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These heavenly revenue trends are not confined to trinkets. Sales in telescopes have risen almost 50% in the past twelve months, as would-be astronomers plunk down anywhere from $100 to $8,500 per instrument. Says Kim Davey of Celestron International, an optical-instruments firm in Torrance, Calif.: "The comet is an excuse for people to buy the telescope they've always wanted." American Express is offering a $799 telescope "for Halley's comet and beyond," which can be paid for in monthly installments of $39.95. Burton Rubin, who made a fortune in the '70s on his E-Z Wider cigarette-rolling papers, hopes for a repeat performance from his $200 Halleyscope, a wide-angle telescope that comes equipped with a tripod and Halley's comet handbook. He has already sold 10,000 Halleyscopes and expects to sell 50,000 more by the end of the year. Many astronomers point out, however, that a good pair of binoculars will serve at least as well as most telescopes.
Even the fanciest equipment will not afford northern skygazers the view they might have in southern latitudes. For those who want a closer look, travel agencies offer Halley's excursions to such distant sites as Arequipa, Peru; Botswana, Africa; the Amazon; and Sydney, Australia, at prices ranging from $1,400 to $29,000. Several of the tours feature star speakers: a Royal Viking Line cruise with Carl Sagan on March 26 has been sold out for six months. Other tour guides include a top NASA scientist and a physics professor from San Diego State University. "Our cruise," insists Richard Doolittle, marketing director of Lindblad Travel, "will be a legitimate scientific pleasure cruise." To guarantee that, passengers will be supplied with telescopes.
Scientists are afraid that the relentless Halley's mania is bound to result in disappointment. At its closest, in March, the comet will still be 40 million miles away. Halley's may appear to stretch the length of the Big Dipper but probably will not be as bright. Scientists cannot predict the luminosity because each time the comet whips past the sun, it sheds varying amounts of the ice and dust that form its glowing tail. "All this hype is making people think they're going to see a massive apparition that will scare dogs and old ladies," says a NASA spokesman. "It simply won't be that way."
Astronomers are excited about the comet not because of what they will observe from the ground but because of the five space probes launched since last year by Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union. The European craft will approach to within 300 miles of the comet's nucleus. A March mission of the space shuttle will be dedicated entirely to Halley's experiments. A battery of cameras, telescopes and mass spectrometers will analyze the comet's 30 million-to-70 million-mile tail and will seek to probe its mysterious, icy heart, which may hold clues to the origin of the solar system. It is that view which will be truly worth the price. --By Natalie Angier. Reported by Thomas McCarroll/New York, with other bureaus