Category Archives: Binoculars

Stargazing is Like a Box of Chocolates

Photo of the Northern Lights

Stargazing is Like a Box of Chocolates ~by Curt Nason

A memorable line from the movie Forrest Gump compared life to a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. Although the night sky is full of predictable observing targets and events, it is the unexpected treasures that make stargazing so enjoyable.

I was cat-sitting at my childhood home in McAdam last weekend, where the backyard night sky is much darker than at my home in suburban Saint John. I was struggling with a topic for this monthly column and I put it aside hoping for inspiration overnight. Around midnight I stepped out on the deck with binoculars to view a comet, one of my pet observing projects, and my attention was drawn to a wall of light to the north. My first impression was of light pollution, but then I noticed a few spikes of light with a subtle green tinge and I recalled an email alerting stargazers to the possibility of northern lights. After a quick dash inside for warmer clothes, I was treated to more than an hour of shimmering green lights that at times reached the North Star, halfway to the zenith; the best aurora I have seen in 13 years.

As I watched the northern lights I thought of how fortunate I was. My quick dash outside to see a gray blur in binoculars, which I had seen several times already this spring, had revealed Nature’s fireworks, accompanied by the restful chirping of peepers rather than resonating booms. Several airplanes passed by, all seemingly on the same path, and I envied the view that the pilots and alert passengers must be getting. The Milky Way was like a bright cloud rather than the hint of light I see from my backyard at home; its pearly stream split by clouds of interstellar dust between us and the inner spiral arm of our galaxy. A meteor flashed silently across the sky, the result of a tiny pebble shed from a comet long ago entering our atmosphere, making the thin air glow as it disintegrated from the heat of friction. Then I recalled why I went outside in the first place.

The comet was an easy find with binoculars, beside a fairly bright star in a prominent constellation overhead, looking much better than from my deck at home. Saturn and Jupiter called for my attention, and then I noticed the orange star Antares between two trees. In the same field of view was a globular cluster called M4, the fourth object in Charles Messier’s list of objects that resemble comets. I cannot always see it with a telescope from home because with its low altitude it gets lost in urban skyglow, but here it looked huge with just binoculars from its distance of 7000 light years.

Another comet was near Antares, one I have yet to see, so I set up a telescope. Life is not always a bowl of cherry chocolates, for this comet was too faint for my equipment, but it should brighten soon. The view of Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s cloud belts in the telescope made up for any disappointment. It was now two o’clock, and back on the deck I could still see the aurora teasingly fading away and spiking up again. I herded the cats inside and went to bed, tired but inspired to write.

Stargazing is a wonderful hobby. Every clear night the sky is a familiar friend and yet serendipitously different, and I have never regretted dragging myself outside to look up. I never know what surprise might await me, but I do know it won’t be fattening.

Sky at a Glance March 4 – 11

A Stellarium photo showing the location of the Beehive Cluster in Cancer and Coma Star Cluster in Coma Berenices.

This Week’s Sky at a Glance, March 4 – March 11     ~by Curt Nason

This past week a fellow amateur astronomer and I held an observing session in a rural area outside of Sussex for a home school group. It had been too long a time since I set up a telescope during winter in an area where the sky is truly dark. My local dark sky locations are usually inaccessible in winter and the early evening sky is often ruined by senseless spotlights advertising a shopping district I like to avoid. The dark sky this week made spectacular the objects that are comparatively nice to look at from my backyard. Objects that I can barely discern at the best of times with the naked eye at home were jumping out at me.

One of those objects was M44, the Beehive star cluster or Praesepe (Manger) in the constellation Cancer the Crab, which lies between Gemini and Leo. Even seeing the main stars that make up dim Cancer was a treat. The Beehive was a large glowing patch of haze to my eyes and its many stars filled the view in my telescope, but large clusters like this are appreciated best with binoculars. In times long past the cluster was used as a storm predictor. It would be one of the first objects to disappear when the light clouds that often precede a weather system would move in.

Two other clusters, technically three, are visible to the naked eye this time of year when the sky is clear and unpolluted by inefficient lighting. The Coma Star Cluster, or Melotte 111, lies in the constellation Coma Berenices, between the tail of Leo and Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs. It is a large, somewhat sparse cluster that spills beyond the view of most binoculars, and centuries ago it was regarded as the tuft of Leo’s tail. The other one, or two, is the Double Cluster between Perseus and Cassiopeia. This pair fits within the view of a low power telescope eyepiece, but binoculars give a better perspective. Following a nearby string of stars with binos will bring you to the Stock 2 star cluster, less spectacular but just as delightful to observe.

This Week in the Solar System

Saturday’s sunrise in Moncton is at 6:52 am and sunset will occur at 6:10 pm, giving 11 hours, 18 minutes of daylight (6:56 am and 6:15 pm in Saint John). Next Saturday the Sun will rise at 6:39 am and set at 6:19 pm, giving 11 hours, 40 minutes of daylight (6:43 am and 6:25 pm in Saint John).

The Moon is at first quarter on Sunday, making it a great target for a scope this weekend. It slides just below Aldebaran on Saturday evening and approaches the bright star Regulus in Leo next Friday evening. Midweek, Jupiter is rising at 9 pm, 20 minutes after Venus sets and an hour before Mars sets.  Take a look at Saturn before 6 am some morning this week and see if it looks elongated due to the rings. Then move a binocular field to the lower left to see the hazy Lagoon Nebula (aka M8), and perhaps the fainter Trifid Nebula (M20) and star cluster M21 just above it. Mercury is in superior conjunction beyond the Sun on Monday, but it starts its best evening appearance of the year later this month.

Astronomy-Astronomie Moncton invites all to a public observing event at the Moncton High School Observatory on Friday, March 3 from 7:30 to 9:00 pm. The Saint John Astronomy Club meets in the Rockwood Park Interpretation Centre on March 4 at 7 pm. All are welcome.

Questions? You can contact Curt Nason here.

Favourite Binocular Targets

~by Chris Curwin, Astronomy by the Bay

You don’t need a huge telescope to enjoy the night sky…A pair of binoculars is great , and in some cases, actually preferred to a telescope due to their wide field of view. Here are 5 of my favourite binocular targets.. I hope you can grab a pair of binoculars and enjoy them too. The pictures have more info:)

My Favourite Binocular Targets~

Photograph of the Moon showing the terminator line and craters.
The moon is always beautiful through binoculars… and sometimes we even get to view a special event like the partial penumbral lunar eclipse [photo courtesy Paul Owen] that happened in February 2017 :). In that case, the view was more spectacular with the naked eye or through binoculars than with a telescope! Glance along the terminator line during a waxing crescent or quarter moon phase and you’ll see what I mean.

Two photographs showing Messier 45, or the Pleaides and its location in the Constellation Taurus, one of everyone's favourite binocular targetsMessier 45, or the Pleaides, is always an excellent target in binoculars and actually reveals a much better view than through a telescope in my opinion. Look for the Pleiades in Taurus.. the three stars in Orion’s belt point to the star Aldebaran and then on to the Pleiades cluster. (Illustration courtesy earthsky.org, photo courtesy Saint John Astronomy Club member Paul Owen). The Pleaides is one of everyone’s favourite binocular targets.

Photograph of the winter sky Milky Way, as seen from Saints Rest Beach, Saint John, New Brunswick.
The Milky Way can reveal so much… beautiful clusters, colourful double stars and so much more. And you don’t have to wait until summer…There is a “Winter Milky Way” that is also incredible through binoculars. (Photo taken at Saints Rest beach by Saint John Astronomy Club member Mike Powell)

Two photographs of the constellation Orion in the winter sky, showing location and image itself.
The constellation of Orion,  rising early in the eastern winter sky, features many targets… one of my favourites being the Orion Nebula, known as M42.  In the illustration here it is in the area of Orion’s sword, a famous stellar nursery 🙂  Illustration courtesy earthsky.org.

Photograph showing the locations of Jupiter and Saturn in the early winter sky from Saint John, New Brunswick
If you are an early riser (well, not that early, really) you can catch a view of Jupiter and its moons through binoculars… and give Saturn a chance as well. You may not see “glorious rings” but you will see them. This is the sky from Saint John, NB at 630am in early February (illustration from the free program Stellarium).

Photograph of Jupiter and its Moons through binoculars.
The view of Jupiter and it’s Galilean moons .. You can see all of them through binoculars. You can watch day after day as they change positions as they orbit the giant planet.


Questions?  You can contact me on Facebook at Astronomy by the Bay or send me an email.  Thanks.

More from Astronomy by the Bay~

Learning the Night Sky
Star Hopping
“Sign Posts” for Navigating the Night Sky

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