This Gift Guide for the Astronomy Lover provides some ideas for the backyard astronomer of all ages. For the young person whose curiosity and imagination is driving them to the stars, or the more seasoned amateur astronomer. Astronomy is a fantastic hobby, and with the quality of equipment available today, at some pretty reasonable prices, exploring the universe from your backyard has never been easier.
The Orion Nebula in the infrared photo by European Southern Observatory via Flickr using Creative Commons Licensing.
My first telescope, and the one that has given me the most fun observing the universe from my backyard as a kid, was a refractor, or refracting telescope. The light gathering power for a refracting telescope comes from the objective lens on the top of the tube. The larger the lens, the more light it gathers. When combined with a smaller lens, or eyepiece, the light can then be focused to the users eye providing a sharper and clearer visual.
I remember spending many cold nights outside with my brother and, sometimes, one of my sisters, hunting for planets, nebula, galaxies, star clusters, and whatever else Astronomy Magazine said was out there for that particular month. Winter was my favorite time of year to observe as the skies were clearer. I found the funny thing about backyard astronomy, was how everyone at home who had no interest in space or science, would wind up standing next to us waiting for a look at what we were observing. When I was growing up, the planet Saturn hooked most of my family, at one time or another, into spending more time at the telescope with us. Sure, they were not watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos with me on Sunday night, but at least we were able to give them a lesson on whatever object they had joined us in viewing.
Refractor Telescopes From Amazon
Reflector telescopes are said to provide a much clearer visual experience with a lot less aberrations than a refractor telescope. Most of the large telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, are reflectors. The light gathering power for a reflector telescope comes from a curved mirror in the bottom of the telescope tube. It reflects the light to a secondary mirror, which deflects it to an eyepiece to be focused for the users eye. In some of the larger telescopes, the secondary mirror is replaced with digital sensory equipment to record the object being viewed.
My experience with the reflector telescope is miniscule. I have nephews who received these as Christmas gifts, and was able to help them in learning how to use them. It took a bit, as you need to work with each telescope and learn what their tendencies are. As an example, there is some play in the mount on my refractor, and you need to compensate for it. Back to the reflectors, they were small scopes, no name brand, but we had some good views of the moon that evening in our two telescope backyard star party.
Reflector Telecopes From Amazon
The computerized telescopes have revolutionized backyard astronomy. These were around when I was kid, many more years ago than I care to admit to, doing my backyard observations, but the prices were way out of reach. Today, the technology has come so far along that they are very affordable now. Don’t get me wrong, the top of the line models are still quite pricey, but there are now models for pretty much any price range.
These are available for both refracting and reflecting telescopes, and work like this: after you align the telescope, this can vary a bit depending on the brand and model, tour the skies with the various methods provided through the handset. These also vary a bit, but most will give you options like a list of planets that are in the sky at the time, deep sky objects and star listings. At a push of a button, the telescope will locate the object of choice and will keep tracking the object for an easier viewing session. You can also sight the objects of choice yourself should you choose.
The tracking allows for clearer astro-photography, which leads to discoveries such as new comets, before the professional astronomers know they are there.
They operate under battery power for those trips to the countryside when escaping light pollution. Most come with adapters to power them with electric.
Computerized Telescopes From Amazon
Starry Night Enthusiast
Starry Night Enthusiast 6.0 Win/Mac
This is a really cool idea and looks to have the potential for a lot fun for the space enthusiast. A computer program that allows you do such things as follow the paths of the Voyager spacecraft as they journey to the outer planets as well as 23 other interplanetary space probes. 3D models of asteroids, comets and satellites that you can zoom in on. Time travel from 4713 BC to 9999 AD. Explore 700 million light years of space without limits. Plan observing sessions and much more…too much to list here.
Observing With Binoculars
Binoculars are a great way to observe the night sky with low power optics. There are a lot of interesting objects that are just out of visual range that the binoculars bring into view. Star clusters, nebulae, comets and moon craters all visible using a quality pair of binoculars.
Actually, the best time to observe the moon is while it is in it’s phases. The best detail is seen along the shadow line and changes from night to night.
The moon is a great low power object.
Books, Star Charts And More
The perfect gift idea for the astronomy buff in your life. Books that tell the position of objects of interest, magazine subscriptions that alert you to upcoming celestial events and the current positions of the planets are all necessary tools for the backyard astronomer. The star chart is always great to have on hand by the telescope.
Meade StarNavigator Telescope
Meade 20099 StarNavigator 102-Millimeter Refractor Telescope, AutoStar (Black)
This beautiful refracting telescope is one of the more affordable, high quality telescopes with a computer driven mount. The video below gives a thorough overview and review of the Meade StarNavigator telescope.
Some of the product features:
*102 millimeter (4 inch) diameter refracting lens
*Hand controller by AudioStar with Astronomer Inside technology
*Requires 8 AA batteries
SPECIAL NOTE: While the telescope below and advertised here are the same, the one in the video was a part of a special addition package that came with 5 lenses. The one pictured here comes with the standard two lenses.
Skywatching Gone Bad
In closing out this page, I’d like to share an amusing story, well, at least now I can laugh, that comes to mind from observation days past.
The house I grew up in sat on a 50’x100′ lot, with fencing along both sides and the rear of the property. The driveway ran along the side of the house to the backyard where it made a right turn into a two car garage. It was along the driveway that I would set up my telescope, moving it around to get the best observation angle, avoiding the garage, trees, house or what ever else may be impeding our view.
This particular night my brother and I had set up in the far corner of the driveway in the backyard. A car sat in the driveway along the side of the house, and our dog Kelly, a terrier mutt, was on patrol as we worked with the telescope. I don’t recall what we were viewing that night, but I do recall that I had located it and had quickly change positions with my brother so he could view it before it moved out of the field of view. Out of the corner of my eye, about 15-20 feet away from where we were set up, I noticed movement between the car and the fence. I didn’t pay it much attention, assuming it was Kelly walking about, until I saw Kelly running towards the car on the opposite side. She quickly made it around the back of the car and bit our unknown visitor in the rear. For her effort, Kelly was rewarded with skunk spray right in the snout. My brother and I tore off for the house, poor Kelly following in the rear, but stopped at the back door. It was many hours of tomato juice bathing for Kelly before she past the smell test.
It just goes to show you, sometimes the memories you have, are not the ones you were looking for.