Self-indulgences for skywatchers need not be astronomically priced

Say you got a tax refund. Unlike most folks around here, whose winter heating bills have left them living in a dumpster, you’ve got a bunch of extra money. And you love nature. Well? How can you get the most bang for the buck?

Let’s do three categories: telescopes, binoculars and travel.

My short advice for anyone contemplating purchasing the former is: Don’t. I’ve said it before: Ninety-nine percent of those who buy a telescope use it once or twice and then never again. That’s because, despite advertising claims of automatic tracking, easy object acquisition and go-to capability and all the rest, telescopes are fussy to use. Most varieties need their mirrors adjusted or collimated periodically. It’s not too difficult, but will you do it?

Telescopes cannot be pointed out a window, open or closed. They can’t be used on a wooden deck. So they have to be hauled in and out each time. They require several setup steps for each session. As for finding objects in the night sky, the Moon is a no-brainer and is great to observe when it’s not full. But can you find Saturn? Or the globular cluster in Hercules? Only about a dozen objects are truly striking in a backyard telescope, so you have to be able to find those. Moreover, magazine astro-photos show dramatic detail and gorgeous color, but directly viewed galaxies are always gray and blurry. Bottom line: Few are motivated to keep lugging the awkward thing in and out. Of course, if you or your teenage child has a serious and growing interest in astronomy, that’s another story entirely.

Now for binoculars: Hundreds of models fill dozens of catalogues. But my advice is either to get a good cheap one for about $35, or else to spend ten times that and spring for an image-stabilized model. Don’t buy anything in between. If you don’t already own a pair, or your binoculars are 40 years old, this is an optical tool that can deliver a lifetime of pleasure. It will be useful celestially as well as during the day.

On the low end, get the Celestron UpClose G2 model, either 10 x 50 or 8 x 40. You’ll pay less than $40, including shipping. Its image is bright and clear, and it has excellent contrast and “pop.” On the high end, choose the Canon 10 x 30 IS model, and expect to pay around $400. It has got the perfect balance. Unlike even-more-expensive stabilized models, it’s relatively lightweight. It delivers astonishing images. And of course, the view is rock-steady, allowing the perception of exquisitely fine detail. Check online at places like B & H Photo.

How else can you spend money to enhance your enjoyment of the universe? You could (ahem) come along on one of our Northern Lights tours to Alaska or join us on a Chile mountaintop, at Or just head out on your own this summer to the southern Arizona desert or any large meadow in rural Montana. The sky doesn’t get much better than those places.

Or save your money for a future total solar eclipse: the most mindbending celestial experience of all. After a 38-year hiatus, the Moon’s shadow will finally fall over the continental United States on August 21, 2017. Mark it on your calendar and plan on heading to the Western states that summer. I’ll be more specific as the date gets closer. Summer vacation in the shadow of the Moon: priceless.

Want to know more? To read Bob Berman’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at



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