ISON – A Great Binocular Comet

bin girl

A lot of people are probably thinking right now, as you read this very blog post, “I’m going to buy a telescope so I can see Comet ISON properly!” You might even be one of them. Well, personally, I’d recommend against that, and I’ll tell you why.

I know, I know. To “do astronomy” you have to have a telescope, right? Actually, no, that’s not right. Before even thinking of buying a telescope you need to have learned your way around the naked eye sky, or else you’ll be absolutely and completely lost if you bought a telescope. You see, basically, telescopes are used by astronomers to “zoom in” on things in the night sky. Small things. Fuzzy things. And if you don’t know where those small, fuzzy things are up there, amongst the stars, then you won’t have a clue where to point your telescope will you? It’s like moving to a new town. At first you’re lost. But gradually you get your bearings, by learning where places are in relation to other places. You know that the Post Office is near the grocers, or the library is opposite the police station, stuff like that. The same is true of the sky.

So unless you know the “naked eye sky”, and how it works, i.e. you can find and recignise the major constellations, you know about how the night sky changes, you know how to spot and identify planets, star clusters, galaxies and nebulae with the naked eye, then a telescope is of no use to you. Oh, yes, if you were given one today and your sky was clear tonight you’d be able to look at the Moon through it (if the Moon was ‘up’ in your sky tonight, it isn’t always, as you know), and might, by sheer luck, find a planet or two, but then what? You can’t just sweep it across and around the sky at random, hoping to find something interesting, you have to know where they are so you can zoom in on them. And the same goes for Comet ISON. To zoom in on it with a telescope you have to know where it is, what time it’s above your local horizon, if your telescope is powerful enough to see it in the first place…

So, if you were thinking of going out and buying one of these…


…then please, PLEASE don’t, unless you know *exactly* what you’re doing. Something like that will set you back about £400, and needs a lot of setting up and aligning, etc, and you genuinely have to know the sky and how to find things in it to use it. I mean, look at all the bits! If you can’t look at that picture without knowing what all those bits do, and how they fit together, then trust me, buying one of those would be a waste of time. And money. You WON’T see ISON through it because you won’;t be able to FIND ISON with it.

And if you’re thinking of going the *other* way, and buying something that looks like this


…then don’t, that’s basically a toy. Its lenses will be poor quality ( = dim, blurry view), its tripod will be rubbish (too small= shaky and too unsteady to give you clear views) and you would be much better looking at the comet with just your naked eye to be honest.

And if you’re thinking huffily “Huh! Well, I’ll show you! I’ll just get one of these


… a computerised telescope which finds objects for you!” you might not be aware that those telescopes have to be *aligned* first, by lining them up with the Pole Star and then manually aligning them with two or three of the night sky’s brightest stars. And if you don’t know how to find those stars with your naked eye, then if I GAVE you a GoTo telescope right now I’m pretty sure you STILL wouldn’t be able to find ISON with it tomorrow morning. You wouldn’t be able to get it to point at the Moon even if the Moon was there, right up there, above your house, for all to see.

Now after reading all that some of you will be thinking “Phew! Thank you! You just saved me a load of money and distress!” which is exactly what I wanted to happen. But I can hear some of you groaning “But I really want to see ISON through a telescope! What do I do??”

Well, if you absolutely must see ISON through a telescope, you don’t have to spend a penny / insert local currency here. If you go online and do a quick search, you’ll find contact details for your local astronomical society, which will almost certainly be holding some comet observing nights. And if they’re not it will have members planning on observing ISON who would be happy to have you round and show you the comet through their telescopes.

Still not good enough? You STILL want to buy a telescope? Oh, alright then. At the end of this post I’m going to recommend a small telescope to buy if you’re absolutely determined to buy one to look at ISON with!

But for now I want you to forget all about telescopes and think about this: the perfect equipment for observing Comet ISON might already be in your house, forgotten about. Maybe stuffed into a cupboard beneath the stairs, or hidden away in the garage, or thrown into a box in your spare room. A pair of these


Yes, a pair of binoculars. Which, when you think about it, are just a pair of small, low power telescopes joined together, aren’t they?

And if you don’t already own a pair of these, you can go out and buy a new pair of binoculars for a very reasonable sum – and a LOT less than you would pay for a telescope!

But not just ANY pair of binoculars will do for observing Comet ISON. Some are too small to be of much use, others are too big. The really small pairs, the ones that fit in the palm of your hand like a sleepy kitten, are pretty useless for astronomy because they combine high magnification with a very low contrast view, so all you see is a blurry mess. ISON would look awful through those.

UPDATE: I might have been a bit hasty there. My experiences with those small binoculars have been bad, but James Canvin – a member of the forum, who takes raw black and white images taken by the Mars rovers and turns them into some of the most spectacular martian landscapes you will ever see – was kind enough to leave a comment on this blog, offering an alternative experience:


I agree with everything you say here, except…

“not just ANY pair of binoculars will do for observing Comet ISON”

I would say that just about any (non-broken!) pair will help enormously over the naked eye. I used a tiny pocket pair of cheap 10×25’s the first time I spotted PANSTARRS as that is all I had to available. I never would have spotted it without them, but with it was easy.

While all your advice is good for going out and buying a pair, people shouldn’t be put off taking whatever they have lying around out into the garden even if it’s not optimal.

Thanks James, always happy to be corrected by someone with more information.  And yes, of course, any pair of binoculars you have is better than having none at all, so if you have a pair of these

sm binocs…then you should absolutely train them on ISON. But I still strongly recommend getting hold of a larger, sturdier pair, for reasons I’ll come to soon.

Likewise, monster binoculars like these…


…might look impressive, and promise huge magnification the equal of the Hubble telescope, but a) they’re sphincter-tighteningly expensive, and b) they’re so heavy you need a tripod that’s almost as heavy to support them with.

No, the best binoculars to use on Comet ISON are a pair of humble 10x50s or “bird watcher special” 7x35s. Why? The clue is in those numbers. The first number is the magnification the binoculars give. The second is their aperture in milimetres. In a shop you’ll see all kinds of different combinations of those numbers – 12×50, 16×70, 8×30, etc. The binoculars of most use for observing the night sky give a figure of around 5 when their aperture is divided by their magnification, because that shows they will send a lot of light into your eyes, giving you a clear, bright image. If the number is more than 5, light will be wasted. Smaller than 5, not enough light will go into your eyes and you’ll get a dim, poor view. So, you can see that 10x50s are fine because 50 divided by 10 is 5, and 7x35s are the same. So if your binoculars follow that guide, great, they’ll be perfect for viewing Comet ISON with! If they don’t, or if you don’t have any in the first place, now you know what to look for when you go shopping.

( Oh, remember the very small binoculars we saw earlier? Well, typically they would be something like “10×20” or “8×21” models, which means they only put a small amount of light into your eye, resulting in a dim, restricted image. But, as James pointed out, they’d be better than nothing, and might make the difference between you seeing ISON on a particular night and not seeing it. )

A couple of tips tho. You might be tempetd to buy a pair of flashy, colourful-looking binocs from your local market or budget shop, like this guy did…

US President Barack Obama looks through binoculars towards North Korea from Observation Post Ouellette in South Korea-772222

Don’t. The orange red coating on those lenses looks beautiful – you might see some that are bright yellow, or vivid green – but that coating makes the binoculars bad for looking at the night sky by reducing contrast, and that’s exactly what you *want* for looking at faint, fuzzy things in the night sky, contrast! No, look for binocs with the classic purple-blue lenses, they’ll be perfect.

You should also consider – if you already have one, or can afford to buy one – mounting your binoculars on a tripod.


Although a pair of 7x35s or 10x50s isn’t particularly heavy, you’re going to be holding them up to your eyes for minutes at a time as you gaze at Comet ISON, and before too long they will start to feel as if they’re made of lead. Putting them on a tripod will make them much more comfortable to use, and you’ll observe ISON for longer if you’re more comfortable. How do you attach your binoculars to a tripod? Photographic shops and internet retailers sell brackets which will fit the two together…


A word of warning tho. Binoculars are meant for outdoors use. No matter how comfortable or warm it is in your home, don’t be tempted to put your binoculars and tripod on a table and try to observe ISON through a window, like this misguided penthouse-dwelling woman here did. Uh oh, (uh oh uh oh uh oh oh oh oh…) that’s just asking for trouble…


Oh, and unlike this chap…


…don’t forget to take the lens caps off your binoculars. That will definitely help you see Comet ISON more clearly…

Right, so you’ve got your binoculars – of the right size, magnification and aperture – and they’re on or off a tripod, as you want. What could ISON look like through them?

Well, assuming you’ve taken the advice offered elsewhere on this blog and found yourself a good, dark, light pollution free place to observe Comet ISON from, you might enjoy views like these through your binoculars, IF ISON behaves itself and doesn’t do anything silly…

Start of November…


Mid November…


Early December, after rounding the Sun…


Mid December – at its best?


Now, note, those images are just meant to give you a rough guide to what the view might be like in terms of size and detail, IF it turns on as we’re all hoping it will. Of course, the comet might fail to light up, and just be a dull, uninspiring smudge. But even if it does brighten as we’re hoping, by late November it will be shining in a twilight sky, not a pitch black sky like the ones shown here, so it will look more like this…


Which would still be beautiful, wouldn’t it?

So, there you have it. Now either go and retrieve your binoculars from under the stairs or from their cobweb-covered box in the garage, or go out and buy a pair, because trust me, they will be your best friends when ISON becomes bright enough to be seen without a telescope.

Oh yes, I was going to recommend a telescope wasn’t I? Ok…

If you are just starting out in stargazing, and don’t know the sky, but really, really, REALLY want to see ISON – and show it to your kids – through a telescope of your own, so you’re not going to have to go round to strangers’ houses or beg favours, then I have a suggestion for you. I have no hesitation in recommending one of these


That, dear reader, is a CELESTRON TRAVELSCOPE 70. It’s a small refracting telescope (i.e it uses lenses to form an image, unlike a reflecting telescope which uses mirrors), which comes as part of a package, including tripod, eyepieces and computer software, all inside a great little rucksack.

And why would I recommend it? Well, because…

* It’s a CELESTRON, and CELESTRON make brilliant telescopes. They’re one of the world’s leading manufacturers.

* Its lenses are of a really good optical quality, so give sharp, clear images.

* It’s sturdy and well built, but still light and easy to move.

* It’s very simple to set up.

* It comes with good quality eyepieces which give realistic and reasonable magnifications, not stupid ly high magnifications which some small telescopes offer.

* It comes in that very useful rucksack, which makes storing and transporting it very simple…


Why am I such a fan? Because – and this is probably the best recommendation you can get, isn’t it? – I own one myself, and absolutely swear by it.

Here’s mine…


( Note: the cat is NOT included in the telescope package; I’ve just put Chi Chi there for scale. )

See how small it is? (the telescope, not the cat…) It’s compact, and light, but very well constructed and a very good small telescope. I bought mine specifically to use as an “ISON telescope”, knowing that, come November and December,  the godawful Cumbrian weather will mean I sometimes will have only a handful of minutes to look at ISON through a gap in the clouds, beneath downpours. I can pick up that rucksack, dash outside, tear up to the castle, and be observing ISON in ten minutes, less if I just go to the park across the road.

And back in March when I tested it out on Comet PANSTARRS I was genuinely thrilled by the views it gave me. The comet’s tail stood out clearly, with great contrast, even when the sky was still quite bright, and even when I was observing events with lots of bigger telescopes all around me I kept going back to my Travelscope to just drink in the bright, clear view through it. I can’t wait to see ISON through it. In fact, I’m confident my first view OF Comet ISON will be through that very telescope, sometime in mid October.

But did you notice I missed out something in that list of good points? No? Go back and look again…

That’s right, I didn’t mention the tripod.

That’s because, being honest, the tripod is the only weak part of the package.

refractor_telescope_-_celestron_travel_scope_70If you look at that image you can probably see for yourself that it’s very light and thin. It’s got legs like a baby giraffe. That means that when the telescope is mounted on it, it doesn’t provide a very stable viewing platform. Touch the telescope to move it and the tube jiggles and dances about, and even if you don’t touch the tube while looking through the scope at something, the tripod is so insubstantial that it transmits any vibrations from wind and passers by that the image through the eyepiece jerks about like crazy.  So although the tripod is well made, it’s not sturdy enough to let the telescope itself perform to its full potential.

So what I did – and what a lot of people do, I gather – is buy a different tripod for it, a photographic tripod. Which one? Well, any you buy from your local camera store will be better than the one it comes with, but really just get the sturdiest you can afford. Here’s the one I use…


I know Chi doesn’t look very impressed, but the tescope looks MUCH happier on there doesn’t she? Yes, mounted on a tripod like that the Travelscope is – pun alert – a star performer. If you bought one of those you WOULD enjoy lovely views of Comet ISON, I promise you. If ISON brightens and grows in apparent size as we’re all hoping it would, you would see, through a telescope like that, faint and subtle details in the tail, and would also be able to see more of the tail than binoculars would show you. I have no hesitation in recommending it to you if you’re absolutely set on buying a telescope to look at ISON through.

Ok, The Question – how much?

Well, just shop around for the best deal. These telescopes are available widely, and if you do a Google search for “Celestron+Travelscope” you will find numerous retailers. You can order them mail order, from the businesses which advertise in the astronomy magazines, and looking through the latest ARGOS catalogue here I can see one for £50! They’re available through Amazon too and, of course, directly from the manufacturers. But basically, just do a bit of digging and you will be able to find one without too much trouble.

So, that’s it. My personal, based-on-experience advice about the best way to look at Comet ISON. Take it or leave it, it’s up to you. Use the binoculars you already have, or buy a pair, and if you really MUST have a telescope, I’ve pointed you towards a good one. I hope you found something hereuseful. If you did, maybe you’ll let me know how you got on with looking at ISON later in the year. I’d like that. 🙂

8 Responses to “ISON – A Great Binocular Comet”

  1. Stu,

    I agree with everything you say here, except…

    “not just ANY pair of binoculars will do for observing Comet ISON”

    I would say that just about any (non-broken!) pair will help enormously over the naked eye. I used a tiny pocket pair of cheap 10×25’s the first time I spotted PANSTARRS as that is all I had to available. I never would have spotted it without them, but with it was easy.

    While all your advice is good for going out and buying a pair, people shouldn’t be put off taking whatever they have lying around out into the garden even if it’s not optimal.

    Saying that, I’m off to Amazon to buy some 10×50’s and another tripod…

  2. Very helpful! Should have read about the price at Argos BEFORE placing an order with ANO. Heigh Ho.

  3. I appreciate your “keep it simple approach” . I think that most people will find satisfaction with binoculars, but not if they are out of alignment (collimation). Sometimes it’s best to buy a modest new pair or get decent ones tuned up by an optical professional. It’s funny how many people I know have really unsatisfactory viewing with their “bumped binoculars” and don’t know how bad they really are. The Altitude-Azimuth type mount you suggest is just right for straightforward viewing and quick set-ups.

  4. Really enjoyed this, thanks for taking the time

  5. I have searched everywhere for clear simple advice on viewing the stars etc and this just blew me away…thank you. Can’t wait now to get started just in time for Ison! Diane

  6. Stu, some very good advice for the beginner. Accessibility to one’s telescope is always important. Setting up and collimation on a cold and dark night is off-putting to many and may act as a disincentive to impromptu telescopic observation.
    Patrick Moore always advised using 7 X 50 binoculars on account of their optimum 7mm exit pupil. Second hand 10 X 50 binoculars can be obtained cheaply on the likes of E-Bay and are ideal for any beginner learning their way around the sky.
    I have a pair of 20 X 80 Celestron binoculars and have found them to be ideal for deep-sky work. They are robust and are unlikely to go out of collimation. I normally use a heavy Manfroto tripod with them but resting them on a washing line is surprisingly effective.
    I should have a clear sky tomorrow morning and will look out for Comet ISON. Being a sun-grazer, it may not survive its close encounter with the Sun.

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