Grass Valley has a good dark night sky so I’ve been learning about backyard astronomy. I’ve found a few things that seem good, maybe some of these make a good gift idea for a friend of yours. I’m a rank beginner; these gifts are probably not appropriate for someone who already knows what they’re doing. Many of my choices came from recommendations from the Heretic’s Guide.

Most guides recommend beginners start with binoculars. They’re cheap, easy to use, and reveal a lot of detail for the moon, the planets, even deep sky objects like the Pleiades. 10x50 binoculars are the usual recommendation, something like these Celestron binoculars for $33. I bought the zoom version myself and regret it; should have stayed simple. Add a tripod mount and you can see four of Jupiter’s moons.
#1 rule: never buy a telescope from a department store or on Christmas sale. There’s a lot of junk in the market. After a lot of research I just ordered an 8” Dobsonian from Orion, $360 with shipping included. It’s a very simple scope, you’re mostly paying for good optics. See the Heretic’s Guide if you want to learn a lot more about buying scopes. He has good things to say about this $35 scope which could make a nice small gift.
I’ve loved reading Nightwatch; it’s a great and inspiring introduction for backyard stargazing. Turn Left at Orion is also a popular recommendation.
Mobile Software
There’s several amazing augmented reality iOS apps that act like mini-planetariums. You just point the phone at the sky and the screen shows you what’s there. I’ve been using GoSkyWatch which at $4 was a great purchase. Star Walk and SkySafari are also popular.
Desktop Software
It’s not as fun as being outside and looking at stars, but desktop apps are a helpful learning tool. Stellarium is an excellent planetarium for simulating what the sky will look like at a particular place and time on Earth. And Celestia is a fun app that lets you move anywhere in the universe; not so good for stargazing from Earth, but is pretty and instructive. Both programs are free.
  2012-12-05 20:05 Z