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February 26, 2024

Backyard Astronomy: Holiday Gift Guide (2003-12-06)

By Cheryl Haimann

As the winter holidays draw near, the new backyard astronomer's thoughts to compiling a really great wish list. If you or an astronomer you love don't already have one, you may even be thinking about buying a telescope. After all, they have tons of them down at X-Mart, nicely boxed and ready to go, and not very expensive, either. The Armchair Shopping Network has them, too, and look at all the accessories you get.

Stop right there! Just as a knock-off Rolodex is not nearly as sound mechanically as a real Rolodex, a cheap telescope only looks like it will enhance your astronomy experience. The optical components are not of good quality, the tripod is not sturdy enough to withstand a breezy night of observing, and the Hubble telescope photographs on the box are misleading, to say the very least. Save your money, and save yourself the disappointment, and leave those bad boys on the shelf.

Luckily, there are plenty of other gift ideas that will enhance your new interest in the stars. Here are a few that are really worth the money you spend on them. (All prices are in US dollars.)

Binoculars: If you just can't stand not having something to magnify your view of the cosmos, consider binoculars. Good quality binoculars in the $100 to $200 range will allow you to get closer to the moon, most planets, and dozens of nebulas, star clusters, and other deep sky objects, not to mention Earth's flora, fauna, and peculiar neighbors. Many telescope and camera companies make binoculars in this price range.

Binoculars are marked with sizes like 7x50 or 12x60. The first number refers to the amount of magnification. 8x50 binoculars would magnify objects 8 times. The second number is the diameter in millimeters of the larger lens. The 8x50s have a 50 millimeter lens. For multipurpose handheld binoculars, 7x50 through 12x50 are a good choice.

Tripod and adapter: Quality binoculars are threaded so that they can be attached to a standard camera tripod. Commercial adapters, often sold under telescope or camera brands, cost $10 to $30. A handy person who did well in metal shop can probably look at some catalog pictures and make an adapter out of scraps lying around the garage.

Camera tripods are available in many places and at many price ranges. If you have an old tripod from your elderly Pentax K1000, that will work, too. Just make sure you have an adapter if you want to use it for binoculars.

Magazines: A subscription to an astronomy magazine will give you year-round access to news, features, and telescope reviews. Each issue also has a star chart for the current month and an observing guide.

To subscribe to the top magazines in the US, Sky and Telescope, or Astronomy, go to the library or a large bookstore that stocks them, and shake one until the subscription card falls out. Or, you can order subscriptions online. Annual subscriptions cost approximately $40.

Sky and Telescope: http://skyandtelescope.com/
Astronomy: http://www.astronomy.com

Annual Magazines: Both US astronomy magazines publish annual guides in the autumn. These magazines, Explore the Universe (by Astronomy) and Skywatch '04 (by Sky and Telescope), have monthly sky charts and observing highlights, plus articles geared toward the beginning astronomer. These magazines will give you a good overview of what to look for when buying a telescope.

The annual magazines cost $5.99 to $6.95, and are also available in bookstores or at the web sites listed above.

Join a club: You don't need a telescope to enjoy the educational programs at a local astronomy club. In fact, clubs can be a great place to learn about different types of telescopes from the people who have used them. Many clubs have private or semi-private dark sky sites, some with observatories. Bonus: some clubs also qualify for discounted subscriptions to Astronomy and Sky and Telescope magazines.

Many local clubs are affiliated with The Astronomical League, which publishes a list of its affiliates at http://www.astroleague.org/al/general/society.html . If there is not a member society in your area, you may still join the Astronomical League as a member at large.

The Astronomical League also sponsors observing clubs, where participants observe a specific set of objects, such as all of the Messier objects. Several of these lists can partially or fully observed with the naked eye or standard-size binoculars.

Books: There are many astronomy books, from the simplistic (and sometimes erroneous) to the arcane. Here are a few that especially helpful to a beginning astronomer.

Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe (Terence Dickinson, Firefly Books, 1998, $29.95) This is a beautiful book with a protected spiral binding for easy use in the field. It covers everything from naked eye observing to shopping for telescopes to astrophotography. The pronunciation guide alone is worth the price, especially when you need to talk about Zubenelgenubi or Ophiuchus. The sky charts do not show every constellation, though. While this should not be a problem for city viewers, those with dark sites will want to supplement this book with a more thorough field guide.

365 Starry Nights: An Introduction to Astronomy for Every Night of the Year (Chet Raymo, Fireside, 1982, $16.00) Raymo also illustrated this book, which breaks down the science, lore, and beauty of the night sky into easy bite-sized chunks. With not a single photograph, it reminds us that you don't need the Hubble Telescope or a fancy camera to be able to record sky images.

The Stars: A New Way to See Them (H. A. Rey, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1952, $11.95) Yes, that H. A. Rey, the same one who brought us Curious George, also wrote and illustrated an astronomy book for beginners. Rey took a radical step by re-drawing the constellations so they looked like the things they are supposed to look like. He also used English names whenever possible - Swan instead of Cygnus, for example. Fifty years on, the book is still much loved and respected, even by advanced astronomers.

Article © Cheryl Haimann. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-12-06
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