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Galileoscopes go on sale

Dean Coppola / Contra Costa Times
Astronomer Stephen Pompea peers through the low-cost Galileoscope at the

University of California at Berkeley. The $15 telescope kit is now on sale.

Astronomers have launched a commercial venture aimed at putting low-cost telescopes in the hands of a million people around the world. The Galileoscope Web site, one of the cornerstone projects for the International Year of Astronomy, began taking orders for the simple yet powerful scopes Thursday night.

The Galileoscope has been designed as a tribute to Galileo Galilei, who lofted his telescope toward the heavens 400 years ago and started a revolution in the way we see the universe. This telescope would have knocked Galileo's stockings off: It is made to more exacting 21st-century standards, is easier to put together and shows the night sky's wonders more clearly than they were ever seen back in 1609.

One of the best things is the price: $15 for one, and a bulk rate of $12.50 per kit for 100 or more (not including shipping). That price point is aimed at making the kits affordable for students and educators as well as folks in less developed regions of the world.

Groups in Norway, Brazil and the state of Wyoming are gearing up for bulk purchases of tens of thousands of the telescopes, said the National Optical Astronomy Observatory's Stephen Pompea, who is U.S. project director for the International Year of Astronomy.

The telescope already has gotten great reviews from tryouts at recent scientific meetings. "Everybody who's looked through it has been very excited about it," Pompea told me.

Doug Isbell puts together a Galileoscope in a YouTube video produced

by Brad Plummer of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

The team behind the project feels the same way: "We're very excited to finally be live after more than two years of blood, sweat and tears developing the Galileoscope," the chairman of the Galileoscope Task Group, Richard Tresch Fienberg, told me in an e-mail.

The telescope, which is sold as an easy-to-assemble kit, comes with a Barlow lens that boosts its power to 50x - easily good enough to show you details on Earth's moon, the phases of Venus (which is currently sparkling in evening skies), the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. When Galileo saw such features 400 years ago, the experience led him to the outrageous conclusion that our planet circled the sun instead of vice versa.

"If you use the Barlow as an eyepiece, you can duplicate what Galileo saw," Pompea said. But you'll want to go for the full 50x view, achieved by combining the 25x eyepiece with the power-doubling Barlow lens. The image you see in that configuration is upside-down - which means the Galileoscope "would not be a good birdwatching telescope, but maybe a bat-watching telescope," Pompea joked.

Dean Coppola / Contra Costa Times
Stephen Pompea shows the Galileoscope eyepiece.

The telescope incorporates tricks that Galileo never thought of - including internal baffles, a glare shield and a special coating on the tube's interior to minimize the effect of light pollution. "We were very careful to keep in mind that most of the people who will be using the telescope are living in urban areas," Pompea said.

In addition to online ordering, the Web site offers a study guide and an observing guide to help you make the most of your viewing. One add-on will be indispensable, Pompea said: "We definitely encourage everybody to use a tripod. ... It'll be frustrating if you try to use the telescope as a spyglass and just hold it up."

Although you can't order a tripod from the Web site, virtually any tripod with a standard mounting bolt will work just fine. If you don't have a tripod and can't afford to buy one, the observing guide provides instructions for building a makeshift mount using a broom handle or a box.

The Galileoscope commercial venture was established through the efforts of the American Astronomical Society as part of its contribution to the International Year of Astronomy, but Pompea said the idea behind the project is too good to last just one year.

"We're planning on it continuing after 2009," he said.

Update for 1:45 p.m. ET Feb. 20: The Galileoscope Web site was taken offline for a few hours this morning because credit-card information wasn't being passed along to the payment processing company, Fienberg told me. The problem has been fixed, and the site is now back online.

If you tried to make a payment overnight with a credit card, Fienberg said you will be receiving an e-mail from the Galileoscope team asking you to resubmit your order. But if you made a payment with PayPal, you should have a record of the payment and no further action should be required. Fienberg said the disconnect affected roughly 50 credit-card orders overnight. There's no reason to believe that credit-card information has been compromised.

Update for 10:50 p.m. ET Feb. 20: It looks as if there are still some Web site accessibility problems. The Galileoscope team will probably be fine-tuning this situation over the weekend.

Update for 4:05 p.m. ET Feb. 21: The site appears to be up and running now.

The first Galileoscopes are due to be delivered in April. The telescope optics were designed by Richard Pfisterer and Scott Ellis of Photon Engineering. The manufacturing partner is Merit Models of Racine, Wis., and the distribution partner is Leman USA of Sturtevant, Wis.

Where does the money go? Read the comments below for the answer.