How to Tell If You Need a Telescope or Binoculars to See Cool Things in Space

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When people think about astronomy–even amateur, backyard astronomy–the first piece of equipment that probably comes to mind is a telescope. It makes sense because they are what professional astronomers use in observatories. They also have become a popular cultural term for someone who is interested in science or is generally considered intelligent and curious.

But telescopes aren’t the only option when it comes to stargazing or generally enjoying the night sky: There are certain situations where binoculars aren’t just serviceable–they’re the better option. It all boils down to what you are looking at and what you are trying to see. Here are some things to consider.

Differences between telescopes and binoculars

This isn’t a contest, but it’s helpful to take a look at the differences between telescopes and binoculars in terms of what they can (and can’t) do to improve your view of the night sky. In an article for The Conversation, Dr. Silas Laycock, professor of astronomy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell breaks it down:

Telescopes:

  • Shows a highly magnified view of one small part of the sky–often flipped upside down and backwards
  • Takes practice getting used to only using one eye
  • Image must be perfectly still to see very small, highly magnified objects, which is why telescopes are on tripods
  • Used for more precise, scientific astronomy

Binoculars:

  • Basically “two telescopes bolted together”
  • Provides brighter, more detailed, 3D view of the sky
  • More user-friendly and compact than telescopes
  • More affordable

When to use a telescope vs. binoculars

According to Laycock, it depends on what you’re trying to see. If you want to see as much light as possible from distant bodies like galaxies, telescopes are better. He also says that they are best for small objects, such as Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s clouds.

Binoculars, on the other hand, are best for large fields of view, Laycock says. This includes things such as the Orion Nebula glow or the star fields in the Milky Way.

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