It’s less than a month until Christmas and we’re all starting to think about what we are going to buy loved ones and friends to stick under the Christmas tree. Inevitably some people will be thinking “I know, I’ll buy a telescope” and they’ll trundle off to a department store and pick up the nearest offering, probably something in the range of $100. At this time of the year I walk in horror down the aisles of the local stores at the when I see some of the telescopes that they’re unwittingly peddling that will ultimately destroy the dreams of budding astronomers and, within weeks of the holidays, end up being deposited in the garage in the box marked “Might be recycling – not sure”. The effect of this will be a young astronomer weeping in utter frustration that the mount doesn’t hold still, the moon looks distorted, can’t seem to find anything and they haven’t seen anything that resembles a galaxy after ten minutes of trying.
There’s two problems here, one is buying something that’s simply not up to the task and the other is expectation management with observational astronomy. Buying a poor quality telescope is like buying a plastic hammer and wanting to build a deck, you might get a few nails in but ultimately it will be a frustrating experience. The danger is that this frustration could be the end of a future career in astronomy before it starts. So what do you do when that youngster you’re buying for is dreaming of operating the equivalent of the Hubble Space Telescope from the back garden? It’s a tough job, but you should probably start with some of the practical considerations.
When considering a telescope it’s best to think about how and where the telescope will be used. If they live on a rural property miles from any light pollution the possibilities are a little larger than a central city location where to get any reasonable viewing sessions they would have to find a dark sky site somewhere else. Telescopes can weigh a lot, even a relatively modest sized dobsonian mounted reflector can weigh over 30kg and be rather awkward to carry, especially if you’ve got a torch in one hand. Plus there’s the budget to think about, a good beginners scope is not going to be cheap, it’s probably going to be more than a few hundred of your hard earned dollars, and likely a lot more. If you were in the department store mood and price range ($100 ) then my suggestion is a good pair of 10×50 binoculars or similar. Why binoculars instead of a big shiny telescope you ask in horror? Well they’re easy to transport, it’s a lower investment to see if the astronomy bug really does stay and it will help the budding astronomer to learn the sky.
Why learn the sky? Because that will help them find really cool things to look at. For example, out of my front door on a clear night at the moment I can see the Jewel Cluster, Pearl Cluster, Southern Pleiades, Carina Nebula, 47 Tucanae and Tarantula Nebula all in my modest binoculars. They’re powerful enough to browse the star fields of the Milky Way but have a wide enough field of view that you can’t easily get lost and can navigate your way to most of the bright deep sky objects with ease. You won’t see the Cassini Division in Saturn’s rings or the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, in fact planetary viewing won’t give you much at all in binoculars other than the planetary disk if the conditions are right and if you can keep the binoculars still enough. The moon will look great and you’ll see some surface detail, but not Plato’s craterlets.
To go with the binoculars you will need to get either a good star map or one of the many apps that are fantastic. Start them on the easy to see constellations like the Southern Cross and Orion then work their way out from there, soon enough they’ll be darting all over the sky showing off all of the bright objects and being the life of parties and you’ll be up for New Zealander of the year for buying the best Christmas present ever.