Our top 10 space sights you can see with just binoculars

You don't need the fanciest tech to see some of the wonders of the universe

Astronomy attracts those who love technology and are fascinated by space. After all, it takes the latest engineering feats to probe the cosmos. It’s great that organisations like NASA and the ESA share wonderful images from telescopes like Hubble so we don’t feel left out. However, there are plenty of incredible sights in the night sky that we can see without billion-dollar space telescopes. All you need is a pair of binoculars.

Amateur astronomers often rush to buy a fancy telescope to begin exploring the sky at night but binoculars are a better place to start. Using a telescope for astronomy is difficult; lots of people buy one in excitement only to lose interest because it’s tough to learn how to read the night sky and learn how to use a complicated piece of equipment.

You can see some spectacular sights with related but much simpler technology: binoculars. They’re easy to use so you only have to worry about learning where to look. If you end up mastering the navigation of the night sky and have the money then maybe a telescope would be a good upgrade. But for beginners, there’s no reason not to start with binoculars as they let you see some of the most amazing sights. Here’s our top 10 things you can see at night with just binoculars (assuming you live in the northern hemisphere).

10. Moon

This image of the moon was photographed with a smartphone looking through a pair of binoculars. Image © Lupu Victor

Yeah you can see the moon with the naked eye but it appears as a small disc in the sky. Grab a pair of binoculars and it’s easier to see the moon as a real place with its own geography and history. If you’re new to astronomy, the moon is the perfect place to start. It’s easy to find and learning about the moon will make the rest of your observations go smoother. If you’re planning to go looking for something quite difficult, check to see if the moon will be nearby as its brightness can make it harder to see fainter objects.

With binoculars you can clearly make out the white highlands and grey maria (once thought to be oceans) on the lunar surface. The grey maria were likely caused by impacts 3.5 billion years ago that then filled with lava that cooled. With a steady hand you can make out some of the bigger craters including Tycho, as featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

How do I find it?

Of all the items on this list, the moon is easiest to find. Just take a look. What’s trickier is knowing the best time to view it in the future. A full moon is actually the worst time as its brightness means you won’t make out as much detail. It’s best to view the moon when it’s new and in twilight.

9. International Space Station and satellites

This image was taken with a telescope but you can see how it is viewable in daylight. To the left you can even see Jupiter! Image © Anthony Ayiomamitis

People are often surprised to learn you can see the International Space Station with just binoculars but it’s actually visible to the naked eye. When visible it’s the 3rd brightest object in the sky! There are lots of apps and websites to help you figure out where to look in order to spot the ISS and various large satellites.

How do I find it?

The trick is not to go looking at night time as the satellites don’t emit their own light. You need to look a while before sunrise or after sunset. NASA has their own page for spotting the space station but there are plenty more with different features such as ISSTracker or Heavens-Above, which also lets you view the ISS in 3D above its current location. You can also use some of our favourite astronomy apps.

8. Double Cluster

Image © Reddit user ItFrightensMe

The Double Cluster is thought of as one sight but it’s a combination of two star clusters: NGC 884 and NGC 869. Star clusters are very dense groups of stars and these two are 800 light years apart and filled with amazing stars of various colours. It’s quite a sight to behold using any technology but binoculars are perfect because you usually can’t see all of both clusters at once in the narrow view through a telescope. To see the whole thing, binoculars are best! Both clusters are very young, at only 3-5 million years of age.

How do I find it?

Now we’re getting to the trickier items on the list. The Double Cluster is inside the Perseus constellation but the easiest way to find it is using the Cassiopeia constellation. If you look up the Navi and Ruchbah stars and the imaginary line between them, you can find the Double Cluster by continuing along the same line beyond Ruchbah and towards the Perseus constellation.

7. Lagoon Nebula

Image © Ignacio Diaz Bobillo

The Lagoon Nebula (M8) is one of the most beautiful sights in the night sky. A nebula is an interstellar cloud where new stars are formed. You can just make it out as a faint smudge with your naked eyes but through binoculars you make out the cloud and core of the stellar nursery.

How do I find it?

Those of us in the UK will only be able to see M8 during the last two months of the year but sometimes the best things are worth waiting for. It’s in the Sagittarius constellation, near the spout of the teapot.

6. Saturn

Image © NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute

Sometimes the most amazing sights in the night sky are the ones that are relatively nearby and Saturn is among the best. Sadly you need a telescope to see its rings (I seriously fell off my chair when I first saw them with my own eyes) but you can still get a surprisingly good view of the planet through binoculars. You’ll be able to see the golden colour and if you’re very lucky you might spot Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, orbiting the gas giant. If you buy very big binoculars and steady them on a tripod you might even see that Saturn isn’t perfectly round!

How do I find it?

You can memorise where galaxies and nebulae are but planets are always on the move. That’s where they get their name; they’re wanderers. You’ll have to use an app or website like Astronomy Now’s UK Sky Chart to find out where to look.

5. Orion Nebula

Image © RawAstroData.com

The Orion Nebula (M42) is a beautiful and bright area of star-formation. It’s an interstellar cloud of gas like the Lagoon Nebula but this one is only about 1,300 light years away making it the closest stellar nursery to Earth. It’s such a busy area of the night sky that astronomers have discovered lots of phenomena inside including brown dwarfs and protoplanetary discs. You can just see it as a smudge with the naked eye but binoculars make it much more obvious.

How do I find it?

Unsurprisingly, the Orion Nebula is in the Orion constellation. It’s quite easy to find as it’s on Orion’s sword and slightly below Orion’s belt.

4. The Pleiades

Image © NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory

The Pleiades (M45) are sometimes referred to as the Seven Sisters. With the naked eye you can count about 6 stars but with binoculars you see there are many more. It’s a huge and obvious star cluster that’s been written about throughout history. It’s mentioned 3 times in the Bible and the Chinese were describing it over 4000 years ago. The reason it’s so prominent in the night sky is that it’s pretty close at just 400 light years and its stars are so young they didn’t even exist when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. This is another sight that doesn’t quite fit into the narrow view of a telescope so the best way to see the whole thing is with binoculars.

How do I find it?

The easiest way is to use Auriga constellation as described here. You’ll know you’re at the right place if it’s to the right of Orion.

3. The Milky Way

Image © ForestWander.com

Find a place with low light pollution and you can see the structure of our own galaxy in all its glory. The Milky Way looks like a whitish cloud to the naked eye hence its name. Binoculars reveal it to be full of stars, and it’s among the most astounding sights you will see. Indeed, there are more stars visible densely packed across the Milky Way than in any other part of the night sky.

How do I find it?

The Milky Way is obvious at most times of the year as a big silvery band right across the whole sky but the key is to find a very dark area to view it. In the middle of a city there’s usually too much light pollution for it to be obvious.

2. Andromeda

Image © Jacob Bers

Andromeda (M31) is another galaxy like our Milky Way. At a distance of 2.5 million light years it’s the most distant object you can see with the naked eye. It’s very bright thanks to the trillions of stars. Through binoculars the galaxy starts to take shape, with a bright core surrounded by the haze of star systems. It’s heading right for us and will collide with our own galaxy in about 4 billion years.

How do I find it?

There are a number of star-hopping methods, usually involving the Great Square of Pegasus. Another way is to use the pointiest part of Cassiopeia and use it as an arrow. Extend the arrow 3 times and you reach Andromeda.

1. Jupiter

Jupiter and 4 of its moons. This image is actually taken with a telescope but gives you an idea of what you could see if you're steady. Image © Carl Galloway

Despite the awe of seeing entire galaxies and nebulae millions of light years away, it’s hard to beat the experience of seeing our closest neighbours for the first time with your own eyes. In much the same way that Saturn’s rings are unforgettable, Jupiter packs a punch by being the largest planet and having 4 moons that are visible with binoculars.

Jupiter’s moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto) are actually very bright and could be seen with the naked eye if it wasn’t for the fact that Jupiter outshines them. With binoculars and a very steady hand (or tripod) you can see them. They appear as 4 points of light around the planet. If you draw their positions and then view Jupiter again on other nights you see that their positions change as they orbit the planet.

How do I find it?

Jupiter and its moons can be found using apps or websites like Astronomy Now’s UK Sky Chart. At the time of writing (April 2016) it’s near the constellation of Leo.

Whoever said you need the fanciest and most expensive tech to explore the heavens? Grab some binoculars and get exploring!

Also be sure to check out our top 5 smartphone apps for amateur astronomers.


Main image © Matipon Tangmatitham