Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Think before buying that telescope for a holiday present

Edmund Scientific Astroscan Telescope
Image Credit: Edmund Scientifics

Lots of people say they want a telescope for Christmas. But don't just plunk down $19+tax at your favorite discount store; you'll be throwing your money away. First, ask a few questions:

  • Why does the recipient want the telescope? Did the person just happen to see a pretty picture of Saturn on the side of the box and say, "I want that!", or are they really interested in space and astronomy? If you don't think they are willing to go outside for an hour on a cold winter's night to use the telescope, then it's most likely going to sit in a closet and gather dust.
  • Does the recipient know how to use the telescope? Telescopes come with few, if any, useful instructions. And it can be amazingly hard to just point the telescope in the right direction and find something cool to look at. Before investing money in a tool that you and your special someone don't know how to use, do some research. Read about amateur astronomy and telescopes online. Go visit a few star parties with a nearby amateur astronomy club. Talk to other amateur astronomers. Only once you have a good feel for what a telescope is and how to use it do you have a decent shot at buying the right telescope.

    Also, in order to find anything other than the moon and perhaps a planet or two, the recipient will need to be able to identify constellations (and more than just the Big Dipper!) If they can't point out Orion and Taurus to you in the night sky, then they won't be able to look at cool things like the Orion Nebula.

  • Is this more than a passing fad? If your loved one just read an interesting article about astronomy yesterday, and you buy them a telescope, and then next week they decide they are more interested in NASCAR, then you've wasted a fair amount of money. If, on the other hand, the person has been reading books and magazines, surfs the web for astronomy, goes to planetariums, and has gone to multiple star parties, then they are clearly quite serious about astronomy as a hobby. In this case, a telescope is likely to be used, and used regularly.
  • What about something else, like binoculars or a magazine subscription? If you still insist on buying something nice that can be used to look at the heavens, I'd strongly consider buying binoculars. I started out with a pair of binoculars -- in fact, I was a winner in a contest to be one of the first kids to spot Halley's Comet with a pair of binoculars back in the mid-1980s. Binoculars allow you to see the Moon, many nebula, star clusters, a few galaxies, even the moons of Jupiter. But they can also be used for other things, like bird watching, or hunting, or spying on the neighbors (just kidding about that one!). In other words, there's a much better chance that your binoculars will get used. If you also buy a nice sturdy tripod for the binoculars, that is all the better,

    Since a good pair of binoculars is still expensive, consider a magazine subscription. Astronomy and Sky and Telescope are both good magazines that talk about astronomy news and what is worth looking at in the sky. Neither of these are appropriate for young kids, though.

    Books are also great. There are lots of books with tons of pretty pictures from Hubble or other telescopes. If you want to encourage star gazing (maybe to see if they really want that telescope for next year), you want more than pretty pictures. As a budding astronomer, I learned a lot from "365 Starry Nights" by Chet Raymo. I've been told that "Turn Left at Orion" by Guy Consolmagno and Dan M. Davis is also very good at teaching where things are in the sky -- it would make a great companion to the binoculars.

  • Finally, remember that you get what you pay for. A good telescope isn't cheap. In order to have nice-quality images, the telescope needs to be made out of precision parts. We're not necessarily talking thousands of dollars, but anything cheaper than $100 or even $200 is probably just throwing money away.

If, after all of this, you still want to buy a telescope for a gift, but you aren't sure what to get, then I'll make a suggestion. I would suggest Edmund Scientific's Astroscan (pictured above). Yes, it looks a little funny. But it's a great little telescope. It's portable. It's easy to use. It gives some of the best views of star clusters and galaxies I've seen in a small telescope. And I've seen them sold online for the purchase price -- they keep their value. They're available for $200 online. For a beginner, I don't think there's a better buy. (BTW, I don't get paid to advertise for the Astroscans. I just like to use them. I bought one for my daughter several years ago. She never got that interested, so I use it myself all the time. I just got the basic package.)

Finally, please don't buy a star for a present. There's nothing "official" about that racket, it's expensive, and often the materials that come in the package are just plain wrong. Spend the money on a book instead, and take your loved one outside and let them choose their own star. There's no cost, and you'll always know where to find it.

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