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

How to Tell If You Need a Telescope or Binoculars to See Cool Things in Space
Photo: vchal, Shutterstock

When people think about astronomy — even amateur, backyard astronomy — the first piece of equipment that probably comes to mind is a telescope. And that makes sense, given that they’re what we see the pros using in observatories, and have become pop culture shorthand for a person (usually a child or young adult) who is into science, or generally perceived as 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. Essentially, it all comes down to what you’re looking at, and what, exactly, you’re trying to see. Here’s what to know.

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. Telescopes are preferable when you’re trying to pick up as might light as possible from faraway bodies, like galaxies. They’re also best when attempting to observe something small, like Saturn’s rings or Jupiter’s clouds, he says.

Binoculars, on the other hand, are best for large fields of view, Laycock says. This includes looking at things like the star fields of the Milky Way, or the glow surrounding baby stars in the Orion Nebula.