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Scoping out the Galileoscope

The Galileoscope kit costs $15, plus shipping, and requires some assembly.

Low-cost Galileoscopes are making their way to buyers after months of buildup. So is the view worth the wait? The answer is "yes ... but."

The concept behind the Galileoscope is as noble as it gets: To commemorate the International Year of Astronomy and the 400th anniversary of Galileo Galilei's groundbreaking telescopic observations, a few astronomers, engineers and educators decided to offer a good-quality telescope modeled after Galileo's design - only more powerful and priced at just $15.

Thanks to sponsorships, connections and a lot of volunteer labor, the project got off the ground in February (with a few online-ordering hiccups along the way). It took months for the plastic-and-glass telescope kits to be manufactured in China and then shipped around the world for distribution. As of today, 60,000 kits have been delivered and another 25,000 are en route, said Rick Fienberg, the chairman of the Galileoscope Task Group.

About 25,000 more kits are in production, in anticipation of further orders, "so we will have produced 110,000 and delivered them by the end of the summer," Fienberg told me today.

I just got my kit a couple of days ago and put it together within about 15 minutes. That's no small feat for me. I'm notorious for assembling home projects with parts upside-down or backwards, or taking out the wrong screwdriver for the job.

Fortunately, no tools are required to assemble the Galileoscope. The trickiest part was putting together the itty-bitty compound lenses for the telescope's eyepiece - a job that's probably more suited for a fine-fingered 10-year-old than a farsighted (and nearsighted) 54-year-old.

The kit comes with a one-sheet assembly guide, but the project's Web site offers a more detailed seven-page set of instructions that may save you some grief. You can also watch a YouTube video that shows you how the telescope is assembled.

The fact that there's something to put together actually adds to the sense of accomplishment you feel once you've snapped the eyepiece together and attached the final plastic rings.

Then it's time to look through the eyepiece. And here's where the "buts" enter the picture.

Steadying the Galileoscope
I was warned in advance that you need a mount to steady the telescope, and now I can testify to that firsthand. Sure, you can catch an upside-down glimpse of distant landscapes just by using the Galileoscope like a spyglass. But without a mount, the 25x magnification makes everything you see look as if it's shaking in a magnitude-10 earthquake. Viewing astronomical objects, or sharing your view with a friend, is pretty much out of the question.

The down side is that the mount could more than double the $15 price tag if you have to go out and buy one. The up side is that the telescope should fit virtually any proper tripod or camera mount you have sitting around.

Another tricky part has to do with the telescope's focusing barrel. Because the barrel is just one tube of plastic inside another tube, fine-tuning the focus isn't always a smooth operation. It helps if you use a screwing motion to pull or push the barrel into the right position. 

The Galileoscope is made for looking at the moon, Jupiter and Saturn. Because the moon is in its new phase, and Saturn is low in the sunset sky, Jupiter loomed as the prime target for my late-night viewing test. At the standard 25x magnification, peering through the light-polluted summer skies of a Seattle suburb, I could see that Jupiter was a disk but saw absolutely no detail. I tried to steady the scope on a car roof, but the picture still jumped around. I could just barely make out the suggestions of Jupiter's four biggest moons.

The kit includes a make-it-yourself Barlow lens that basically doubles the telescope's power to 50x - but at that power the unmounted telescope is too shaky to be usable. (You can also use the Barlow lens' optics to create a 17x view that simulates what Galileo was able to see 400 years ago.) 

Cheap vs. costly
All this led me to lug my 8-inch Dobsonian telescope out of the garage for a better look - and once I had the mount lined up, I could clearly see the bands of clouds on Jupiter and the pinpoints of its moons (but no comet blast, unfortunately). A $330 telescope gave me a better view than a $15 telescope. Who would have thought it!

Now that I've scrounged up a mount and tripod for the Galileoscope, I can see more clearly - not only when it comes to looking at the sky, but also when it comes to understanding how the low-cost scope fits into the stargazing spectrum.

"It's a fantastic, inexpensive starter scope," said Scott Kardel, public affairs coordinator at California's Palomar Observatory. "People are pretty overwhelmed, actually."

The observatory has ordered boxes and boxes of the telescopes, and Kardel said they're being given away to some of the students who visit Palomar. Once the telescope is hooked up to a mount, it's a perfect way for beginners to familiarize themselves with the moon, the planets, the Milky Way and other wonders of the night sky.

As summer turns to fall and winter, the Pleiades star cluster and the Orion Nebula should loom as popular targets, Kardel said. The Galileoscope team has prepared a 20-page observing guide that helps you use the telescope to best advantage in any season.

A good-quality telescope, designed by professionals who don't care about making a profit, with the full support of the astronomical community? Kardel thinks $15 for all that is a great deal. "Compare that to the cost of any video game, right?" he asked.

Kardel noted that the $15 price point is within the range of most household budgets. "You then have an opportunity to see if this is a real interest for somebody or not," he said. If it's a dud, then you can put the darn thing up for sale, or donate it to your local school. But if the telescope stirs a passion for stargazing, then you can start looking through the telescope buying guides.

As I mentioned above, the Galileoscope is still available for online ordering - but once the 25,000 kits in production are all spoken for, the team behind the project is "going to evaluate the future of the program," Fienberg told me today.

If production is restarted, the price will almost certainly rise, he said, and the operation might have to be put on a more commercial footing. Fienberg said the small team that put together the project for the International Year of Astronomy is "neither interested in nor capable of carrying this thing into the future."

So if you're thinking of giving the Galileoscope a try, you might not want to wait until Christmas.

Update for 10:25 p.m. ET July 23: Stephen Pompea, manager of science education for the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and a leader of the Galileoscope effort, sent along an e-mail with more about the project's status:

"The light collecting area of Galileoscopes delivered to date and currently en route (85,000) exceeds the collecting area of the two Keck 10-meter telescopes in Hawaii. (167 square meters for the Galileoscopes versus 157 square meters for the two Keck telescopes).

"The 85,000 people looking through their Galileoscopes at the moon, Jupiter and Saturn will have stimulated their imaginations in the same way as the wonderful discoveries made with the world's largest telescopes that explore (in the words of astronomer Sandra Faber) 'the River of Time back toward its source.'"

In a phone call, Pompea told me that the project is starting to build up its own momentum: Some users are translating the assembly instructions into more languages, while others are trying to figure out whether they can use cell phones to take pictures of the sights seen through their Galileoscopes. And speaking of pictures, this Flickr photo site has been set up for the telescope's users. Stay tuned for further word about contests and other coming events.

Update for 12:50 a.m. ET July 27: I've taken the Galileoscope out with a proper mount and tripod since this item was originally posted, and the add-ons make a world of difference: You can indeed see the moons of Jupiter and craters on the moon (which is now visible in evening skies). I've gotten used to sighting my target with the 25x eyepiece, then switching the lenses to include the doubling Barlow lens for a 50x view.

Now the big drawback for me is the focusing tube: It's still a bit too sticky for my taste - but hey, I can live with that in a $15 telescope (plus mount and tripod). Once I have the tube set for the proper focus with the Barlow lens, I can leave it there when I turn to the next target (right now it's just Jupiter vs. the moon), sight the target out of focus with the 25x configuration, then pop the Barlow lens back in for a sharper look. Do you have any other observing tricks or suggestions? Feel free to add them below.

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