The winter sky is jam packed full of beautiful sights that can be appreciated with ordinary binoculars. Many of the brightest stars in the sky sparkle through the darkness on winter evenings, and some of the best open clusters and nebulae make their presence felt to even a casual observer even with the most basic of optical aids. In this blog, we shall explore 8 spectacular sights that can be enjoyed with hand-held instruments or using simple, stabilising arrangements such as a monopod.
All of the targets in this article were observed with modest 8 x 42 or 10 x 50 roof prism binoculars, serving up fields of 8.2 and 5.9 angular degrees, respectively; plenty wide enough to see all of the targets discussed. What follows is a series of concise notes on what can be expected from a dark rural site with these instruments, but those who live in large towns and suburban areas can also enjoy many of the same sights. So what are you waiting for? Fetch your warm winter coat, hat and gloves and join me on a whistle stop tour of the winter binocular sky.
Exhibit 1: The Pleiades/Messier 45/Seven Sisters.
Location: Northwestern Taurus
Easy to find with the naked eye on winter evenings, the Pleaides is one of the most beautiful and engaging targets in all the heavens. This wondeful asterism consists of over 100 stars scattered across 1.5 angular degrees of sky. My wide angle 8 x 42 shows many of the brightest members, which shine with either a white or blue-white hue against a velvet black sky. Many wonderful stellar associations can be feasted on; doubles, triples and elaborate curving arcs of stars that fan their way from the bright centre of the cluster. My 10 x 50 binocular, stablised on a lightweight monpod, significantly enhances the view with its larger image scale and ability to pull out fainter members. Words cannot fully grasp the beauty of this winter treasure. Small wonder the Pleiades has been the stuff of poetry ever since mankind first gazed upon the heavens. Clean, dust-free optics produce the prettiest views, minimising the scattering of light from its brightest members. Indeed, dusty optics can cause some individuals to mistakingly report seeing the faint reflection nebula around Merope and Alcyone with binoculars of this size, but in reality significantly larger instruments and exceptionally clear and transparent conditions are required to pull out this feature from the pretty asterism. This loosely bound system of stars is estimated to be about 50 million years old, with many of its main stars located about 440 light years from the solar system.
Exhibit 2: Praesepe/Beehive Cluster/Messier 44
Location: Central Cancer
On a dark, moonless night, cast your gaze between the constellation of Gemini in the west and Leo Major in the east, just north of the ecliptic, and you’re sure to chance on a large foggy patch situated between Delta and Gamma Cancri. Binoculars will unveil a stunning sight; a beautiful quadrilateral of bright stars with a vibrant stellar cluster just left of its centre. Arriving on the meridian late on January and February evenings, the quadrilateral delineates the manger in which the Christ child was laid, with the cluster itself presumably denoting the spot where the holy family lay resting.
The cluster itself is more famously known as the Beehive (Messier 44); an entirely appropriate appellation for this magnificent binocular sight. Several dozen stars are brighter than magnitude 6 but many of these are too close to each other to be cleanly resolved in ordinary binoculars. The cluster contains many fainter members, though while remaining unresolved, contribute a lot of diffused light which greatly enhnaces the visual appearance of the spectacle. Better seen in 10 x 50s than 8 x 42s, the manger structure is lost in the smaller field offered up by larger binoculars, though the cluster stars will be enhanced.The Beehive contains a total of about 200 stars and lies about 590 light years away.
Exhibit 3: Collinder 70
Our next target couldn’t be easier to find. Simply point your binocular at the belt stars of Orion (from east to west these stars are called Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka), which radiate with an intense, white hue, pure as the driven snow. But the belt stars are merely the brightest members of a far grander cluster of magnitude 6, 7 and 8 stars collectively known as Collinder 70, snaking their way up and around them. For best results, observe this cluster when the Moon is out of the sky and when Orion reaches its maximum altitude in the south. I’m in two minds about which binocular yields the better view. The 8 x 42 yields a whopping 8.2 degree field giving a wonderful wide-angle perpective, while the 10 x 50 shows some fainter members but in a smaller true field. For this object, I think I’ll give the nod to the former instrument.Where I’m located at 56 degrees north latitude, Orion never gets too high in the sky, and I find it interesting to see how the view improves- a darker sky with more numerous stellar members – as the constellation wheels its way toward the meridian. Each incremental rise in altitude; degree by degree; enhances the view. This is a delightful target for all lovers of the night sky. Don’t leave winter behind without a visit!
Exhibit 4: Melotte 20/ Alpha Persei Association
On a dark, moonless night with good transparency, the constellation Perseus looms high in the sky for northern observers. Our next port of call couldn’t be easier to locate; just point your gaze at Mirfak (Alpha Persei) and hold up your binocular to your eyes. The scene literally explodes with beauty! A torrent of starlight drowns your eyes, as the wide field view of the binocular captures the riot of stellar members in this famous OB Association. In late autumn and early winter, Perseus climbs the vault of the sky from the east, presenting its stars in an east to west orientation, but I have found that the view is that little bit more magnificent when it sinks into the western hemisphere on January evenings, when the same stellar association is arrayed north to south, when the above sketch was made. Containing about 70 hot white and blue-white stars ranging from magnitude 3 through 10, Melotte 20 is quite young; about 50 million years old with the main members being located some 550 light years from the solar system. This author never tires of its beauty; the more you look at it, the more you see!
Exhibit 5: The Hyades/ Melotte 25
To find our next winter binocular treasure, just cast your gaze on the beautiful orange star, Aldebaran, and bring your binocular to your eyes! Aldebaran is the brightest star of the familiar horns of the Celestial Bull. But with the aid of binoculars, your eye can feast on a sparkling array of double and triple stars of varying glory and hue. Best framed in a 10 x 50 binocular, the cluster spans a whopping 5.5 degrees with as many as 130 or so stars presenting as brighter than magnitude 9. Intriguingly, Aldebaran is not a true member of this system but is actually located about half as far away as the other stars in this sprawling open cluster, which astronomers estimate is about 150 light years away. Few binocular sights enthrall as much as the Hyades. I love the way the cluster changes its orientation in the binocular field as it transitions from the eastern to the western hemispheres of the sky. Using a monopod with the 10 x 50 helps bring out the faintest members that often elude hand held observations.
Exhibit 6: The Double Cluster/Caldwell 14/h & Chi Persei
Our next target is very easy to find; just look midway between the ‘wonky W’ of Cassiopeia, the Queen, and the ‘tip’ of Perseus, the Hero. From a dark, country sky, devoid of moonlight, these clusters are clearly visible to the naked eye as an elongated foggy patch, but turn a binocular on them and you’re in for a real visual treat! Both clusters are about the size of the full Moon and are designated NGC 884 and NGC 869. The richer of the two is NGC 869 (western most) and contains about 200 stellar members, while the eastern-most cluster (NGC 884) has stars that are significantly more scattered. Together they provide a breathtaking sight in ordinary binoculars. The above sketch was made with a 10 x 50 instrument and covers a swathe of sky roughly 5 angular degrees in extent. An eye-catching stream of stars is seen fanning away from both clusters. From high northern latitudes, the Double Cluster is well placed for observation from early autumn through early spring but is best observed when it is highest in the sky after sunset on December and January evenings. Both clusters are located some 8,000 light years away and consist of mostly young type A and B stars, though larger instruments will help pull out more highly evolved, ruddier members.
Exhibit 7: The Sword Handle of Orion
Our next target is the Swordhandle of the great constellation of Orion, readily identified with the naked eye even from an urban setting. This is a spectacular sight in any binocular but is especially pretty in a 10 x 50. The eye is immediately drawn to the Great Nebula (M42), one of the nearest star forming regions to the solar system. Newborn stars light up the gas and dust surrounding them and a steady hand will reveal several pinpoint stars within its confines. Just above it lies M43, just separated from M42 by a thin sliver of dark sky. At the top of the field is the pretty open star cluster, NGC 1981 and below it the binocular picks up some faint whisps from the diffuse nebula NGC 1973-77-79. Below M42 lies the comely binocular double star Iota Orionis and Struve 747 which appear to have some nebulosity associated with them. I have no trouble seeing a greenish colour in M42 in larger binoculars or in my 80mm f/5 refractor at medium power, but I find it somewhat elusive in the 10 x 50. Perhaps those observing from a darker site may fare better in this regard. Many of the objects in the sketch are located between about 1200 and 2,300 light years from the solar system.
Exhibit 8: Melotte 111, the Coma Star Cluster
Location: Coma Berenices
Our final target is for night owls – the celebrated Coma Star Cluster in Coma Berenices – as it doesn’t culminate until well into the wee small hours during early February. Those who prefer to observe earlier in the night might wish to wait until month’s end to explore it. To do justice to this large and sprawling open cluster, a wide angle binocular is the best tool, as the cluster extends over a broad swathe of sky (at least 6 degrees) and is completely lost using telescopes. My 8 x 42 nicely frames this very loose congregation of suns, the brightest of which are of the 5th magnitude of glory. Visually striking, the main feature of this cluster is a distorted ‘V’ shape which renders it rather easy to identify with optical aid. The Coma Star Cluster(not to be confused with the galaxy cluster bearing the same name), with its 50 or so members, is close to the solar system as clusters go; just 285 light years according to the best modern estimate.
Water for the Soul:
Well, I hope that you will take the time to venture out on these long winter evenings to observe these beautiful and accessible objects. You don’t need any fancy equipment, just ordinary binoculars, a warm coat and hat, and a modicum of curiosity!
Thanks for reading and clear skies!
Neil English is the author of a new and ambitious historical work, Chronicling the Golden Age of Astronomy, now available in hardback and electronic formats.