Explore the stars, with binoculars

In December, as you wonder about what gifts to buy for folks — or maybe for yourself! — those interested in the world outside might think about tools for exploring the heavens. Many astronomers recommend that beginners start out not with a telescope, but binoculars.

binox.jpgBinoculars are easier to use for the novice because they provide a wide field of view, they’re simple to transport and use, and they’ll be useful even after you graduate to a telescope. They’re great for exploring the surface of the Moon (download a Moon map, or check out Google Moon, to identify the features you discover). You can look at planets and constellations. You can find galactic clouds and star clusters. You might even spot the moons of Jupiter.

Binoculars help to spark your curiousity and interest, without getting too bogged down in details and equipment. They come in many different price ranges, sizes, and quality. And they can also be used for spotting birds and wildlife, or just exploring the world, outside your back door on the far side of the planet.

Here’s a technical buying guide from Sky & Telescope magazine.
Here’s an overview of getting started with binoculars.
And here’s a book on binocular stargazing, if your giftee already has binoculars, or to go along with a new pair.

Still prefer a real telescope? Look for an observatory near you. Many astronomical facilities have open houses year round, and in December offer programs geared to finding the right telescope for the prospective buyer.