It's that festive time of year! It is this time of year when the typical American calls on the long-repressed shark genes in our DNA, genes necessary for instinctive movements while slowly circling parking lots looking for spaces, for sniffing out the slightest whiff of a run on the toy your child MUST have, and for being able to dart into the toy-buying frenzy and emerge with a tasty morsel of "Surfing Barbie Limited Edition 2006."
Are you thinking of buying that ever-popular astronomy related present this year? No, I'm not talking about Tickle-Me Elmo Apollo 13 Edition ("Houston, we have a problem. Tee-hee!"). I'm talking about a telescope. Maybe your child has seen the boxes in the department store that say "1000x magnification!!!" and show a Hubble Telescope picture of Saturn. Or maybe your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/etc. has always been interested in astronomy and you want to surprise her or him. Or maybe you just want one for yourself. What should you do?
First and Foremost: Do not go into a store and buy the telescope advertising the highest magnification!!! Believe it or not, magnification over about 200x is perfectly worthless, the blurring caused by Earth's atmosphere becomes visible at that point, No matter how much higher you magnify, all you will get is larger blurry spots! Plus, many inexpensive small telescopes have poorly-made lenses, and the blurring from the poor construction can be seen at much lower magnifications. And many astronomical objects, like comets, galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae, are surprisingly large, so you don't need magnification. They need light gathering power, which depends on the size of the telescope's opening (like 60 or 90 mm) and not on magnification.
Ask yourself: Is this the first telescope for the gift recipient? If so, consider getting something like high-quality binoculars with a sturdy tripod. Binoculars can be used for many things outside of astronomy. Maybe your child will lose interest in the stars, but she may develop an interest in birdwatching. Telescopes flip the image, so daytime viewing is not very useful (unless you are looking for dead birds hanging from their perches). Binoculars are also perfect for looking at nearby galaxies and bright star clusters. As a kid, I often used my dad's binoculars to look at the Andromeda Galaxy and the Orion Nebula, and I won an award for being one of the first 10 readers of "Odyssey" magazine (an astronomy magazine for kids) to spot Halley's Comet with binoculars.
If you still want a telescope: If you are pretty sure that the person getting the telescope will be an avid user, don't go cheap, but don't go all out! Most of the telescopes at big stores are cheap, poorly built, and will be disappointing. Why waste your money on that? On the other hand, many camera shops have 8-inch or 10-inch telescopes that look impressive and have lots of cool features like "Go-To" pointing and computerized controls. These can be very high quality telescopes, but do you want to spend over $1000 on a first telescope? I personally would think twice. So, shoot for mid-range. Many telescope manufacturers (including, but not limited to Meade, Celestron, Orion, and Edmund Scientific) have some nice quality, relatively inexpensive telescopes. Look them up on the web!
What kind should you buy? When you look up telescopes on the web, you will see lots of descriptions that may not make sense to you (unless you are an avid amateur astronomer, in which case you probably stopped reading several paragraphs ago). Words like: refractor, reflector, Newtonian, Dobsonian, Cassegrain, and so on. For a first telescope, I wouldn't worry too much about most of these descriptions. As your loved one gets deeper into astronomy, she will learn what these mean and be able to buy the next telescope for herself. For starter telescopes, I would urge you to consider one of the following: a 60-mm to 90-mm refractor , or a 4-inch to 6-inch reflector. Most of these will come with a couple of eyepieces, so don't buy more of those right off the bat. Edmund Scientific's Astroscan and Orion's StarBlast are often considered very good, rugged first telescopes (I don't get paid for saying that, by the way). And if the telescope comes with a "solar filter" that screws into the eyepiece, THROW IT AWAY, for safety's sake!
Still not sure? Still confused? Then don't buy the telescope. I don't want to discourage anyone from enjoying astronomy, but a bad telescope can be worse than none at all. Instead, get your loved one a subscription to an astronomy magazine, like Astronomy, Sky and Telescope, or Night Sky. Or, buy a good book with lots of pretty pictures. Find a local astronomy club and take your loved one for a visit (which is a good place to learn about telescopes, too!).