Thursday, April 23, 2009

The International Year of Astronomy
By David Hagan, Staff Scientist, Physical Sciences

The International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009) is a celebration of the 400th anniversary of astronomy as a modern science. In 1609, while Virginia’s tiny colony at Jamestown was struggling to survive, Galileo began looking through his telescope to the heavens for the first time and opening a vast world of wonders. His discoveries and his courageous publications confirmed Copernicus’ model of a sun-centered solar system. Galileo gave us new details of Jupiter’s moons, the phases of Venus, sunspots, and craters and mountains on the moon. That same year Johannes Kepler published "Astronomia Nova," a masterful and rigorous mathematical explanation of the motion of the planets in a sun-centered solar system. Together that year Kepler and Galileo launched not only a new astronomy, but — in some ways — the beginnings of modern science.  

The International Year of Astronomy 2009's mission statement lays out a “global effort initiated by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and UNESCO to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the universe through the day- and night-time sky, and thereby engage a personal sense of wonder and discovery.”

It is a sad fact that, because of the glare of city lights, most of the people in the modern world will never see the wonder of the natural night sky or the Milky Way. Project Globe, a partner in IYA2009, reports that 2 out of 5 Americans, 1 out of 6 Europeans and 1 out of 10 people worldwide have never seen 90 percent of the visible stars in the night sky. With half the world’s population now living in cities, this problem is only getting worse. It is the vision of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 that all people on earth should “realize the impact of astronomy and other fundamental sciences on our daily lives, and understand how scientific knowledge can contribute to a more equitable and peaceful society.”   

Hundreds of IYA2009 programs are under way around the world on a national, regional and local level, with coordinators each country. Throughout the year in the United States coordinating links are being set up among professional and amateur astronomers, science centers and science communicators. Worldwide, 136 countries are involved and well over 140 are expected to participate eventually. The IAU has set up an IYA2009 Web site,, as the principal IYA2009 resource. The International Year of Astronomy 2009 is endorsed by the United Nations, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and the International Council of Science (ICSU).  

One of the great projects of IYA2009 is the Galileoscope. IYA2009 has set a goal to have 100,000 people — each with a hand-held telescope — show the night sky to 100 others, so as to reach 10 million new observers. The Galileoscope is an inexpensive ($15) working hand-held telescope modeled on Galileo’s first telescope. For more information see the Web site 

In the United States the IYA2009 programs are coordinated through the Web site NASA is a key supporter of IYA2009 programs. Their Web site is

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