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Galileo was astonished by the views he saw when he pointed his homemade telescope toward the sky.

Shouldn’t one million US school children experience the same astonishment?

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When Galileo gazed in wonder and surprise at the craters on the Moon, the satellites orbiting Jupiter, and the Pleiades cluster of stars, our human knowledge of the universe increased dramatically.

Galileo’s simple telescope with two lenses was hard to use and gave a dim, extremely narrow field-of-view of celestial objects. He had to move his eye around to see the whole picture in the telescope. When he looked at Saturn he never suspected the rings but only noticed that it looked elongated and appeared to have “ears”. Yet, with this simple telescope, he was able to record observations that established our Earthly place not at the center of small orderly universe, but as part of a much larger and more magnificent system.

With the Galileoscope project, we will provide today’s school children the opportunity to build a simple telescope similar to Galileo’s and to look at the same objects as Galileo. Using today’s technology, however, they can have a much more satisfying view– the beauty of the Moon and planets will appear sharper, brighter, and in a wider field of view than Galileo ever experienced.

Funding pending, we plan to create one million treasured celestial experiences for children — looking through inexpensive but high-quality telescopes that they have built and decorated themselves. This kind of telescope has not been available before and the Galileoscope is being developed as part of the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Galileo looking through his telescope.

The Galileoscope is not identical to Galileo’s telescope – It is better. He had a single front or objective lens that generated spurious colors—our children will have a two lens doublet gathering light in an achromatic, color-accurate arrangement. Galileo had a single negative lens eyepiece that provided a very narrow field-of-view. Our three-lens eyepiece design gives a much wider and flatter field-of-view.

The quality of our lenses is what allows students to go where Galileo couldn’t. While Galileo used glass lenses in his telescope that he figured himself, but today’s manufactured lenses are of much higher quality whether they are made of glass or plastic. Rather then hand grinding lenses, we will provide high-quality plastic lenses in our Galileoscope kits that the students can use in their construction.

Like Galileo, students will build their own telescope for themselves and gain an understanding of how the lenses are used to focus light and form an image. Using slots to hold each lens, the optical design, spacing, and alignment are preserved to create a high quality optical system while giving students the opportunity to see inside the telescope and form mental pictures of how the light moves through the telescope to form the image. The telescope tube even serves as an optical bench that can be placed on table to become an optics experiment station.

The students will build and use their telescopes as the culminating event after participating in a variety of optics experiments and projects illustrating how light behaves. Each set of telescope-building kits will be accompanied by a comprehensive, durable, reusable experimentation kit that teaches how images can be formed with lenses and mirrors. These “Hands-On Optics” teaching kits already exist as part of a 4-year National Science Foundation sponsored project used by over 20,000 students nationwide, mainly in after-school settings.

Design of the Galileoscope was facilitated by Drs. Rick Fienberg, editor of Sky and Telescope magazine, and Stephen Pompea project director for the NSF Hands-On Optics (and formerly an optical engineering consultant) and now manager of science education at the National Observatory in Tucson set to work to create the Galileoscope. Feinberg is the head of the international working group in this area for the International Year of Astronomy and Pompea is a working group member as well as head of the US working group on telescope kits. Working with two of the best optical designers in the world (located in Tucson) the Galileoscope was designed to create a true-color corrected view through a high quality eyepiece eyepiece in a telescope with a baffle design optimized for looking at bright objects like the Moon and planets. An innovative mount allow the telescope to be used with its own inexpensive mount or to be mounted on a standard photographic tripod. The design was created to make it affordable for mass production and distribution but yet to perform well enough so that kids can clearly see what Galileo saw 400 years ago.

The Galileoscope project is an official cornerstone project and is perhaps the most visible project of the International Year of Astronomy. It will have children in the US and worldwide build Galileoscopes in school, museum, nature and science center, national park, and library settings. Another key venue is the distribution of the telescopes to over 50 amateur astronomy clubs in the US with a track record in doing extensive educational outreach to their community. In each of these venues, the Galileoscope is embedded in a much larger educational context after extensive peer review of the educational design and educational benefits of the project. Thus the broader and longer-term educational role of the Galileoscopes in astronomy and physical science education is assured.

When Galileo looked through his telescope, his view of the universe was immediately changed as was eventually the worldview of so many. When one million children look through their Galileoscope, their view of the universe and their understanding of their place in it will be changed forever, one by one. One can only imaging the smile and sense of awe and wonder that expresses itself in each child as they see the mountains on the Moon or the Galilean satellites of Jupiter for the first time.

The effect will be much as Francis Bacon described: “ For all knowledge and wonder (which is the seed of knowledge) is an impression of pleasure in itself .”

image credit: Andrew Fraknoi


International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA)