night sky over water

Stargazing at the cottage

Muskoka is an amateur astronomers’ delight. To make the most of it, try stargazing with binoculars

By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon

Stargazing is one of the great delights of spending time at the Muskoka cottage. In fact, it’s so good that an area just west of Lake Muskoka is Canada’s first dedicated Dark Sky Reserve.

But you don’t need to go to the Torrance Barrens to enjoy great stargazing. With very little light pollution in much of Muskoka, you can often get an amazing view of planets, stars and even galaxies right from your cottage.

Whether you’re viewing the stars from the Barrens or from your dock, to really take advantage of our view it’s helpful to have some added magnification.

Many people who want to take their stargazing to the next level invest in a telescope. But that can be a mistake. A telescope gives you an extremely good look at a small section of sky. For budding astronomers of all ages, though, it’s often more interesting — and easier — to navigate around the sky with a pair of binoculars.

Binoculars may offer less magnification, but they let you see a larger section of the sky at once, which is perfect for your first forays into stargazing.

The best stargazing binoculars

You don’t necessarily need to purchase expensive binoculars: you probably already have a pair lying around the cottage or in the boathouse that are ideal for stargazing.

The main factors to consider are:

  • Weight
  • Magnification power
  • Lens diameter

Binoculars are typically described using two numbers:  8×42, 10×50 and so on. The first number is the magnification power, and the second is the lens diameter in millimetres. So 8×42 binoculars have 42 mm lenses and allow you to see things 8 times bigger than they appear to the naked eye.

The larger the lens, the more light it picks up. Perfect for stargazing, right? But of course, there are tradeoffs.

Bigger binoculars are usually heavier so they’re harder to hold steady without a tripod, particularly when you’re looking up. And if the magnification is too high, you may find it harder to identify exactly what you’re looking at since the field of view is too small.

This article will give you a lot more information on choosing binoculars, but in general something like a 7×50 binocular will be a great choice for stargazing.

Start with the moon

While moonless nights are the best time to see stars, the moon itself is an amazing sight through binoculars.

The moon shines because it is reflecting sunshine back at us. The sun is always striking the same side of the moon, but that side isn’t always facing us. A full moon is our view of the entire sunny face of the moon. Over the course of a 28-day cycle, that sunny face gradually turns away from us and then turns back toward us again.  (Note that this is not the same thing as the earths’ shadow passing over the moon – that’s an eclipse, and is a different thing entirely). This illustration from NASA helps explain the difference.

Most moon observers say that the moon looks its most interesting as it transitions from a new moon, when it is completely obscured by the earth’s shadow, toward being full. This is when you get the best view of the giant craters — called Mare or Seas. At certain times of day, the ridges of these craters cast long shadows on the moon, which you can pick out with good binoculars.

Wandering planets

The moon isn’t the only part of our solar system that’s visible from earth, of course. One of the first things beginning stargazers learn to do is to pick out the planets.

Unlike stars, which stay fixed relative to each other, the plants move against a starry background. Fortunately, there are some great sites that will tell you exactly where to find the planets in the night sky. Check out this one, or this one to get started.

You’re most likely to be able to see our nearest neighbours (Mars and Venus) as well as the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn.

And with good binoculars and a steady hand, you can often see four tiny blips of light right beside Jupiter. These are some of the planet’s moons, and if you view them several nights in a row you can see their position change relative to each other, as they orbit their parent planet.

Beyond the solar system

Armed with a good planisphere (a star map) or an app, you can  start to navigate the entire night sky. With the naked eye on a clear night, you can see three or four thousand 3,000; with even a pair of 7×32 binoculars you can see around 100,000 stars from the cottage in Muskoka!

The closest of these, Proxima Centauri, is a little over four light years away, meaning that light from the star takes four years to reach us. That’s about 40 trillion kilometres. By comparison, the light from our own sun takes about eight minutes to reach us.

But our nearest neighbour is just around the corner compared to the rest of the galaxy. Look at the brightest part of the Milky Way and you’re looking toward the heart of our galaxy, about 26,000 light years away.

Not only does stargazing with binoculars let you spot many more stars, it can also help you pick out details about star-like objects. Look at the constellation Orion, for example, and you’ll see that the sword that hangs from his belt includes a rather fuzzy patch of light. This is the Orion Nebula, a gassy cloud where several stars are being born. It will be 20,000 years or more before the stars within that nebula are visible to future humans.

In fall and winter, you can even view beyond the galaxy. The constellation Andromeda is high in the sky in winter. Near the centre of it is a bright patch of light: the Andromeda Galaxy. It’s an entire galaxy of around a trillion stars located 2.5 million light years away.

Andrew Wagner-Chazalon is a longtime Muskoka resident, and the editor of Dockside magazine. When he’s not writing, he can often be found outside, marveling at the beauties of nature.

For more great cottage fun, check out these articles:

Posted in Connecting with Nature.