Astronomy Stuff for the Holidays

By Bill Pellerin Houston Astronomical Society GuideStar Editor Those of us who are astronomy enthusiasts are often asked by family and friends to identify an inexpensive item that we’d enjoy receiving as a gift. The purpose of this article is to identify several items that you may enjoy and provide you the information you need to hand off to your gift-giver. The range of prices for these items is about $10 to about $200. You should be able to find something you need that fits the budget of the giver (even if you’re giving to yourself). I have no financial interest in any company or product mentioned here… just so you know. Lunawheel Moon Phase Calculator—$17.50 (includes shipping) from . This gadget calculates the moon phase for any date 2000 years in the past or 2000 years in the future. Figure out if any day is good for observing (lunar or deep sky). There are other interesting gadgets at the web site, too. Casio PAS400B-5 Wristwatch — about $30 from . I’ve had one of these for years. In addition to telling you the mundane things like the time and date, it also tells you the moon phase, and sunrise and sunset times. (It doesn’t tell you moonrise and moonset times, though.) It’s marketed as a fishing watch, and there are other similar models in the Casio line. You have to enter your latitude and longitude manually. Fishing vest — ~ $30 – $40 from various sources. Do an Internet search for ‘fishing vest’ and you’ll find plenty of these to buy. These are valuable to amateur astronomers because they have lots of pockets. You can use these pockets for eyepieces, filters, notepads, snacks, pens, flashlights, (small) sky maps, hand warmers, etc. I have one of these that I use on the observing field and it’s great. Small tool kit – Lots of these are available at computer stores and other general stores. When you go for an observing run it’s always a good idea to take a few tools along, so a small tool kit could save the day (night, actually). You don’t need the best possible tools, because these won’t get a lot of use. I have one that has small pliers, a screwdriver (with interchangeable bits), hex wrenches, wire cutters, and so on. It’s good to know all that stuff is available if I need it. The Observer’s Handbook 2012 – $26.95, published by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, This is a great publication showing you what is going on in the sky in 2012. It’s not a substitute for a good set of sky charts, or the electronic equivalent, but absolutely worth having. Darkness — $1.99 from the iTunes app store. This little app tells you when the sunrise and sunset will happen for your location, the moon phase, the moonrise and moonset times, and the time of astronomical twilight. Astronomical twilight is the time at which the sun is about 15 degrees below the horizon. The sky is not as dark as it will be, but it is dark enough to begin observing of brighter objects. Astronomical dusk, when the sun is at least 18 degrees below the horizon is not reported by this software. There is another app, called ‘Phases’ which provides similar information, but it is more focused on the moon. Sky and Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas – If you’re still use paper maps, this is a great set to have. This atlas is small and easy to carry (although you’d need a big pocket to put it in), and it includes stars down to 7th magnitude (which you’d be hard-pressed to see from most sites), and 1500 deep sky objects. The book is spiral bound, so it lays flat on your observing table. This atlas does not include observing lists or descriptions of the objects on the charts. You’ll need to bring an observing list with you when you use this atlas. I have two of these – one at home, and one at my observing site. While I use my computer as my sky map, it’s good to have these maps in case my computer fails. Green Laser Pointer – Available from all the astronomy equipment sellers; at least one of them is available for about $70. (Doing an Internet search, I found some that are $10 or less – maybe these work, and maybe not. Buyer beware.) Although these are not welcomed on a field full of serious observers, they are indispensable when you’re doing a public star party. You’ve probably seen these. They shoot a green beam of laser light through the sky which reflects off the dust and moisture in the air. I’ve used mine to point to, say, Albireo in the sky when I’m showing the public Albireo in the telescope. Kids are amazed by these, but I never let them use the pointer. The problem is that sometimes they become more interested in the laser than in the sky. Wonders of the Universe / Wonders of the Solar System – These are two DVD / Blu-Ray sets that are visually arresting and fascinating. They were produced by Brian Cox for the BBC and the content has the power to make you see the solar system and the universe differently. Each set is about $20 in either DVD or Blu-Ray format. If you have a HD TV and a Blu-Ray player the visuals will be all the more beautiful. There are also books with the same titles by Brian Cox. You won’t be disappointed with these. The Great Courses – There are several astronomy and many science related video (and some audio) presentations from this company (, including a new course by Alex Filippenko from UC Berkeley. It’s called Skywatching: Seeing and Understanding Cosmic Wonders. There’s a course by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, called My Favorite Universe. There are more courses on black holes, on the contribution of the Hubble Space Telescope, and much more. Prices vary depending on the length of the course, and you always want to wait for a course to be on sale to get the best value. I own several of these courses and they’re all excellent. Be aware, that while these courses are often accompanied by graphics and images, much of the course consists of lecturing from a desk or a lectern. Don’t expect a visually dazzling presentation. Observer’s Chair – If you don’t have one of these, you’ve probably seen one. The idea of these chairs is that the height of the seat is adjustable and so, for many telescopes, you can adjust the seat height so that you can look through the eyepiece while sitting down. You should not underestimate the value of being able to hold your body (and head) still while observing. It makes a huge difference. These are not cheap, at from $150 to $200, but they’re worth the money. I have only bought one of these and it has lasted me many years. Look for one that is robust and will last a while. As an example, go to (Orion telescope), and search for item 05939. Two-way radios – If you are out with a friend or a spouse and you’re not in cell-phone territory (the dreaded ‘no service’ area), you can solve the we-got-separated problem with a pair of FRS Radios. FRS stands for Family Radio Service, and it was created to provide a capability for family members to keep in touch, over short distances, by radio. The Federal Communications Commission authorized FRS radio service in 1996. These use UHF FM and are not subject to interference by other radio services. When these radios initially became available, they were quite expensive; now they’re not. For under $50 you should be able to get a set that you can use for many years. No license is required. The next step up is called General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) and uses higher powered radios, which means they can operate over longer distances. You have to apply to the FCC to operate these radios, however. Moon filter – If you’ve ever looked at the moon through your telescope, and who hasn’t, you know that the brightness of the moon can be dazzling. To solve this problem, there are neutral density filters that fit your eyepiece and reduce the glare substantially. The word ‘neutral’ means that they reduce the brightness of all colors at the same time and don’t leave you looking at a green or pink moon. These cost from $20 (1.25”) to $25 (2”). If you want to be a bit more in control, you can get a filter with two polarized filters. You can then adjust the filters to change the brightness reduction. If you are an avid lunar observer, this is what you may want. Happy holidays to you, and clear skies!

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