Holiday gift giving 2012

Ken Tapping, December 12, 2012

In the sky this week…

  • Jupiter rises around 4pm.
  • Saturn rises at 4 am and Venus at 6 am
  • The Moon will be New on the 13th.

Anyone searching for presents for the family astronomer will have noticed that the range of choices is wider and more amazing than ever. The gadgets and software now available are things that not long ago would have been accessible only to professional astronomers. However, this can be a curse as well as a blessing. If you are not one of those “unpaid professionals” at the cutting edge of modern amateur astronomy, or shopping for a present for one who isn’t, then picking good presents can be a challenge.  That’s when you really need to fall back on the rule that gets quoted in these articles at least once a year. If you are not an expert, then deal with an expert.  If you have a local science store, then go there. Discuss your particular needs and get a one-on-one solution. If you do not have a science store accessibly close to you, then find the local amateur astronomical society and contact them. There are Centres of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada across the country. There are lots of amateurs in the RASC, who can give good advice. Just do a web search for Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and find your local Centre and contact information.

In general, if you are getting a beginner astronomer launched, the best astronomical tool to start with is a good pair of binoculars. These are ideal for exploring the Milky Way, looking at star clusters, comets, the Moon and many other things. They are also easy to use and take only moments to set up.  These devices are described in terms of a pair of numbers separated by an “x”, which is pronounced “times”, as in 8x40, which is pronounced “eight times forty”. These particular binoculars have a magnification of eight times and objective lenses (the big lenses at the front of the binoculars) 40 mm in diameter.  These collect the light and form the image, which is then magnified by the eyepiece lenses, at the end you look into.  Obviously, for looking at faint, cosmic objects, you want as much light as possible. However, the bigger the objectives, the heavier the binoculars tend to be. Therefore, for a small person 40mm objectives are a good idea, otherwise aim at 50mm objectives.

You might be tempted to go for high magnification, but remember that this makes the consequences of any shaking of your hands worse too. Therefore “7x50” and “10x50” binoculars are good choices for most adults. Otherwise, consider “7x40” or “10x40”.

How about a planisphere? Get a nice plastic one, not cardboard. Get one for your latitude. Put the time adjacent to the date and the window shows the constellations you will see in the sky. You can get software and Smartphone apps to do this, but planispheres need no batteries and better survive being dropped in mud or snow, and trodden on.

A star atlas is a necessity, and there is some good software out there and books for beginners. 

Choosing the right telescope is not a trivial issue. Visit a science store. Otherwise contact your local amateur astronomers. In this case you really need a face-to-face discussion with experts. The pleasure from the right choice justifies the effort.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council's Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton, BC, V2A 6J9.

Telephone: 250-497-2300
Fax: 250-497-2355

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