Written by Kelly Herbst, Astronomy Curator for the Virginia Living Museum. Updated every two weeks, more or less.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

'Tis the Season

Hey folks!

We started talking holidays two weeks ago, so I thought I'd keep it up, as we get a lot of calls around this time of year about good astronomy Christmas gifts.

My Dad loved Christmas.  He loved shopping...especially if he could get a bargain!  And then to have the joy of giving that bargain to someone and watching their face light him, that was the best thing ever.  But as every good bargain hunter Dad included...sometimes, a bargain turns out to be a raw deal.  To help you avoid the pitfalls as you shop for your favorite astronomy buff this season, here are my Do's and Don't's of astronomy holiday shopping.

DO find out what your astronomy-lover is looking for.
Anyone into astronomy as a hobby almost always has a list of things they've been just dying to get!  And it doesn't necessarily have to be an expensive list either.  Honestly, this is true for any're more likely to get the right thing if you ask what the right thing is.

DON'T "name" or "buy" a star for your astronomer.
It's a holiday bummer I deal with every year...a well-meaning shopper buys or names a star for their favorite astronomy-lover through one of a dozen companies offering the service.  Some are even geared towards kids, selling a stuffed animal to go with the gift.  Before you drop the $50 - $150 these things often cost, be aware of several things.  No one can buy or sell a star or the right to name a star.  It is against international law to do so.  These companies charge a lot of money for you to send your name in and they print it in a book that gets locked in a vault.  The names are NOT official, nor will any astronomer ever see them or use them.  These companies use extremely dim stars, well below the limits of human vision, and in some cases below the ability of most amateur-grade telescopes!  You will likely never be able to see the star you've "purchased."  In some tragic cases, I've discovered that these companies have made up stars - adding dots to star charts with a marker where no star actually is located.  At best, these items are a novelty worst, they are out-and-out fraud.  Save your money for a more practical gift, rather than blowing it on a pretty certificate and a poorly-made star map.

Sirius, the brightest star in the nighttime sky.  Try as you might, you won't be able to rename it for your mom.
Courtesy NASA.

DO purchase a gift membership to your local planetarium for your astro-pal!
A one-year membership to your local planetarium/museum is a gift that keeps on giving all year...and in many cases you can share it with your buddy!  If you're trying to keep costs down, check to see if your museum of choice offers an individual membership - that can be a a great cost-saver!  If you live in the southeastern Virginia area, check out gift memberships to the Virginia Living Museum and give them the gift of the Abbitt Planetarium and Observatory for a year!

DON'T buy a telescope from a big box store.
This time of year, every hobby, outlet, and big box retail chain carries telescopes.  Sadly, these instruments tend to be of poor quality, often breaking down before February.  Quality optical equipment costs between $150 and $400 for a basic instrument, and that money goes into producing excellent optical parts.  A telescope that advertises that it comes with numerous filters, extra lenses, and Barlows for $150 or less means that you will be receiving substandard optics, and guaranteed frustration.  If you're going to invest in optical equipment, purchase from a reputable optical dealer who will work with you for longer than your purchase.  We recommend dealing with Orion Telescopes - they have both high quality products and an excellent customer service department.  If you're not comfortable purchasing direct on the phone from Orion, the Virginia Living Museum is an authorized dealer and we carry a small backpack-type telescope from Orion called a GoScope.  Please come by and check it out!

The Orion GoScope - an easily portable starter telescope for under $200. Courtesy Orion Telescopes.

DO purchase quality optical equipment - even for a kid!
You don't have to spend a fortune to get good quality.  And you don't have to start with a telescope.  A high quality pair of binoculars will give you an amazing view of the Moon and the planets...and they can be used for other purposes if your little astronomer decides to become a botanist next week.

DON'T overspend.
Set a budget and stick to it, or you could find yourself unhappy in January.  If you can't afford a telescope this year, start with something else astronomical!  There are wonderful books available that can keep your astronomy buff happy until they've saved enough to get that first instrument.  There are also amazing home computer programs, excellent star maps, and other quality products they can enjoy.  A few suggestions: 365 Starry Nights by Chet Raymo is an excellent book for the new sky enthusiast; every astronomer should have a planisphere - a permanent map of the night sky - Edmund Scientific's Star and Planet Locator is a great one; Both Astronomy and Sky and Telescope Magazines also make wonderful astronomy gifts that keep on giving for an entire year.

An image from 365 Starry Nights.  This excellent book gives the beginning astronomy buff a different target for every night of the year, including wonderful illustrations like these to help you find it.  Since the sky is largely the same year after year, you can keep working through it until you've seen them all, no matter how cloudy it gets in your local area. Courtesy Chet Raymo.

DO purchase a meteorite as a gift!
Meteorites can be a wonderful gift for someone excited about astronomy, but they can also be very expensive.  Small samples may only cost you a few dollars, larger ones can be upwards of $500.  The most important thing to remember when purchasing a meteorite is to get a guarantee of authenticity.  The vast majority of "meteorites" for sale on the internet are regular old Earth rocks or chunks of industrial slag.  Some are sold by people looking to pull a fast one, others are sold by well-meaning people who genuinly believe their sample is a meteorite.  One good reputable sources for meteorites, trinitite and other such exotic stuff is United Nuclear.

DON'T buy "Moon rocks," "Mars rocks," or "deeds" to solar system real estate.
Like the companies who "sell" stars and star naming opportunities, these people cannot truly deliver the product they seem to be selling.  Solar system objects, by international treaty, cannot be owned or claimed by any individual or government, nor are individuals permitted to own pieces of them.  Any company which attempts to say otherwise is at best selling a gag gift, and at worst, committing fraud.  Don't give them your money.

The much-touted "Face" on Mars.  Even if you think it looks like you, you still can't own it.  Courtesy NASA.

As always, if you have any questions about a good astronomical gift, please give us a call or send us an email!  We'll be glad to help you out.  You can even comment here if you like!

Have fun with the holiday shopping, and I'll be back in two weeks!
Carpe noctem,

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