When Stephen Pompea sat inside a UC Berkeley cafe and pulled a black telescope from its protective case, he did so with the care reserved for a fine instrument.
And indeed it is, even if it's about the cheapest new telescope on the market.
Pompea, project director of the International Year of Astronomy 2009's U.S. program, led the design for the $10 instrument, which sports a lens found only in pricier models, and light-catching features that make it an "urban telescope" capable of reducing glare from city lights.
Pompea and astronomers around the globe are pinning great hopes on this simple and sophisticated "Galileoscope," named in honor of the 400th anniversary of the year Galileo Galilei turned a telescope skyward and subsequently redefined humanity's sense of place in the cosmos.
They call it a cornerstone of the 2009 worldwide astronomy extravaganza, which is endorsed by the United Nations and the U.S. Congress. More than 135 countries plan various activities, and scores of U.S. organizations, including NASA and Oakland's Chabot Space and Science Center, collectively will be offering hundreds of events during the year.
The U.S. program of the International Year of Astronomy kicks off Jan. 6 in Long Beach. There, astronomers will time the ceremony's opening with light received that day from the Pleiades star cluster, which is 400 light-years away, light emitted about the time Galileo first observed the constellation with his telescope.
Pompea is confident event organizers will ultimately hit their goal of distributing Galileoscopes to 1 million people, mostly youths, around the world. After they're passed around to friends and family, these telescopes could provide an estimated 10 million people the wonder of viewing the tawny light of Saturn and its rings, the craters and mountains of the moon, the hauntingly beautiful Orion nebula, or an infinite sea of stars in the Milky Way invisible to the naked eye.
This sense of marvel doesn't only lift people above their earthly worries, Pompea pointed out, but inspires more young adults to join the ranks of scientists at a time when science literacy rates have hit alarming lows.
"I'm very excited about this effort," Pompea said. "Our feeling is when they see the moons of Jupiter, that feeling of awe is going to hook them on science."
Ben Buress, a staff astronomer with Chabot, is proof of that powerful effect on young minds. As a boy, he regularly viewed planetarium shows and celestial objects through the large telescopes at Chabot's previous location in the Oakland hills. The lasting impression of those experiences helped steer him into the sciences.
"The exposure to that, and just looking through the telescopes, are what sparked my interest in becoming an astronomer," he said.
The Galileoscope's low price comes courtesy of the volunteer design work of people like Pompea, who was in town last week describing the telescope project to audiences at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. Pompea is also a scientist with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Ariz. And the lens prototype was crafted by what Pompea described as "some of the best designers in the world." Pompea collaborated with Richard Tresch Feinberg, former editor of Sky and Telescope magazine, and Doug Arion, professor of physics at Carthage College in Wisconsin, in designing the telescope.
The team took their inspiration from Galileo's original telescope. With the instrument, the Italian scientist, called the father of modern astronomy, became the first to spot the four largest moons circling Jupiter and to show that Venus revolves around the sun, among other astronomical feats.
His discoveries aroused the ire of the Roman Catholic Church, however, since it refuted the church's position that the Earth was at the center of the universe, with all celestial bodies circling it. Galileo was dragged to trial in 1633 on charges of heresy, found guilty, and told to recant his views or be burned at the stake. His prison sentence was commuted, but he spent the remaining eight years of his life under house arrest. In 1992, Pope John Paul II acknowledged the church had erred in condemning Galileo for asserting that planets in our solar system rotate around the sun.
The Galileoscope, however, offers a far clearer view of orbiting planets and stars than Galileo's simple instrument. He couldn't clearly see Saturn's rings, and he had to move his eye around the lens to see an entire object. The front lenses on the 17th-century telescope also generated spurious colors, and yielded a dim image. The modern version, in comparison, has front lenses yielding a vivid, color-accurate image.
Teaching guides are also available to accompany the telescopes, which come with a manual for assembling the 15-piece instrument. Pompea said the simple assembly process will also teach children how light and optics work.
"The whole idea is to get people excited about space, but to also give them the same experience Galileo had," said Buress, the Chabot astronomer.
Reach Suzanne Bohan at 510-262-2789 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information on the International Year of Astronomy 2009, visit www.astronomy2009.us.
Galileoscopes can also be ordered through the site, although they're not immediately available.
To learn about International Year of Astronomy 2009 events in the Bay Area, visit the Web site of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific at www.astrosociety.org., or contact Albert Silva at email@example.com or 415-337-1100, ext. 100.
For free International Year of Astronomy Discovery Guides, which provide month-by-month themes and activities, visit www.astrosociety.org/iya/guides.html.
Educators can contact Jim Manning with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific for information on the Galileo Teacher Training Program, a grass-roots effort to enhance astronomy education, at firstname.lastname@example.org.