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Gifts from The Twilight Zone

December 2012: 'Tis the season for astronomical rip-offs.
bob_berman_2009
“We got you an acre of land on the Moon!” beamed my mom, handing me a legal-looking document. I was 9 years old, and it was Christmas. I was suddenly the happiest boy in the world.

Also the dumbest. I treasured that deed for years. Finally, one night at age 13, the truth somehow struck. I raced to the kitchen to confront my parents.

“It was a joke,” they laughed.
 
Fake astro-products are still no joke. During the holiday season, they proliferate like giant sea pods. Case in point: companies offering to name a star after you. The fierce competition between the International Star Registry, StarWishing.com, Name a Star, Celestial Registry, and Global Star Registry shows how many people want to purchase immortality.

The whole idea was the brainchild of Ira Downings of Toronto in the 1970s. After he sold the Star Registry franchise to U.S. entrepreneur Phyllis Mosele, the now Illinois-based outfit thrived after adding radio commercials, especially before the competitors moved in.
 
The appeal is obvious. You can turn to someone you love, sweep a hand toward the heavens, and declare, “Up there is a star that bears your name forever.” Talk about scoring points.

But you can’t gesture too precisely. The star you’ve bought is dimmer than 11th magnitude and not even visible through binoculars. They ran out of naked-eye stars decades ago. The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs was less starry-eyed in 1998 when it issued a violation notice to the International Star Registry citing a “deceptive trade practice.” You’re not supposed to sell something you don’t own, and none of these companies is an astronomical body of any kind, let alone the one that officially names things. That authority belongs to the International Astronomical Union, a stodgy organization that wouldn’t sell stars if its constitutional charter depended on it.

For a mere $489 (if you want a fancy frame), you get a chart with a dot circled and a parchment proclaiming that henceforth this star will be known as Alyssa. Unfortunately, no astrophysicist, observatory, star atlas, magazine, or even the janitor at Keck will ever call this star Alyssa, even if aliens from there someday arrive bearing gifts of cookbooks.

Those companies can stay in business because they don’t claim your star name will ever be recognized. There’s no law against privately renaming stuff. Call a duck Sarah Palin, and no cop can arrest you. You can even charge a fee if you can convince your friend Billie Jo that your alluding to the Moon with her name is some sort of bargain.


During the holiday
season, fake astro-
products proliferate
like giant sea pods.


You can easily blow far more money. There are galaxies of bad deals out there. In 1983, Burton Rubin, who had recently made a fortune on his E-Z Wider cigarette-rolling papers, showed me the prototype of a 40mm spotting scope he was having manufactured in Japan. He then marketed the little instrument for $200, calling it the Halleyscope. Though decently made, it was far less useful for comet viewing than $20 Kmart binoculars. But thanks to giving it a catchy name, that affable guy sold 75,000 of them by exploiting the media coverage he correctly anticipated for the Halley Comet visit of 1986.

The holiday season is when people typically buy such cheap telescopes. They’re soon tossed in the attic. With a jittery tripod, flimsy finder scope, and pathetic eyepieces of the old 0.965" variety with tunnel-vision fields of view only moles would enjoy, they turn backyard astronomy into Dante’s Inferno. Just last year, a good friend proudly showed me a model he bought for his son. “Holy Toledo,” I gasped (except I didn’t say “Toledo”). “This is a piece of junk!”
 
“But I only paid $179,” he replied, as if garbage gains value if it’s cheap enough. Such rickety equipment can frustrate and discourage a budding hobbyist. For not much more, he could have bought a 3- or even 4-inch hassle-free refractor with a sturdy tripod, a finder with a double three-thumbscrew adjustment, and 1¼" eyepieces.

The worst rip-offs? Binoculars in some gadget catalogs. The most masochistic models typically claim a “fixed focus,” “zoom magnification,” or “super-high power.” Or they don’t list the specs. Only costly image-stabilized models permit true hand-held use over 11 power or so, yet some shaky scam binoculars claim 50x or even 100x. Their images duplicate the experience of stargazing during an earthquake — except with blur added, as if WD-40 were sprayed on the lens. Or else they have teensy 20mm objective lenses (the second number in the specs) that produce images too dim for night use.

Bah humbug! Maybe I’m still carrying baggage from that lunar real estate I thought I owned. Anyway, you can trust the products in this magazine’s ads. You won’t find a single planet for sale. Also absent are the noisy boasts: “Six hundred power!” “See the canals on Mars!” Good stuff arrives quietly.

’Cause in space, nobody can hear Santa go ho-ho-ho.

Contact me about my strange universe by visiting http://skymanbob.com.
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