Photo by Marcos Sicilia
The holiday shopping frenzy has arrived. If you have a budding astronomer on your list, rethink jumping right in with a telescope purchase. The (mostly) affordable telescopes found in chain department stores tend to be low-quality instruments advertising impossibly good views. These kinds of scopes are sure to set up someone for disappointment.
There are some lower-cost telescopes that can be bought online through big name manufacturers such as Meade and Orion that provide decent views. One of the most important features for a starter scope is a sturdy mount to keep the view in the eyepiece from jumping around. But even with a nice starter scope, if the gift recipient isn’t familiar with the sky, they will spend a lot of time staring at nothing while learning to star hop.
Some of the best gifts for anyone just starting out in the hobby of astronomy are a planisphere (star chart), an observing guide, and a pair of binoculars. Any standard planisphere will do, and they can be found at bookstores and nature stores around the country. As for books, from Bob Berman’s The Secrets of the Night Sky: The Most Amazing Things in the Universe You Can See with the Naked Eye to Philip S. Harrington’s Touring the Universe through Binoculars: A Complete Astronomer’s Guidebook, there are countless sources available to help beginners learn the night sky with or without binoculars. While you can spend just as much on a nice pair of binoculars as you can on a telescope, getting guidance from a retailer at a store that sells outdoor gear will help you keep the price in check. And if any budding astronomers decide that the hobby is not for them, then they still have a nice pair of binoculars for land viewing.
But one of the best gifts you can give an aspiring amateur astronomer costs nothing at all. Take them out into the dark countryside, learn the constellations and stars with them, and share their enthusiasm for the universe.
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Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy