Shopping for a stargazer? Here’s your gift guide

Before buying a telescope for a loved one, do some research and talk with the gift receiver about what they want. (Getty Images.)

WASHINGTON — Ho, ho, ho, happy holidays!

Got a stargazer on your gift list and stuggling with what to get them? You’ve come to the right place.

Monthly magazine subscription

As a first step for someone new to astronomy, I recommend getting them a magazine subscription to either — or both — Astronomy or Sky and Telescope. An added bonus to the magazine itself: When the magazine arrives each month, it will be a reminder of you to that special stargazer. Both magazines also provides a digital version as part of the magazine subscription which comes in handy.

These magazines and their excellent websites are full of observing advice, astronomical equipment, pictures, book reviews, astronomy-related ads, news and monthly observing guides-star charts. I am a Sky and Telescope subscriber and have been my whole life. I have also done major feature articles for them and been a total solar eclipse cruise staff member.

Astronomical calendar

This is a nifty gift idea that provides your stargazer astronomical information on a daily basis accompanied by a beautiful and informative astronomical image. These can be used at work or at home. You can find these at Astronomy’s online store and Sky and Telescope’s store.

Books

There is a literary universe of astronomy and space-related books out there. You can browse Amazon and Barnes & Noble to find a title that fits your buying fancy. If you know what tweaks your stargazer’s interest, you can try to choose the book yourself. But I recommend a gift card they can use to buy one of their choice. You may want to browse these websites in advance to make sure the gift card has a sufficient value to cover the usually expensive books. This has been a tried and true present to me from family for decades.

Meteorite

For a truly out-of-this-world gift, you can buy an actual space rock. Or, more realistically, a piece of one from the asteroid belt, Moon and even Mars. I have been a meteorite (space rock) collector for many years and have 208 in my collection. Truth be told, your avid stargazer is probably frustrated at times with our cloudy weather. Nothing cures this frustration better than holding a piece of the solar system and contemplating where it came from and how it got to Earth.

You need to know your dealer in buying these 4.5 billion-year-old rocks. New England Meteoritical Services has what I consider to be the best and most reasonably priced presentation sets for purchase — which you can see when you scroll down their website. I have personally dealt with them and I highly recommend them.

Binoculars

If you have a budding stargazer who wants to see more than their eyes allow, quality binoculars are the ticket. A whole new view of the sky becomes possible, and as an added bonus they can be used in daylight for bird watching and sporting events.

A good pair of binoculars will show impressive detail on the moon, a few galaxies, star clusters and nebulae (you need to know where to look) and if you hold them steady enough, the four main moons of Jupiter. Star colors are richer in binoculars and very pretty to look at.

I recommend 7-by-50 binoculars. The “7” is the magnification, while the “50” is the size of each objective lens in millimeters. This is a good compromise between magnification, light gathering ability and field of view. Less magnification means less detail but a wider field of view, while more magnification reduces field of view while giving more detail. I would not go higher than 8 in magnification or lower than 50 in objective size for a beginner. There are large astro-binoculars out there, but they are for advanced users.

You can buy binoculars at sporting goods stores and all of the major chains like Costco, Wal-Mart and Amazon. A good online store that I have used for many years is Orion Telescopes. They have an excellent assortment, stand by their products and great customer service. They also have extensive descriptions and background information on types of binoculars and how to choose a pair.

Telescope

This is the penultimate, and most risky, gift idea on my list. There is nothing quite like getting that first telescope and experiencing “first light” — the first view of the sky through it. It is risky because telescopes are an investment in terms of money and longevity. There is nothing worse than buying a ‘scope that never gets used because it is too complicated, too heavy or of poor quality.

With the right purchase there is no reason why a quality telescope will not last a person’s entire lifetime, or at least a good portion of it. Many nights of enjoyment and discovery at the eyepiece of a good telescope are pure joy to your stargazer.

There are many telescopes out there and to pick just the right one for your stargazer is a real shot in the dark, so to speak, unless you have insider information. If your astronomer has spent time studying telescopes and has selected one, go for it. But, make sure there is a return policy that allows you to get your money back if things don’t work out.

My recommendation for first telescopes: Put together a gift package or card that says that you will bankroll the purchase of a new telescope (I recommend setting a price limit as they can cost thousands) after a selection process has determined the best telescope to buy.

If this is a family member or significant other, you can do this together. Astronomy, Sky and Telescope and Orion each have sections on choosing a telescope, and there are books on the subject as well. You can also look for a local astronomy club that’s hosting a “star party.” This gives you an opportunity to “test drive” different types of telescopes and look through them at a wide variety of astronomical objects. This will help immensely in the selection of a telescope.

I hope this has helped you on your out of this world holiday shopping. Drop me a Tweet if you have any questions.

Happy Holidays and clear skies.

Follow me on Twitter @SkyGuyinVA and my daily blog


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