Christmas comes at just the right time for amateur astronomers. Darkness comes early, the trees are leaf free, and the night skies are not roiled by the heat and humidity of summer. It’s great time for astronomers to get out and observe. But, for Christmas shoppers, the arcane and technical hobby of astronomy can pose a gift buying challenge. What can you get for the amateur astronomer on your list? Fortunately, the astronomy hobby is filled with gadgets and gizmos in all price ranges.
Before you start, you should gather a little intelligence about what your astronomer needs. What kind of telescope does your astronomer have? What kind of objects do they like to observe? Where do they observe? How long do they stay out? What kind of eyepieces do they use? Do they use any filters? Have they ever tried solar observing with the proper equipment? Do they have a “grab-n-go” scope? What do they haul their stuff around in? Have they tried taking pictures? You also have to know what your own price range is in selecting a gift.
The most obvious telescope accessory to consider is the eyepiece. Most telescopes come with only two eyepieces. So, the beginning astronomer will certainly need more. Find out what focal lengths they have, what focal lengths and what eyepiece diameters they need. For someone starting out with an entry-level telescope, you may be able to upgrade them by providing one or more Plossl eyepieces. Orion telescopes provides Plossl eyepieces as single eyepieces, power pairs (two higher power eyepieces), expansion sets (usually a pair of eyepieces in focal lengths that don’t come standard with most telescopes), and complete eyepiece sets (a full line of eyepieces priced at a discount). There are several levels of quality in the eyepiece market so you can also buy eyepieces that will offer a step up in quality. In the Orion product line, you can step up from entry level Explorer II Kellner eyepieces, to Sirius Plossl eyepieces, and then up to HighLight Plossls.
More advanced observers may want special purpose eyepieces to help in their more focused pursuits. Planetary and lunar observers could probably benefit from orthoscopic eyepieces. This design was created to provide a narrower field of view, but much sharper images. University Optics is well known by hobbyists for providing quality orthoscopic eyepieces, For deep space aficionados, a variety of wide-field eyepieces are available. In the Orion product line entry level Expanse eyepieces start at just over $50 and Stratus eyepieces offer fully multi-coated optics at around $130. The Stratus eyepieces are also designed to fit in both 1.25-inch and 2-inch focusers. Finally, premium brand Televue eyepieces provide superior wide-field performance at far loftier prices.
If the astronomer in your life doesn’t need new eyepieces, he or she may need new eyepiece filters. If your astronomer is observing from a light polluted location, a light pollution reduction filter could fit the bill. These filter out the light wavelengths typically emitted by streetlights while admitting the wavelengths transmitted by deep space objects. For planetary observing, astronomers like to use blue, yellow, green, and red colored filters in order to bring out patterns on the planet surface and in planet clouds. Due to Mars close approach in late 2007 and early 2008, some companies are even selling Mars filters. For stargazers using typical achromatic refractors, an anti-fringing filter like the Orion V-Block can reduce distracting “color halos” from bright objects like Jupiter or Venus.
Another popular gift for refractor owners involves swapping out the telescope diagonal. A number of companies sell highly reflective dielectrically-coated enhanced diagonals. The fine mirrors in enhanced diagonals transmit more of the light captured by the telescope towards the observers eye. Enhanced diagonals are available in a range from $60 to $120.
If all of this seems like to much to carry, amateur astronomers love sturdy padded cases for their telescopes and eyepieces. Eyepiece cases are designed with internal foam padding with precut holes for eyepieces. Since even a modest eyepiece collection is both expensive and fragile, a case is a great investment. A variety of cases and padded carrying bags are also available to fit different telescope sizes. Astronomers who travel far into the country-side will appreciate a good case to spare their telescopes from dents, dings, and scratches during travel. Hard cases for various telescopes help protect them during longer journeys, shipping, and air travel. Eyepiece cases are available starting at around $25, padded telescope bags start at about $50, and hard cases may be $100 or more.
If you are determined to give a telescope for Christmas, be sure to research carefully with reputable vendors. Many serious amateur astronomers like to have a small, grab-n-go, high quality telescope for quick observing sessions and other adventures like bird watching. These telescopes are often called short tube models due to their size or wide-field scopes due to the wide field of view offered by a shorter telescope. At the entry-level, the Orion Short Tube 80 is a contender in this category. However, the truly prized telescopes are made by companies like Astro-Tech, Williams Optics, Stellarvue, and Televue.
If this list proves too confusing, there is an easy alternative. Reputable astronomy equipment vendors like Orion Telescopes, Anacortes, and Astronomics allow amateur astronomers to develop wish lists and send them to friends. A complete holiday wish list really reduces the seasonal stress.