Santa the Stargazer has some recommendations for that special person on your list who seems to always be looking up.
To recommend a telescope is hard, as there are so many at different levels of expertise, but remember, you get what you pay for. But there are many of the “go-to” variety around the $1,000 price point that are computerized and will go to thousands of celestial objects on command.
For that youngster who shows an interest in the starry realm, there are a variety of telescopes for around the $100 price point that can be an inexpensive introductory to stargazing equipment. The “big box” stores have low price telescopes, but these are built cheaply with lots of plastic and low quality optics that are good on the Moon and planets and only the brightest of deep sky nebula and galaxies.
Some of the best cyber retailers to check are Orion, Meade and Celestron. Any google search will yield a bonanza of places to visit. And many of the sites have tutorials and explanations of the types of telescopes to fit your needs.
Don’t forget about a good pair of binoculars, available at sporting goods stores and astronomy manufacturers. There are dozens of easy to find galaxies and star clusters with binoculars, and nothing is better to see the star clouds of the Milky Way. Even sports binoculars are fine for stargazing, like 7x35s. The first number is the magnification power of the binoculars, and the second number is the diameter in millimeters of the lenses at the end. So, a good astronomy pair of binoculars are something like 10×50 (10 power with a big 50 mm wide lens). Buy an inexpensive binocular mount that attaches to the front of the instrument and affixes to any tripod to keep a steady view. Binoculars and a good telescope are a life-time investment that will be used for decades.
A definite winner on your list is one of the monthly magazines about the hobby—Sky & Telescope or Astronomy. You can find Astronomy at WalMart, and both can be found at a good book store. The current monthly issue included with another starry gift (or a yearly subscription) will whet the appetite of any stargazer. Your guide to what’s up in the night sky, a monthly magazine is the perfect gift to see just how interested someone is in astronomy. And it is a great resource to weave your way through all the nuances of stargazing. And each magazine has their own publishing house and astronomy product line that is full of practical and educational spacey things. From star charts to Mars globes to posters, there are plenty gift items to choose.
Books, books, books. I am a book nut, and have quite an extensive library of astronomy and space exploration volumes. There are lots of books on amateur astronomy at any of the national bookstore chains. And those bookstores usually have a simple, inexpensive star wheel that will show you the night sky for any time of the year. Here are a few of my favorite beginner stargazing books that are available through on-line sellers:
365 Starry Nights by Chet Ramo A night-by-night look at what’s up, written with lots of historical anecdotes. Richly illustrated to explain the practical side of stargazing, it uniquely takes each day of the year and highlights what’s up in the starry sky. And it can be picked up cheap on the Internet.
New Atlas of the Moon by Thierry Legault and Serge Brunier. An oversized photo album that take the Moon day-by-day and identifies features with plastic overlays. With binoculars or a telescope you can identify craters, ancient lava flows and breathtaking mountains and their shadows.
The Monthly Sky Guide by Wil Tirion and Ian Ridpath; and Guide to the Night Sky by David Levy. These are more detailed tomes about the constellations of the night and the wonders they contain. Any of the many books by these three astronomy authors are great to own.
Riding Rockets by Mike Mulane. Though not about stargazing, this book is all about what it was like to ride the Space Shuttle by an astronaut who did so four times. Written with humor and a refreshing frankness that is absent from most astronaut tell-all books, many space lovers find this book to be the best—myself included.
Does your stargazer already have the equipment and know-how books of the hobby? Well, there are many practical gifts. Consider a gift like warm weather clothing, from gloves to warm snowsuits, for your stargazer. A wool hat is nice, and there are all kinds of hand and feet warmers that would make nice stocking stuffers.
Also a good gift for that amateur astronomer on your Christmas list is any flashlight that emits red light! That’s a sure hit gift for any stargazer as red light doesn’t affect night vision as the eyes dilate to adjust to faint light. A skywatcher has to look at charts, handle eyepieces (and find his hot chocolate!), so a red filter on a flashlight, or some unique light that goes on a hat or affixes to a telescope leg will be a great gift.
And finally, how about a gift idea for somebody on a low budget? Consider giving a framed 8×10 photo of one of those amazing images from the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. The American taxpayer actually owns all the images of any space probe launched to the Moon, Mars, or anywhere else NASA has been. Go to www.hubblesite.org/gallery and you’ll see a tab for the “astronomy printshop.” Just follow the instructions and you can own a museum quality image from the Hubble Telescope. Download the largest possible file to a CD if you want to take it to a photo lab—or print it out yourself. Slap the image in a frame, and grab the Christmas wrapping paper! The Hubble website even has wall-sized murals of three astronomy objects that can be downloaded in sections and taken to a local printer to reproduce.
There you are…some astronomy ideas for Santa’s helpers. And as for my own Christmas wish list—anything with a star or moon on it is just fine with me!