredibly versatile, with many accessories available to customize your telescope for viewing objects you are interested in. For example, solar filters will allow you to observe the sun, and you can also hook up a camera to the telescope to take images of what you are viewing. Check out this list of the best telescopes for kids for some idea of what’s available.
Benefits of Using Telescopes
Telescopes can see further and offer higher magnification than binoculars, and it’s not even close. A very high magnification rate in a pair of binoculars would be considered 20x; an average beginner telescope offers magnification rates starting at 20x and going up to 100x. This means that you can observe a much wider variety of celestial objects, including planets, stars, and far away deep sky objects. Telescopes are also capable of being used at night, with very little light. Whereas binoculars will struggle to provide you with the detail, you would expect.
You also get a wider variety of options with a telescope. Binoculars come with one single magnification, but a telescope will typically come with a few different eyepieces that allow you to use different settings for observing different types of objects. Another factor to consider is that telescopes will almost always have bigger apertures than binoculars, gathering more light and producing sharper images.
Drawbacks to Using Telescopes
The biggest drawbacks to using a telescope for stargazing are the same as the two big pros for binoculars: money and size. It’s hard to pull out a telescope on a whim to do some spur-of-the-moment astronomy! Suppose you don’t live in an area far enough away from the city that you can observe the sky without interference from light pollution. In that case, you’ll need to drive out to the country, carry your telescope from the car, find a spot large enough to set it up, and spend several minutes setting up the tripod and adjusting the focus of the telescope.
This can be time-consuming, particularly if you are looking at the stars with a child; they may not have the patience to wait for the setup to be completed. They are also much bulkier to store and require some kind of storage bag to keep all the various pieces together.
Telescopes are also priced higher than binoculars, so this can be a barrier if you’re on a budget. While they are available in a range of prices, a decent beginner telescope will typically cost between two and three hundred dollars. If you have a smaller budget, a cheaply made telescope might end up being of lesser quality and more challenging to set up and use, making the experience frustrating, so you may be better off buying a high-quality pair of binoculars to get started. Accessories for telescopes can also begin to add up, as you may want to purchase a variety of eyepieces to look at different objects in the sky.
When to Use Binoculars or Telescope
Binoculars are preferred over telescopes when you want to get a wide view of the night sky or look at the moon as a whole. They’re also great for viewing bright deep sky objects such as the Andromeda galaxy or Orion nebula, as not much magnification is needed. These objects are bright enough that you don’t need a huge aperture.
Situations, where a telescope is preferable to binoculars include close-up observations of the moon (such as specific craters), planets, and far away deep sky objects.
Factors to Consider
For many families looking to get into astronomy, sticking to the budget is a big factor. With all kinds of accessories to purchase, astronomy can be an expensive hobby! On the other hand, a good quality telescope can be used by family members of all ages and will last for many years, so if you can afford it, investing in a quality telescope could pay off for many years to come.
It can be tricky to find the right balance of price and quality, as sometimes when you drop below a certain price point, the quality declines. This can make it harder to enjoy your new hobby. If you have a smaller budget, you may want to purchase a pair of high-quality astronomical binoculars instead, which are around the same price as a cheap telescope and are likely to offer a better viewing experience.
How much room do you have in your home to store it? You can hang binoculars from a hook on the wall, but a telescope will need a carrying case for storing it and its accessories which takes up more room. If you’re planning on using your telescope inside your house, you’ll also need open space in front of a window large enough to set up the telescope and tripod.
With most of the world’s population living in urban areas where light pollution can negatively affect the nighttime viewing experience, you may want to travel to a rural area for some stargazing or bring it along on a camping trip. Binoculars are easy to keep stashed in your car for spur-of-the-moment viewings, but a telescope will require more planning. Some telescopes are made for travel and are very lightweight and easy to assemble, while others are heavier and take longer to set up.
Age of Child
Your child’s age and abilities will also play a role in determining whether a telescope or binoculars will suit your family best. Telescopes require some time to set up and locate the object you want to observe, which might appear upside down or mirror image. This might be challenging with younger children. If you’re going to start stargazing with young kids, binoculars might be better to begin with, as all you will need to do is simply focus and point them at the sky.
Ultimately, there will be situations where binoculars are the way to go for your stargazing needs and others where a telescope is a clear choice. Think about your situation and what you need from your instrument, considering your budget, the storage space available, the situations where you’ll be using your instrument, and your child’s age. These factors can add up to a different decision for different people.
If you can swing it, both a telescope and binoculars can be a great combination to be used in different situations – maybe a pair of binoculars kept in the car for impromptu stargazing on the go and a telescope at home to take out for designated outings. Whatever your situation, there is an instrument for stargazing out there that is right for your family.