Most people have two eyes. Humans evolved to use them together (not all animals do). People form a continuous, stereoscopic panorama movie of the world within in their minds. With your two eyes tilted upward on a clear night, there's nothing standing between you and the universe. The easiest way to enhance your enjoyment of the night sky is to paint your brain with two channels of stronger starlight with a pair of binoculars. Even if you live in — or near — a large, light-polluted city, you may be surprised at how much astronomical detail you'll see through the right binoculars! Our editors have looked at the spectrum of current binocular offerings. Thanks to computer-aided design and manufacturing, there have never been more high-quality choices at reasonable prices. Sadly, there's also a bunch of junk out there masquerading as fine stargazing instrumentation. We've selected a few that we think will work for most skywatchers. There was a lot to consider: magnification versus mass, field of view, prism type, optical quality ("sharpness"), light transmission, age of the user (to match "exit pupil" size, which changes as we grow older), shock resistance, waterproofing and more.
The best binoculars for you
"Small" astronomy binoculars would probably be considered "medium" for bird watching, sports observation and other terrestrial purposes. This comes about as a consequence of optics (prism type and objective size, mostly). "Large" binoculars are difficult to use for terrestrial applications and have a narrow field of view. They begin to approach telescope quality in magnification, resolution and optical characteristics.
Most of our Editors' Choicesfor stargazing binoculars here are under $300. You can pay more than 10 times that for enormous binocular telescopes used by elite enthusiasts on special mounts! You'll also pay more for ruggedized ("mil spec," or military standard) binoculars, many of which suspend their prisms on shock mounts to keep the optics in precise alignment.
Also, our Editors' Choices use Porro prism optics. Compact binoculars usually employ "roof" prisms, which can be cast more cheaply, but whose quality can vary widely. [There's much more about Porro prisms in our Buyer's Guide.] We think your needs are best served by reviewing in three categories.
Small, highly portable binoculars can be hand-held for viewing ease.
Medium binoculars offer higher powers of magnification, but still can be hand-held, if firmly braced.
Large binoculars have bigger "objective" lenses but must be mounted on a tripod or counterweighted arm for stability.
Here's a detailed look at our Editor's Choice selections for stargazing binoculars:
Oberwerk in German means "above work." The brand does indeed perform high-level optical work, perfect for looking at objects above, as well as on the ground or water. Founder Kevin Busarow's Mariner series is not his top of the line, but it benefits greatly from engineering developed for his pricier models. The Oberwerk 8x40’s treat your eyes to an extremely wide field, at very high contrast, with razor-sharp focus; they are superb for observing the broad starscapes of the Milky Way. Just 5.5 inches (14 cm) from front to back and 6.5 inches wide (16.5 cm), the Mariners are compact and rugged enough to be your favorite "grab and go binoculars." But at 37 ounces, they may be more than a small person wants to carry for a long time.
Runner-Up: Celestron Cometron 7x50 (Cost: $30)
Yes, you read that price correctly! These Celestron lightweight, wide-field binoculars bring honest quality at a remarkably low price point. The compromise comes in the optics, particularly the prism's glass type (you might see a little more chromatic aberration around the edges of the moon, and the exit pupil isn't a nice, round circle). Optimized for "almost infinitely distant" celestial objects, these Cometrons won't focus closer than about 30 feet (9.1 meters). But that's fine for most sports and other outdoor use. If you're gift-buying for multiple young astronomers – or you want an inexpensive second set for yourself – these binoculars could be your answer. Just maybe remind those young folks to be a little careful around water; Celestron claims only that the Cometrons are "water resistant," not waterproof.
From the legendary Austrian firm of Swarovski Optik, these "bins" are perfect. Really. Very sharp. Very lightweight. Very wide field. Very versatile. And very expensive! Our editors would have picked them if we could have afforded them.
Honorable Mention: Nikon Aculon 7x50 (Cost: $110)
Nikon's legendary optical quality and the large, 7mm exit pupil diameter make these appropriate as a gift for younger skywatchers.
A solid, chunky-feeling set of quality prisms and lenses makes these binoculars a pleasant, 38oz. handful. A medium wide 5.8 degrees filed of view and large 7mm exit pupil brings you gently into a sweet sky of bright, though perhaps not totally brilliant, stars. Fully dressed in a rubber wetsuit, these SkyMasters are waterproof. Feel free to take them boating or birding on a moist morning. Their optical tubes were blown out with dry nitrogen at the factory, then sealed. So you can expect them not to fog up, at least not from the inside. Celestron's strap-mounting points on the Skymaster 8x56 are recessed, so they don't bother your thumbs, but that location makes them hard to fasten.
Runner-Up: Oberwerk Ultra 15x70 (Cost: $380)
The most rugged pair we evaluated, these 15x70s are optically outstanding. Seen through the Ultra's exquisitely multi-coated glass, you may find yourself falling in love with the sky all over again. Oberwerk's method of suspending their BAK4 glass Porro prisms offers greater shock-resistance than most competitors’ designs. While more costly than some comparable binoculars, they deliver superior value. Our only complaint is with their mass: At 5.5 lbs., these guys are heavy! You can hand-hold them for a short while, if you’re lying down. But they are best placed on a tripod, or on a counterweighted arm, unless you like shaky squiggles where your point-source stars are supposed to be. Like most truly big binoculars, the eyepieces focus independently; there’s no center focus wheel. These "binos" are for true astronomers.
Honorable Mention: Vixen Ascot 10x50 (Cost:$165)
These quirky binoculars present you with an extremely wide field. But they are not crash-worthy – don't drop them in the dark – nor are they waterproof, and the focus knob is not conveniently located. So care is needed if you opt for these Vixen optics.
Best Large Binoculars
Don't even think about hand-holding this 156-ounce beast! The SkyMaster 25x100 is really a pair of side-by-side 100mm short-tube refractor telescopes. Factor the cost of a sturdy tripod into your purchase decision, if you want to go this big. The monster Celestron comes with a sturdy support spar for mounting. Its properly multi-coated optics will haul in surprising detail from the sky. Just make sure your skies are dark; with this much magnification, light pollution can render your images dingy. As with many in the giant and super-giant class of binoculars, the oculars (non-removable eyepieces) focus separately, each rotating through an unusually long 450 degrees. Getting to critical focus can be challenging, but the view is worth it. You can resolve a bit of detail on face of the new moon (lit by "Earthshine") and pick out cloud bands on Jupiter; tha's pretty astonishing for binoculars.
Runner-Up: Orion Astronomy 20x80 (Cost: $150)
These big Orions distinguish themselves by price point; they're an excellent value. You could pay 10 times more for the comparably sized Steiners Military Observer 20x80 binoculars! Yes, the Orions are more delicate, a bit less bright and not quite as sharp. But they do offer amazingly high contrast; you'll catch significant detail in galaxies, comets and other "fuzzies." Unusually among such big rigs, the Astronomy 20x80 uses a center focus ring and one "diopter" (rather than independently focusing oculars); if you’re graduating from smaller binoculars, which commonly use that approach, this may be a comfort. These binoculars are almost lightweight enough to hold them by hand. But don't do that, at least not for long periods. And don't drop them. They will go out of alignment if handled roughly.
They are not pretty, but you're in the dark, right? Built around a tripod-mountable truss tube, these Barskas equilibrate to temperature quickly and give you decent viewing at rational cost. They make for a cheaper version of our Editors' Choice Celestron SkyMasters.
Not at all a practical cost choice for a beginning stargazer, but you can dream, can't you? These Steiner binoculars are essentially military optics "plowshared" for peaceful celestial observing.
Why we chose NOT to review certain types
Binoculars with active internal image stabilization are a growing breed. Most use battery-powered gyroscope/accelerometer-driven dynamic optical elements. We have left this type out of our evaluation because they are highly specialized and pricey ($1,250 and up). But if you are considering active stabilization, you can apply the same judgment methods detailed in our Buyer's Guide.
Comes with a camera?
A few binoculars are sold with built-in cameras. That seems like a good idea. But it isn't, at least not for skywatching. Other than Earth's moon, objects in the night sky are stingy with their photons. It takes a lengthy, rock-steady time exposure to collect enough light for a respectable image. By all means, consider these binocular-camera combos for snapping Facebook shots of little Jenny on the soccer field. But stay away from them for astronomy.
Take your new binoculars out under the night sky on clear nights, and you will fall in love with the universe. You will crave more ancient light from those distant suns. That may translate into a strong desire for bigger stereo-light buckets.
Caution: The next level up is a quantum jump of at least one financial order of magnitude. But if you have the disposable income and frequent access to dark skies, you may want to go REALLY big. Binocular telescopes in this class can feature interchangeable matching eyepieces, individually focusing oculars, more than 30x magnification and sturdy special-purpose tripods. Amateurs using these elite-level stereoscopes have discovered several prominent comets.
Enjoy your universe
If you are new to lens-assisted stargazing, you'll find excellent enhanced views among the binocular choices above. To get in deeper and to understand how we picked the ones we did, jump to our Buyer's Guide: How to Choose Binoculars for Sky Watching.
You have just taken the first step to lighting up your brain with star fire. May the photons be with you. Always.
Skywatching Events 2015
Once you have your new binoculars, it's time to take them for a spin. This year intrepid stargazers will have plenty of good opportunities to use new gear.
On March 20, for example, the sun will go through a total solar eclipse. You can check out the celestial sight using the right sun-blocking filters for binoculars, but NEVER look at the sun directly, even during a solar eclipse. It's important to find the proper filters in order to observe the rare cosmic show.
Observers can also take a look at the craggy face of the moon during a lunar eclipse on April 4. Stargazers using binoculars should be able to pick out some details not usually seen by the naked eye when looking at Earth's natural satellite.
Skywatchers should also peek out from behind the binoculars for a chance to see a series of annual meteor showers throughout the year.
A new analysis of Mars One's plans to colonize the Red Planet finds that the explorers would begin dying within 68 days of touching down
Hear that? That’s the sound of 200,000 reservations being reconsidered. Two hundred thousand is the announced number of intrepid folks who signed up last year for the chance to be among the first Earthlings to colonize Mars, with flights beginning as early as 2024. The catch: the trips will be one way, as in no return ticket, as in farewell friends, family, charbroiled steaks and vodka martinis, to say nothing of such everyday luxuries as modern hospitals and, you know, breathable air. But the settlers in Jamestown weren’t exactly volunteering for a weekend in Aspen either, and in both cases, the compensations—being the first people on a distant shore—seemed attractive enough. Now, however, the Mars plan seems to have run into a teensy snag. According to a new analysis by a team of grad students at MIT, the new arrivals would begin dying within just 68 days of touching down.
The organizers of the burn-your-boats expedition is a group called Mars One, headed by Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch entrepreneur and mechanical engineer. As Lansdorp sees things, habitat modules and other hardware would be sent to the Red Planet in advance of any astronauts, who would arrive in four-person crews at two-year intervals—when Mars and Earth make their closest approach, which holds the outbound journey to a brief (relatively speaking) eight months. The crew-selection process would be part of (yes) a sponsored reality show, which would ensure a steady flow of cash—and since the settlers would grow their own food onsite, there would be little to carry along with them. All that would keep the overall cost of the project to a shoestring (relative again) $6 billion.
So what could go wrong? That’s what the four MIT students set out to find out, and the short answer is: a lot.
The biggest problem, the students discovered, concerns that business of breathable air. One of the things that’s always made Earth such a niftily habitable place to live is that what animals exhale, plants inhale, and vice versa. Since the Martian astronauts and their crops would be living and respiring in the same enclosed habitats, a perfect closed loop should result in which we provide them all the carbon dioxide they need and they return the favor with oxygen.
Only it doesn’t, the MIT students found. The problem begins with the lettuce and the wheat, both of which are considered essential crops. As lettuce matures, peaking about 30 days after planting, it pushes the 02 level past what’s known as .3 molar fractions, which, whatever it means, doesn’t sound terribly dangerous — except it’s also the point at which the threat of fire rises to unacceptable levels. That risk begins to tail off as the crop is harvested and eaten, but it explodes upward again, far past the .3 level, at 68 days when the far gassier wheat matures.
A simple answer would be simply to vent a little of the excess O2 out, which actually could work, except the venting apparatus is not able to distinguish one gas from another. That means that nitrogen—which would, as on Earth, make up the majority of the astronauts’ atmosphere—would be lost too. That, in turn, would lower the internal pressure to unsurvivable levels—and that’s what gets your 68-day doomsday clock ticking.
There is some question too about whether the hardware that Mars One is counting on would even be ready for prime time. The mission planners make much of the fact that a lot of what they’re planning to use on Mars has already been proven aboard the International Space Station (ISS), which is true enough. But that hardware is built to operate in microgravity—effectively zero g—while Mars’s gravity is nearly 40% of Earth’s. So a mechanical component that would weigh 10 lbs. on Earth can be designed with little concern about certain kinds of wear since it would weigh 0 lbs. in orbit. But on Mars it would be 4 lbs., and that can make all the difference.
“The introduction of a partial gravity environment,” the grad students write, “will inevitably lead to different [environmental] technologies.”
For that and other reasons, technical breakdowns are a certainty. The need for replacement parts is factored into Mars One’s plans, but probably not in the way that they should be. According to the MIT team, over the course of 130 months, spare parts alone would gobble up 62% of the payload space on resupply missions, making it harder to get such essentials as seeds, clothes and medicine—to say nothing of other crew members—launched on schedule.
Then too, there is the question of habitat crowding. It’s easy to keep people alive if you feed them, say, a single calorie-dense food product every day. But energy bars forever means quickly losing your marbles, which is why Mars One plans for a variety of crops—just not a big enough variety. “Given that the crop selection will significantly influence the wellbeing of the crew for the entirety of their lives after reaching Mars,” the authors write, “we opt for crop variety over minimizing growth area.”
Then there is the question of cost—there’s not a space program in history whose initial price tag wasn’t badly lowballed—to say nothing of maintaining that biennial launch schedule, to say nothing of the cabin fever that could soon enough set the settlers at one another’s throats. Jamestown may not have been a picnic, but when things got to be too much you could always go for a walk by the creek.
No creeks here, nor much of anything else either. Human beings may indeed colonize Mars one day, and it’s a very worthy goal. But as with any other kind of travel, the best part of going is often coming home.
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