Ep. 396: Family Astronomy for the Holidays

Every year, it’s the same dilemma: what gift should you get for the super space nerd in the family? And if someone has a budding interest in space and astronomy, what can you do to feed their hunger for knowledge? Today we’ll talk telescopes, books and planispheres. Everything you need to avoid a holiday gift disaster.
Nancy Graziano has turned this discussion into a post over at Universe Today. You can find it here!

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Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online, the world’s longest-running online astronomy degree program. Visit for more information.

Fraser: Astronomy Cast Episode 396, family astronomy for the holidays. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cane. I’m the publisher of [inaudible] [0:00:33] today, and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and the Director of Cosmo Quest. Hey Pamela. How you doing?

Pamela: I’m doing well. How are you doing Fraser?

Fraser: Good. We were supposed to see an occultation of Venus by the moon this morning, and unfortunately, completely clouded out. How did you do?

Pamela: I had rainy, damp awful morning. I rode a horse because the horse wanted to do something, and it was trapped inside, and I was trapped inside, so we rode inside, and we were grouchy.

Fraser: Oh. Pretty much the best occultation of the year –

Pamela: We did not see.

Fraser: And I’m sure big chunks of the west coast was completely clouded out. So, yeah. It should happen in the summertime. It’s not fair. That’s why I’m so glad that the big eclipse in 2017 is gonna happen in August. There couldn’t be better weather.

Pamela: It is. Yes. Yes, so come visit us in the Midwest. Don’t go to Carbondale. They are already overflowing, and it’s years away. We will be planning something here in St. Louis. Details to come. Details to come.

Fraser: Right on.

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Fraser: So every year, it’s the same dilemma. What gift should you get or the super space nerd in the family? And if someone has a budding interest in space and astronomy, what could you do to feed their hunger for knowledge? Today we’ll talk telescopes, books, planispheres, everything you need to avoid a holiday gift disaster. So does this happen to you, where someone goes, “I’ve got this kid who really likes astronomy. What should I get them?”

Pamela: Yes. Yes it does. And it’s one of these things of there are so many different right answers that at a certain point, you wanna sit down and interrogate the small child and find out, “Child, what exactly is it that you are in love with.” Because some of them are rocket crazy, some of them are planet crazy; some of them actually like, well, stars and galaxies. And there’s something different for everyone. There are things for the people who are into the math side. Things for the people who just want pretty pictures. And that’s okay.

Fraser: Okay, so let’s tackle sort of the one that we get, I think, the most, which is, “I want to get into astronomy for the first time, and I want to get or my kid has expressed an interest, and I wanna get them a telescope.” So let’s start with that kind of complicated one, and sort of breaks down the options. So if a person thinks that they wanna buy someone a telescope, and they’re in Walmart and they’ve got the box in front of them –

Pamela: No!

Fraser: They’re looking at the –

Pamela: No, no!

Fraser: the Craptacular 2000 telescope.

Pamela: No, no, no, no.

Fraser: So what do we suggest on that front?

Pamela: You do not buy the Walmart telescope. Just step away, step away. Do not buy the Walmart telescope. There are two different options that I strongly recommend. One of them is for the small child that wants a telescope but is still at the destructive phase of their life, and that is the Galileoscope. I have seen children use Galileoscopes as though they were light sabers, because this is, after all, Star Wars season, [inaudible] [0:04:40] and Christmas, all at once. So for the small child, or the clumsy adult that is likely to drop it down the stairs, use it as a light saber, all of these different things that you should not do with a telescope, for this highly destructive individual, get a Galileoscope.

You do have to put it together, which is a certain amount of cursing at small plastic objects. But once you’ve survived this Ikea-like experience, you have a really nice little telescope that lets you see the rings of Saturn well enough to see the gap in the rings. Lets you do quick, through the eyepiece, iPhone astrophotography. It’s just a nice, simply lightweight system.

Fraser: Yep.

Pamela: Mounts on a camera tripod, and you can really do no wrong.

Fraser: Yeah. Moons of Jupiter, crescent Venus, great view of the moon. I mean it’s just, it’s as good a view of the moon as you’re gonna get with almost any telescope in that class. Bands across Jupiter. You’re gonna see some of the brighter deep sky objects, like some of the globular clusters.

Pamela: You can see Andromeda no big deal.

Fraser: Andromeda, Orion nebula. And was does a Galileoscope run?

Pamela: You’re gonna find it for anywhere between $25 and $50 depending on if it’s a non-profit that bought them in bulk, and you’re getting one of the bulk order ones. If you’re buying it from a vendor that had to pay individual shipping and stuff, you’re looking at closer to $50. So it’s sort of like the difference between buying a camera on Amazon versus at your local camera store. If you give the money to the local shop, you’re gonna be paying more. But, still, 50 bucks for a really good refracting telescope? It’s not that bad.

Fraser: Yep.

Pamela: And it comes with a couple different eye pieces, so other than needing to dig that tripod out of a closet, you’re good to go once you buy this scope.

Fraser: Now, in my experience – I’ve got one – hooking it up to a tripod is a bit of a pain, the camera tripod, and you don’t get a very stable mount, and you do get a lot of kind of wobble in the mount when you’re trying to look through and see it. It’s hard to line it up. So it’s not as nice as a proper equatorial mount. But, again, it’s just quick and dirty; let’s get the moon in view. There it is. We’ve experienced it.

Pamela: And that next stage for when you’re past the your child is likely to use it as a light saber stage of telescope development, or if you’re not buying it for a classroom where you can also use it as an optical kit, that next stage up is actually what I have in the corner behind me over here. And that is the Astronomers without Borders One Scope. It’s one sky. We’re one people, we share one sky. And this particular telescope takes it to the next level. You can start to mount tiny cameras onto the telescope. It doesn’t have a drive system or anything fancy on it, but it allows you to learn the sky by hopping from one object to another. It’s [inaudible] [0:07:51].

Fraser: The way we did.

Pamela: What was that?

Fraser: The way we learned our astronomy.

Pamela: Exactly. Exactly. No computer involved.

Fraser: Yeah.

Pamela: It’s just a perfectly good, perfectly straightforward telescope. Like I said, it’s make by Celestron, and it’s what’s called a Dobsonian telescope. We’ve talked about this a million times. This is a telescope that, it’s basically a telescope on a lazy susan. You can’t screw it up.

Fraser: How much does one of these cost?

Pamela: I have to admit, again, it’s one that varies a lot, but most of the time, it’s right around $200. So keep an eye out. Look for your One Scope. There was a good review in Sky and Telescope Magazine. And you can get these through the Astronomers without Borders website directly. So go out and take a look up.

Fraser: That’s really cool. It’s sort of a great way – Celestron’s a trusted telescope manufacturer. You can’t go wrong with them, but they’re partnering with Astronomers without Borders, which are really trying to help get relatively inexpensive telescopes into the hands of as many people as possible. So I think it’s a great combination. Now we always recommend binoculars, as well. And that’s the other go to, is a nice, big pair of astronomical binoculars. Again, Celestron makes a pair of those.

Pamela: Nikon Orion.

Fraser: Yeah. Something in the kind of 15 by 75 range, 20 by –

Pamela: I like my 10 by 50s.

Fraser: Yeah.

Pamela: So I have to admit, I like smaller ones that have a bigger field of view, because it’s so much easier to learn the sky.

Fraser: The downside with the binoculars – binoculars give you a really beautiful view of the overall sky. And we were actually doing this summer, we’re using my Celestron binoculars, and we were able to find the globular cluster in Hercules, Andromeda. A lot of nice clusters, star clusters, things like that. Not great for planetary stuff, though.

Pamela: No.

Fraser: The moon looks good, but you can’t see the rings on Saturn. You can just barely see the moons on Jupiter, but not the bands. So, the two kinda go hand in hand. You don’t to use your Galileoscope if you’re gonna be just noodling around the sky. The binoculars are beautiful.

Pamela: And this is where you start to learn the art of sky hopping. It’s the you go up and over and Pegasus, and you jump this way and Lyra. And they let you find the nebula. They let you find some of the galaxies. But they’re larger area objects are what you’re gonna be seeing with them. The smaller objects that require a lot more, well, resolving power. For that, you need a telescope that has a wider distance from end of the mirror, or one end of the lens to the other. So high resolution requires telescope, but low resolution, but seeing more than you can see with your eye? Binoculars are perfect. You’re looking to start at around $70 for a good pair of binoculars, and you can pretty much spend as much money as you want. But $70 will get you a great pair to start with.

Fraser: Yeah. I think mine were 50 on sale. And I’ve seen them on sale from Amazon pretty often. As you said, you can go sky’s the limit. You get the image stabilizing ones, and then you’re in the hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Totally worth it, but once you try the image stabilizing binoculars, you will never wanna go back. But the regular binoculars are great. They’re a little heavy, so definitely if it’s a kid, you’re gonna want some kind of tripod or binocular stand, or just some way to assist them, because it can get a little hard on the arms.

Pamela: And in general, lie down. Just have your arms on the ground, braced, and that makes it all much easier.

Fraser: And what if you wanna jump to the straight to the head of the queue. You wanna drop – you’re pretty sure the person in your family is very into astronomy. You wanna spend a lot, and you wanna do it right. What would you go after then?

Pamela: In that case, I’d go after some sort of a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. There’s a bunch of different manufacturers out there. And get, essentially, as large a mirror as you can afford. Eight inches will start to get you large chunks of the sky that you can start to see in amazing detail. You can nowadays easily go up to 20 inches and, in some cases, even 36 inches through retail suppliers. 20 inches is where you’re starting to look at thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars.

But for a couple thousands, for the price of my bicycle – no, my bicycle wasn’t that expensive – for the price of an expensive hobby, you get an eight inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, with a good drive system. And it does start to be important to spend as much or sometimes more money on that telescope mount than you spend on the telescope once you start getting into the high-end stuff. If your telescope isn’t tracking nicely on the sky, you’re gonna be miserable, and you’re never gonna use your telescope.

Fraser: Yeah, so I think that’s about the price range. About $1500 – that’s a very nice present – but you’re gonna get you something that’s gonna last you for decades, that’s going to be able to really see anything planetary, any of the bright objects in the sky, a lot of the faint objects in the sky, and especially if you then pair it up with some kind of camera, you’re going to be able to do the kind of astrophotography that you see on the internet and a lot of website. I mean, good – people can get a lot out of those kinds of telescopes.

Pamela: And the place that I always to when I’m not quite sure what I want is Oceanside Photo and Telescope. They are not our sponsor. We do not receive money from them. We would not object to receiving money from them, but we don’t receive money from them. The folks at Oceanside Photo and Telescope have more than once said, “Oh, you want fu? Well, how about fubar instead? And they’ve always steered me in the right direction. And they carry all of the major brands, and some of the minor brands that have really good artisanal systems.

Fraser: They definitely know their stuff. Okay. So we’ve talked gear. Let’s talk about learning materials. Let’s say you wanna sort of get some books into the hands of a kid who is super excited about space.

Pamela: So there’s two different books that I’d recommend. The first one I think we’ve probably mentioned ten million times on this show, at least, and that’s Night Watcher by Terence Dickinson. Night Watch – you’re right. You have it on the back shelf behind you. Latest print was in 2006. Both of us had it as kids. It’s been in print for over 20 years. It’s literally helped a couple generations of, well, night watchers fall in love with space.

Fraser: Yep.

Pamela: Now, the other book that I’d now also recommend is one that gets more into the tech and stuff. And this is a book that’s come out from Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and it’s called the Total Skywatcher’s Manual. And page after page after page, it goes through, and it details out, so you wanna understanding this? Here’s how. So you wanna understand this? Here’s how. And it goes through apps. It goes through how to see things with your eyes, how to use binoculars, how to understand sky motions. And it’s really written for that modern ten best tips, buzzfeed kind of audience, but with the level of detail that you expect from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Fraser: Awesome. What if there was more science fiction that would maybe get them interested in space.

Pamela: Oh, man. That one is so hard to pick out for other people, because we all fall in love with different things. I have to admit if you’re into planets, Kim Stanley Robinson has a bunch of really neat books. Red Mars is kind of the one, I think, that is basically required reading, and he’s recently come out with some really excellent books that look at a rather bleak future, and make you start to really appreciate the planet that we have, and start to think about how do we protect this world. The two new books he has are 2312, and Aurora, which exist in the same universe, but you can read either one of them without reading the other, and they still make perfect sense.

Fraser: And the other one that we’ve raved about is The Martian, which is just an absolutely fantastic book. It’s now a movie, but the book is terrific.

Pamela: The book is awesome, too.

Fraser: Yeah, the book is just great, especially the audio book. So if you wanna sort of put something on in the car that is going to just entrance everyone who listens while you’re on some long drive, its’ a really great choice. And you can’t go wrong with The Martin. Let’s talk software. So one recommendation that I always make for people who are into space flight, but they wanna play a lot of video games, is the Kerbel Space Program, which you can typically get for about $20. And it is the most realistic recreation of space flight that is also super fun.

And I’ve always said this, that I learned more about the mechanics of space flight in playing Kerbel Space Program for a couple of hours than I did in 15 years of journalism, space reporting and journalism. The concepts about different kinds of burns and altitude adjustments and apogee and orbital insertions, and the different kinds of ways that the missions came together. You can create all of this in Kerbel Space Program with these adorable little characters.

And since I started playing, they’re now much further along. And the complexity, but also sort of the – they’ve got a campaign mode where you have to conserve your money, and they sort of get you fairly gently into the process. It’s a major accomplishment to even just get a rocket to orbit the earth, and not just detonate on the launch pad. So it’s very similar to the original NASA exploration of space. So I love the Kerbel Space Program. Love it, love it, love it. Still love it.

Pamela: And bracketing it, you have on the free side and the more sciency side, you have Stellarium, which we’ve talked about a bunch. Both of us, it’s our go to software for where is this thing in the sky. When will this thing be in the sky? It’s easy and super simple, and free and platform independent and all those things.

Fraser: That’s a great present to give someone. Something free.

Pamela: Why not? But on the not as free side of things, and I have to admit, this is how I’m going to spend part of my holidays. My birthday is December 12th, and I let myself install video games, because I’m not to be trusted with video games. I let myself install video games from my birthday until New Year’s. And that’s the only window I’m allowed to have them, because I don’t trust myself, nor should I. And this year I’m going to be installing the Civilization Beyond Earth software, and just seeing what are the challenges, what are the technological developments, and what has Sid Meiers done to us this time.

Fraser: Right.

Pamela: So, there’s all sorts of different ways. Eve is sort of science fictiony as well. Lots of different ways to get people engaged in games. And there’s also lots of ways to get people engaged in art. And you have some on the wall behind you.

Fraser: Yeah, well I’ve got one more software recommendation, and then we’ll get on to the art

Pamela: Okay.

Fraser: The other one that I really am enjoying is called Universe Sandbox 2, which came out just a couple of months ago. And I’ve actually talked to the creator. And this allows you to literally simulate anything you want in the universe. You can, what about the solar system with two Jupiters? What about crashing Nemus into Jupiter? What about you can create comets. All kinds of orbits. You can just sort of see the way the universe works. You can zoom in, zoom out, see spacecraft. It’s a great, great – really it’s just a sandbox for just creating any scenario you want in the universe. And, once again, it teaches you a ton about the way things operate, but at the same time, is kind of fun. There isn’t really a game to it, in that you’re not trying to sort of accomplish anything. But smashing the moon into the earth again and again is hilarious. So I’d recommend that. Yeah, you’re right. These Adam Woods poster.

Pamela: Yeah, Aaron Wood.

Fraser: Aaron Wood, that’s right.

Pamela: justonescarf on Etsy. He has actually a collection of nine retroplanetary travel posters. Pluto’s is deeply amusing. It says gateway to the solar system. Sail the canals on Mars. Float amongst the clouds on Venus. There’s all sorts of not necessarily true, but nonetheless beautiful and awesome and deeply retro posters that he’s put together over on Etsy.

Fraser: Yeah.

Pamela: Etsy works way better on a tablet than on a computer. I don’t know what the heck they did wrong with their website, but I deeply encourage you to explore Etsy in the iPad app.

Fraser: Yeah. The other thing that’s just come out is the 2016 Year in Space calendar. We just did a giveaway on Universe Today with them, and I think we’re gonna do another one. They’re sort of not a sponsor. They’re a partner. You’ve probably seen them behind me year after year. But we’ve got, and I really like them. They just get better and better every year. This year they’ve actually partnered up with the Planetary Society.

They’ve got great information on each month, sort of featuring different astronomers, different people in space exploration, different missions. But then on every day of the week in the calendar, you can see various milestones and things that happened. They’ve been making these calendars just better and better and more information dense every year. So you can go to and get their calendar. And they’ll be great. And they have a wall calendar, and they also have a desk calendar.

Pamela: That is all awesome. Now, I have to admit, I probably spend more time on Etsy than I should, because I like to buy things from the actual artists. And there’s a lot of time on Etsy that you will stumble into mass produced things from China where people have just had way too much staff and the freedom to actually put everything into Etsy. But a lot of the time, you’re dealing one-on-one with the person who’s creating the art.

And one of the old friends of the show, Surly Amy, and her webshop is And she has pendants, she has posters. And they’re really amazing. And a lot of them include space themes. My favorite right now is she has a painting that shows a strawberry as a planet. I don’t know why this one amuses me nearly as much as it does, but I find it kind of awesome. She also has a New Horizons pendant, Curiosity, Rover has a pendant. And she’s worked on a bunch of different posters. Go check it out. She just has a bunch of really beautiful stuff.

Other cool places to go is – there is the Geekery, and Megan Lee also has a collection of space-related art. What’s cool about the Geekery is they have, just like Aaron Wood, a whole bunch of different posters. A lot of retro comic book styles, neat stuff to look up. And then the last place on Etsy I’m going to bring up is called Shadow Play. And they’re one of the many different places that print up fabrics that have the moon and nebula and galaxies. And one of the reasons I like Shadow Play over many of the others is it’s not just that super shiny spandexy material. They also print on to wool, so you can get an amazing wool scarf that is covered in lunar reconnaissance or images of the moon. And what kind of better scarf can a woman want?

Fraser: Than the moon, yeah.

Pamela: Or a man.

Fraser: Yeah. Oh man, what is the – oh, right. So the other thing that you might be sort of interested to know that you can actually buy, and usually you have to get this through eBay, is meteorites. And so people may know that I often, when I see them in person, I will give people meteorites, and I actually buy them in bulk from eBay. And you can do the same. Whatever sort of budget you’re looking for, in the $10 range, $20 range, or the $1000 dollar range, you can get something that’s many kilograms. And you have to be careful and sort of make sure that the person that you’re buying it from is legitimate. But, boy, to give a person a piece of rock or metal from space, that is super cool.

Pamela: And there are a whole bunch of different sites where you can get meteorites. When in doubt, Richard Drum, who’s one of our long-term – he does a lot of our audio engineering work, is the audio producer for 365 Day of Astronomy. On top of all of the audio video work her does, he also is one heck of a meteorite collector. So reach out to him on Twitter. And he’s part of our community, and can really help.

Fraser: That sounds great. What other kinds of stuff would you get people for the holidays?

Pamela: So I have to admit, I am a lover of the giant cocktail – not cocktail – giant coffee table book. And there are some really good ones out this year. One of the brand new ones that gets totally sciency while being stunningly beautiful at the same time is Coloring the Universe. It’s put together by a team of scientists, Travis Rector, who’s at the Universe of Alaska, Kim Arcand, and Megan Watzke, who are both part of the Chandra mission, and this stunningly beautiful book goes through and talks about all the different colors of light, and how people take both professional images and amateur images, and layer them together to create these things that we find ourselves emotionally attracted to. And I just love the fact that it goes through and it talks about the science side of everything as well as the here; let us just give you the most beautiful picture of this thing that we could find anywhere.

Fraser: That sounds great. Yeah, there’s a bunch of great coffee table books that have come out this year. None of the others are sort of running across my brain right now, but that one sounds terrific.

Pamela: And hand in hand with it, there’s a book that got put together by Megan Watzke just for the 2015 International Year of Light, and it is aptly named Light. And it goes through and talks about all the different colors of light, while pulling together amazing imagery yet again.

Fraser: Anything else?

Pamela: You know, if I could buy all the things anywhere, it would probably be those couple of coffee table books, and then all of the stuff on Etsy, and then I think any sane person would be out of money. So we should stop there.

Fraser: Well, one last idea is that you can get the Curiosity Rover as a Lego set as well.

Pamela: Right. Yes. Legos always.

Fraser: Can’t go wrong.

Pamela: And, hey, if you’re looking for a way to amuse yourself and get involved, Lego has a great community for helping to pick what are gonna be the next set of Lego kits. And you can either just simply look at other people’s ideas and vote on them, or come up with some of your own. A lot of these ideas are community contributed, and our community’s own Emily Lakdawalla is total Lego ninja. So follow her on Twitter for all of the science, and know that there’s legoing going on in the background.

Fraser: There’s a ton of great space exploration there. There’s Apollo missions, there’s Hubble space telescope, and a lot of them have gotten a ton of votes, a ton of support, may get turned into sets eventually. Yeah, no, it’s great. Okay, cool. Well, let’s wrap this up. So I hope that we have given you a bunch of ideas, and I hope you’ve got enough time to quickly do some last minute ordering through Amazon or Etsy or eBay or whatever you need to fill everyone’s trees, Festivus poles, and Hanukah baskets with presents. So thanks Pamela.

Pamela: My pleasure Fraser.

Fraser: Thanks for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astro Sphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at You can email us at Tweet us @astronomycast. Like us on Facebook, or circle us on Google Plus. We record our show live on Google Plus every Monday at 12:00 pm Pacific, 3:00 pm Eastern, or 2000 Greenwich Mean Time. If you miss the live event, you can always catch up over at

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