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Gift ideas for stargazers

If you have someone on your gift list who loves the stars, WTOP's Sky Guy Greg Redfern has a list of gift ideas that are out of this world. (Thinkstock)

Welcome to the WTOP “What’s Up? The Space Place” Black Friday edition to get some great gift ideas for that stargazer of yours. If you search online, you will find specials and sales on astronomical items. Here are my tips to help you.

Say you have someone on your gift list who loves the stars. What to do? Internet shopping and quick shipping can get that star-minded someone, including (possibly) yourself, a holiday gift in plenty of time, with very little hassle.

Monthly magazine subscription

As a first step for someone new to astronomy, I recommend a magazine subscription to either (or both) Astronomy or Sky and Telescope (S&T). An added bonus is that the special stargazer will be reminded of you when the magazine arrives each month. Astronomy and S&T also provide a digital version as part of the magazine subscription, which comes in handy.

These monthly magazines and their respective excellent websites are chock full of observing advice, astronomical equipment, pictures, book reviews, astronomy-related ads, news and monthly observing guides/star charts. For full disclosure, I will admit I am an S&T subscriber and have been my whole life; I have also written major feature articles for them and have been a Total Solar Eclipse Cruise S&T staff member.

Astronomical calendar

This is a nifty gift idea that provides your stargazer astronomical information on a daily basis accompanied by beautiful and informative astronomical images. These calendars can be used at work or at home. You can find them at the online stores for Astronomy and Sky and Telescope.

Books

There is a literary universe of astronomy and space related books out there. You can browse Amazon and Barnes and Noble to find a title that fits your buying fancy. If you know what tweaks your stargazer’s interest, you can try and buy a book. But I recommend giving them a gift card that they can use to buy a book of their choice. You may want to browse these websites in advance to make sure the gift card has a sufficient value to cover these 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 or even Mars. I have been a meteorite (space rock) collector for many years. 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 when buying these amazing rocks that are 4.5 billion years old. 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 webpage. I have personally dealt with them, and I highly recommend them. There are dealers you can trust online that are members of the International Meteorite Collectors Association (IMCA). Beware buying in the blind!

Movies

A space-themed movie is a great stocking stuffer. The Star Trek movies (new and old), ’‘Gravity,” “Europa Report,” “Cosmos the Series” (original and new versions), “The Martian,” “Interstellar,” or any of the National Geographic, Science Channel, Discovery Channel, History Channel space-themed segments are excellent.

Binoculars

If you have a budding stargazer who wants to see more of the sky than what their eyes alone 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 the daytime 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 through binoculars and very pretty to look at.

I recommend 7×50 binoculars — the seven 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 eight 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 such as 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 offer 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. Gifting a telescope 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 — they collect dust from never being used.

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 can be pure joy to your stargazer. If this is a family member or significant other, you can do your telescope-observing together.

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 selecting a “final one” and letting you know it — 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” is this: Put together a gift package or card that says you will bankroll the purchase of a new telescope (I recommend setting a price limit, as telescopes can cost thousands of dollars) after a selection process has determined the best telescope to buy.

Here are some online sources you can look over to help you in your selection: Sky and TelescopeAstronomy, and Orion have sections on how to select a telescope. There are books on the subject as well.

Going to a local astronomy club and attending a star party provides 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. We have some great resources here in the DMV to do just this — refer to the Astronomical League list for your area.

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

Happy holidays and clear skies.

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