A question this week comes from someone who is lucky enough to be going to see a space shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral and would like to know what would be the best binoculars to take with:
Fantatsic website, very informative but I’m quite new to binoculars and I’m after some for a very specific reason – the launch of a Space Shuttle. I guess what I’m looking for needs to be small, light and sturdy. Hope you can help
As I write this article, the Space shuttle Endeavour is due to blast off today to deliver parts, including a ‘window’ that will give astronauts a 360-degree view to the International Space Station. I unfortunately have never been to a rocket or shuttle launch and so the advice I below in not from first hand experience, but instead from research and by the basic principals of would it is you need the binoculars to do.
Obviously the main reason you need binoculars to view the launch is to see something far away (and getting further away all the time) . This is true for why you would want binoculars for any use, but with a shuttle launch I do feel that a reasonably large magnification would be useful, although from what I have read, if you are going to the viewing area, the launch is quite impressive even without binoculars.
This is not to say that the biggest magnification means the best binoculars, there are some down sides to large magnification. The main ones are reduced field of view, reduced depth of view and image shake.
I think that a limited field of view does not really apply to a shuttle launch as you should easily be able to lock onto your target and keep it in your view quite easily. Image shake could be a problem as most really powerful binoculars like astronomical binoculars, would be used with the aid of a tripod, to keep the image still. In your question you mentioned that you guess what you need are binoculars that are small and light, by this I imagine that you would not want to carry around a tripod as well!
So at this point, I would say that you should be looking for a pair of binoculars with a magnification of no more than 12x or if you have the budget an pair of Image Stabilization Binoculars, like the fantastic range of Canon Stabilized Binoculars that use a microprocessor to instantly adjust refraction angle of the incoming light and keep the image still. The advantage of these is that they are sill relatively small and light and you can get magnifications of up to 18x and still not have to use a tripod. On the down side, the largest version, the Canon 18x50 Image Stabilization binoculars has a fairly hefty price tag.
Time of launch
Today’s launch (STS-130) is said to be the very last opportunity ever to see a space shuttle blast off at night and out of the 129 previous shuttle launches, only 29 have occurred in complete darkness as well as seven Shuttle launches that occurred during twilight, four at dawn and three at dusk.
So for the purpose of this question, I will assume that most shuttle launches will occur during good weather and during the daylight or at least shortly after sunrise or before sunset. Why is this important? Well an important characteristic of any binocular is the amount of light it takes in and then passes this onto your eyes. This is made even more important when you will be using your binoculars when light conditions are poor or even more important at night time. The major factors that determine how much light is transferred to your eyes is the quality of the lenses, prisms, their coatings and the size of the objective lenses, which is why you will find most Binoculars for Astronomy have very large objective lenses. But I don,t think that this is that important for the shuttle launch and to keep the weight and size down, the smaller the objective lens the better.
Other than that, features like being waterproof and tough do not really apply but may be of interest should you wish to start using your binoculars for other purposes.
So what are the Best Binoculars for Space Shuttle Launches?
As you did not mention a budget, I will list a few options of binoculars that I have reviewed based on what I think are ideal in different price ranges and categories:
Steiner 12x30 Wildlife Pro Binoculars
Pros: Excellent quality, Compact, Lightweight with a powerful 12x magnification and with a price range of between $300 and $400, I feel that they are good value for money.
Cons: Have a small field of view, not that important for the launch, but may be a consideration for future uses.
Canon 12x36 IS II Image Stabilized Binoculars
Pros: Excellent quality, Image stabilisation that will improve the steadiness of your viewing, reasonable field of view compared to the Steiner 12x30’s. Can also get larger magnifications should you wish: Read more on Canon Stabilized Binoculars.
Cons: Requires batteries, heavier and bulkier than the Steiner 12x30’s and cost more at around $500 to $600.
Bushnell 10x42 NatureView Binoculars
Pros: At about $120 – £150 these are excellent value for money all purpose binoculars.
Cons: Reduced 10x magnification, but should be adequate.
Nikon 10x25 Ecobins Binoculars
Pros: Very Compact and light, decent 10x magnification and cheap (under $100)
Cons: Not the best quality, small field of view compared to most other 10x binoculars
Kowa 10.5x44 Genesis XD Binoculars
Pros: Highest quality binoculars, slightly increased 10.5x magnification and objective lens size of 44mm than standard 10x42 binoculars
Cons: Not cheap and a little more bulky that standard 10x42 binoculars.
Photo Credit: Shuttle Endeavour Blastoff by jurvetson