While the day of commercial space flight has yet to dawn, a few choice astronomy-related gifts are enough to open up the heavens for anyone on your gift list. Who knows? You could be giving someone the start of a lifelong hobby or even a career.
A telescope is a grand gesture. For around $100, the Orion SpaceProbe 3 Altazimuth Reflector is a great starter scope. For under $300, the motorized, Meade ETX-80BB telescope tracks objects once programmed and comes with an interactive LCD screen that identifies what you’re looking at.
But take it from my experience, without a tripod and a good place to set up and leave a scope, your gift may collect more dust than stellar images. Expect to pay around $100 for something solid but basic like the Orion Paragon HD-F2 tripod. Programmable, computerized models start around $250 and climb into the thousands.
Not as glamorous, but far easier to use and therefore enjoy, are a pair of good binoculars. Even the modest, $20 Celestron 7×35 UpClose binoculars will increase the number of stars you can see from a couple thousand to as many as 100,000. For around $250, Canon’s compact, 10×30, image-stabilized binoculars are great for sky-watching.
Winter’s long nights may provide some of the best viewing conditions, but the cold weather can turn even a seasoned star-gazer into an armchair astronomer. Nightwatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, by Terence Dickinson, is an essential reference. And H.A. Rey, of Curious George fame, was an avid astronomer whose 1952 The Stars: A New Way to See Them, remains a classic. For around $10, you can give a tour of the red planet with Starry Night’s Eyes on Mars Space Exploration DVD. Or, for around $250, Starry Night Pro Plus 6.3 is a first-class tour of the entire universe.